Off the Shelf: Decades after the war

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The reverberations from traumatic moments can echo through lives even decades after the events took place. Those feelings may remain dormant until something triggers their release and the reactions may surprise everyone. Two recent novels – “A Play for the End for the World” by Jai Chakrabarti (Alfred A. Knopf) and “Defending Britta Stein” by Ronald H. Balson (St. Martin’s Press) – look at what occurs when those emotions are released. Although the works take place in two different time periods, they show how trauma may never be completely erased.

“A Play for the End of the World,” which takes place in the early 1970s, tells the stories of two very different people: Jaryk Smith, a child survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto; and Lucy Gardener, a young Southern woman who recently arrived in New York City. The unlikely couple find themselves in love and, for the first time, Jaryk imagines a real future for himself. However, when he learns Misha – his oldest friend, who was also in the ghetto – has died while visiting India, Jaryk feels guilty. Misha had wanted the two of them to travel together, but Jaryk didn’t want to leave Lucy. Now he feels obligated to journey to India and bring his friend’s ashes back to New York.

Misha’s decision to visit India was not arbitrary: While in the ghetto, the two orphans took part in a play, “The Post Office,” the production of which was organized by the head of the orphanage where they lived. The play, which was written by Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore, is about a dying child who imagines life outside his quarantine. That same play is now being produced in a small village in India by Hindu refugees from Bangladesh who are about to be removed from their homes. The Indian politics are complex, but Jaryk knows he has an important decision to make: should he remain in India and help those in the village? Can he leave them in their time of need much like he, Misha and other Jews in the ghetto were deserted by those who might have helped them? But what does that mean for his chance for happiness with Lucy? Does she not deserve to have someone care for her? Jaryk is left to choose between a happiness he sometimes feels he doesn’t deserve and the future of the families in the Indian village. 

Readers see the events from Jaryk and Lucy’s points of views, which adds depth to the story. Both have legitimate claims for what the other should do with his/her life, which makes their choices incredibly poignant. The novel began slowly, but became interesting and intriguing because of the moral decisions Jaryk must make. The same becomes true for Lucy: she must not only decide what she wants for herself, but if she is willing to stay connected to someone who may put the needs of others above their own. Although readers know that something is going to happen, the ending proved unexpected and moving. It also felt real because of the complexity of the characters’ responses to events. What at first seemed to be a typical post-Holocaust novel turned into something amazing.

While “A Play for the End of the World” takes place in the 1970s, “Defending Britta Stein” opens in 2018, although a good portion of the novel tells of events that occurred during World War II. The husband and wife team of Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart return to help yet another Jewish survivor, in this case Britta Stein. Britta, a native Dane, lived through the Nazis’ takeover of her country. Since she emigrated to the U.S., Britta has lived a quiet life. However, when she learns that Ole Henryks is to be honored by the Chicago Danish/American Association for his civic contributions and his heroic actions during the war, she recognizes him on TV as a Nazi collaborator and spray paints her accusations about Ole on the wall of his restaurant. After her arrest, Britta becomes Catherine’s client for not only charges of criminal defacement, but in a defamation suit brought by Ole. Britta stands by her identification of Ole as a collaborator, but proving what he did during the war will not be easy. Plus, Britta is ill and telling the story of what occurred is taking a toll on her health.

Readers of Balson’s previous novels will know how the novel ends, even if they are unsure of the specific details. That doesn’t mean it’s not suspenseful; in fact, readers may be tempted to peek ahead to see what happens. The way Britta tells her story does slow the action, but that story is the major focus of the work: she tells of how the majority of the Danes tried to save their Jewish neighbors. Although the resolution will satisfy readers, in retrospect it did seem a bit too easy and pat. 

Perhaps Balson’s book felt less satisfying because Chakrabarti’s work is so rich and complex. There are no simple answers in “A Play for the End of the World”: it shows how survival can feel morally ambiguous to those who wonder why they escaped death when others were not as lucky. The lines are more firmly drawn in Balson’s work, which will appeal to those looking for clear-cut endings. However, it is Chakrabarti’s novel that will haunt readers’ thoughts long after they finish.