CJL: Love, sex and war

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“We Are Only Ghosts”

Some people know how to be invisible. It’s a trait 42-year-old Charles Ward has perfected as a waiter at Café Marie in New York City in 1968. Almost no one – whether at work or in his very private life – knows anything about his past or how he came to the United States. That changes one day when someone he knew in Europe enters the café. In “We Are Only Ghosts” by Jeffrey L. Richards (John Scognamiglio Books/Kensington Books), readers learn the tragic story of Charles’ life and his attempt to finally understand the true meaning of what happened to him.

That recognition begins the sad and brutal tale of Charles’ relationship to Berthold Werden. Before World War II, Charles was Karel Benakov, a Jewish teenager living with his parents in Czechoslovakia. At the age of 17, Karel, his parents and his sister were sent to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. There, Obersturmführer Werden took an interest in Karel, rescuing him and allowing him to live in the basement of his home, which was a short distance from the camp. Life there was not easy because Berthold’s wife and son hated Karel and treated him poorly. However, Karel was grateful for the relative safety he found there. But Berthold wanted something else from Karel, something Karel was willing to give in order to remain alive. However, other feelings grew during their time together: a sense of gratitude for being allowed to live and finally escape Europe for the United States. 

Those mixed feelings remain in 1968 when Charles makes himself known to Berthold, who first moved to Brazil after the war before coming to live in New York. Using an assumed name, Berthold runs a jewelry store and lives a quiet life. The two begin an uneasy relationship, one that leaves Charles wondering if he will remain a ghost for the rest of his life, unable to tell people who he really is. Then something happens that forces Charles to face his past and make important decisions about his future.

“We Are Only Ghosts” is a powerful, moving and disturbing novel. It contains graphic sexual content and violent episodes that may shock some readers. These are not gratuitous: they explain the characters’ psyche and reactions to events. The work will leave readers debating the nature of love and connection, in addition to pondering just how fine is the line between love and hate. 

“Bonfire Night”

Before Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, British Jews could have been excused for wondering if their homeland would side with Germany. The British Union of Fascists was reported to have between 40-50,000 members at one time. If it ruled England, no Jew would have been safe from persecution. “Bonfire Night” by Anna Bliss (John Scognamiglio Books/Kensington Books) opens with a scene based on the real life Fascist-sponsored march that took place in the East End, a Jewish section of London, in 1936. It’s there the two main characters meet. Kate Grifferty is a photographer snapping pictures she hopes will appear in one of London’s newspapers. David Rabatkin, a Jewish medical student, is hoping to keep his brother, Simon, from getting into trouble. The two are drawn to each other, even though they both know their families would not approve of their relationship. 

Irish Catholic Kate lives with a father who blames her for the death of her mother in childbirth and is only willing to let her live with him if she pays her own way. David is a member of a close-knit Jewish family to whom it is very important he marry someone Jewish and continue their traditions. To make matters more difficult, David wants a conventional relationship, while Kate has no desire to marry.

Their stories continue during the war years when German planes bomb England during what is known as the Blitz. Kate and David each try to find their own way, but are unable to forget the other. However, a secret Kate keeps may change the course of both their lives. Their ability to make decisions is complicated by the sheer necessity of surviving and the worry about whether Britain can win the war.

“Bonfire Night” is not a conventional love story, so some readers may be dissatisfied with its ending. However, it does ring true to the needs of both main characters. While Kate and David feel three-dimensional, some of the minor characters come across as stereotypes, particularly the members of David’s family. Jewish readers unfamiliar with British antisemitism of the time will be particularly interested in the opening section of the novel.`