Off the Shelf: Two sides of World War II – part 2 by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Part one of this review featured novels that looked at World War II from the point of view of Jewish characters. Part two offers a different perspective: the war as seen by non-Jews. Some of the characters were alive during the fighting; others view those years through the lense of history.

“Haunting Paris”

Four different stories intertwine in Mamta Chaudhry’s moving “Haunting Paris” (Anchor Books), which opens in Paris in 1989. The novel’s main focus is non-Jewish Sylvie, who is heartbroken over the loss of her longtime Jewish partner, Julien. When Sylvie discovers a mysterious letter in Julien’s belongings, she, with the help of her visiting American neighbors, tries to uncover what happened to Julien’s extended family during World War II. Sylvia knew that Julien spent the war years in England, but he never spoke of the relatives who remained behind. What Sylvie doesn’t know is that Julien’s attachment to her is so great that his ghost never left the world: he watches her, carefully staying in the shadows so she won’t see him. This means he also finally learns about what occurred after the Nazis conquered Paris.

At first, the novel seemed like a not particularly interesting love story, focusing on how Sylvie and Julien met, and the way he left his wife and children for her. But, as it continued and readers learn what occurred during the war, the plot became gripping, so much so that, at one point, I yelled out loud. By its end, “Haunting Paris” became a wonderful and emotionally satisfying work. 

“Keep Saying Their Names”

A conversation about a memorial stone leads the non-Jewish narrator of “Keep Saying Their Names” (Alfred A. Knopf) by Simon Stranger to consider the lives of two disparate men: his son’s Jewish great-great-grandfather, Hirsch Komissar, and a Norwegian Nazi, Henry Oliver Rinnan, who may have sent Hirsch to his death. The unnamed narrator tells his son that, according to Jewish tradition, people die twice: once at their physical death and a second time when people no longer speak their name. The narrator wants not only to keep Hirsch’s name alive, but to describe the evil Rinnan did as a double agent for the Nazis during the war. He also tells of how those events reverberated through several generations of his wife’s family – particularly what occurred after Hirsch’s son, Gerson, and his family moved into the house that Rinnan and his colleagues used as a torture chamber. 

The chapters in “Keep Saying Their Names” are labeled in alphabetical order, with the letter of the alphabet representing key words used in that section. This makes the novel feel disjointed at times since it’s difficult to discover any logic behind the choice of words. However, the work itself is so powerful that this doesn’t ultimately detract from the story. The details of the Komissar family, especially what happened during the war, show how difficult it was for them to accept the reality of Nazi horrors. But where the author really excels is in his portrayal of Rinnan, showing how he turns from an ordinary boy into a monster who blames everyone else for his troubles.

“Villa of Delirium”

Adrien Goetz’s novel “Villa of Delirium” (New Vessel Press) might have easily been called “False Paradise on the French Riviera.” Kerylos, the villa built by Jewish Theodore Reinach, stands empty when visited by 70-year-old non-Jewish Achilles Lecia in 1956. Achilles not only worked for the family before World War II, but was mentored by Theodore and became close friends with Adolphe, Theodore’s nephew. Theodore and his brothers were a type of scholar that no longer exists: not professionals, but rather skilled amateurs who studied and wrote for the love of learning. Theodore’s specialty was ancient Greece and his glamourous home reflected that world. The Reinachs’ love of culture changed Achilles’ life, turning him from a servant to a painter who left Kerylos in order to discover his own artistic vision. Kerylos was also where Achilles met the love of his life, the loss of whom still haunts him. 

The Holocaust plays a minor role in the story, but had a major role in what occurred to the Reinach family. Achilles notes how all of Theodore’s culture and knowledge was of no help when the Nazis conquered his home. And the German love of art and culture did not prevent the Nazis from exterminating the family. The tone of the novel feels nostalgic in both positive and negative ways. Achilles is looking for something during his visit and what plot there is centers on his search and a mysterious postcard that led him back to the villa. Readers should note the work contains far more descriptions of people and places than it does plot. Fortunately, the writing is beautiful and it’s easy to be swept along, although some readers may be impatient with its slow pace. At first, it didn’t seem as if the novel was moving toward any conclusion, but the end tied its many parts together. It also left this reader wondering what Achilles’ future will hold. 


Not everyone in Germany supported Hitler’s policies about the Jewish population, even those who otherwise supported the war. One such person is the hero of Jerome Charyn’s unusual and chaotic “Cesare” (Bellevue Literary Press). Erik Holdermann (also known as Cesare) is not Jewish, but, as a child, was helped by Jewish prostitutes who arranged for him to live safely in a Jewish orphanage. A fluke meeting allows him become a member of the Abwehr, a German intelligence organization run by real-life Wilhelm Canaris, who despised Hitler and worked against him.

Cesare is brutal and, at times, murderous. He acts as an assassin for the Abwehr, while also helping Canaris save German Jews from the clutches of the Gestapo. To complicate matters, Cesare is in love with a half-Jewish woman who is married to a Nazi, but their relationship reeks of sadism more than it does of love. The plot becomes more and more complicated before reaching a dramatic climax at Theresienstadt, a fake village created to fool the Red Cross into thinking the Nazis were not persecuting the Jewish population. After almost 250 pages, I was tempted to stop reading because of one particularly brutal section. I’m glad I finished the final 100 pages, though, because the last section of the novel was the best. 

“Cesare” is off-putting and absorbing at the same time. The writing feels like it’s on steroids; hectic and heart-pounding prose that pushes the reader through the pages. This novel is not for everyone: a willingness to see past its brutality is needed. Yet, it also captures the terror of non-Jews living in Nazi Germany, at least those who did not agree with Hitler’s policies and tactics.