Off the Shelf: Rebuilding lives after the war

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Let the past remain in the past: that’s the constant refrain for some who survived World War II. It’s not only true for those in concentration camps as two recent novels – “The Incandescent Threads: A Novel in the Form of a Mosaic” by Richard Zimler (Parthian) and “A Castle in Brooklyn” by Shirley Russak Wachtel (Little A) – show. Characters in each successfully hid during the war, but refuse to discuss much of what happened to them.

The Oxford Language dictionary defines a mosaic as “a picture or pattern produced by arranging together small colored pieces of hard material, such as stone, tile, or glass.” At first, it was difficult to see how “The Incandescent Threads” was a mosaic. However, after reading several of its six sections, it became clear that readers would only learn about its main characters – Benjamin Zarco and his cousin Shelley, both of whom survived the war – through the eyes of their children, spouses and friends. Benni and Shelley’s actions and characters are revealed indirectly by those who love them. Together, these glimpses create a mosaic portrait of the two men as each section slowly portrays different aspects of their lives.

The two cousins are very different. Benni, who was a child when the war started, spent most of his time in the countryside with an older non-Jewish woman. This results in his having a practical and mystical side, which shows in his belief that there are incandescent threads that link people across time and place. Underlying his worldview is guilt for a sacrifice that saved his life. While Benni can’t escape the ghosts of his past, Shelley looks to embrace life. The full details of his escape from Europe are never revealed, but readers will make their own connections. The underlying force in Shelley’s life is sexual desire: he’s bisexual and is unable to resist temptation, something that creates problems when he finally marries. 

Although the novel never offers Benni’s or Shelley’s thoughts, they are the core of the work. How the cousins found each other after the war is one of the major plot lines. Another shows how their connection is the central foundation of their lives, one that seems greater than those to their spouses and children. The mosaic form of “The Incandescent Threads” works because readers must understand these two men through their actions and words, something that resembles the real world where it’s impossible to completely know the inner workings of another human being.

Although “A Castle in Brooklyn” focuses on relationships between friends and family much like “The Incandescent Threads,” it also contains another element, one which almost serves as an additional character: the house the characters build in Brooklyn. For Jacob Stein, that house – or castle as he thinks of it – represents security, family and love. After meeting Zalman Mendelson while they are hiding in Europe, the two bonded after escaping a deadly situation together. Once they arrive in the U.S. after the war, their lives take different turns: Zalman moves to Minnesota to work on a farm, while Jacob lives in New York City where he finds love and challenging work. When an accident changes the course of Zalman’s life, the two come together in New York to build the castle of Jacob’s dreams.

There’s another person, though, who is important to both men: Jacob’s wife Esther. Her marriage to Jacob is a happy one, although he refuses to discuss his past with her so she does feel there is a part of him hidden from her. Esther also finds a good friend in Zalman, who helps her when Jacob can’t. Then a tragedy occurs that changes the course of all three lives.
The story is told through the eyes of all these characters, which adds depth and perspective. The writing is beautiful and makes their desires – particularly to create a safe haven – feel real. Unfortunately, two chapters toward the end of the work, which focus on different characters, didn’t work as well, because they detracted from the main focus of the book. Plus, one connection seemed too much of a coincidence to be fully believable. However, the last chapter brought together the various streams of “A Castle in Brooklyn,” creating a very satisfying and heart-warming ending. 

“The Incandescent Threads” and “A Castle in Brooklyn” portray how men who survived the war created new lives far from the countries of their birth. But having gone through similar experiences in Europe didn’t mean that the trajectory of their lives would be the same. Reading these works together showed how each individual had to find his own path and come to terms with, or ignore, the hurts and pain of the past.