The war and its reverberations by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The never-ending number of novels about World War II and/or the Holocaust amazes me. It’s so easy to get behind because numerous new ones are published each month. In fact, I decided not to ask for review copies of six recent works because I already had five novels for this review. While those books might have been wonderful, unless I want to review a World War II/Holocaust-themed novel every week, I have to make tough decisions about which books to ask for. That doesn’t mean I won’t be reviewing more novels on this topic. In fact, I already have another book with a similar theme on my pile, and am looking forward to other works that are scheduled to be published this year. However, as much as I hate to admit it, there are limits to the number of books even I can read and review.

“The Most Precious of Cargoes”

Sometimes the simplest narratives are the most powerful. That’s certainly true of “The Most Precious of Cargoes: A Tale” by Jean-Claude Grumberg (HarperVia). In fewer than 120 pages, Grumberg captures an incredibly wide range of emotions.

The story reads like the fable: the illiterate, barren wife of a very poor woodcutter tries to survive an unnamed war, even as she longs for a child of her own. While searching the woods for what meager food she can find, the high point of her day is watching for the train that passes daily. Sometimes those on the train throw her notes she saves, but cannot read. One day, the train contains a Jewish father whose newborn twins are starving because his wife is no longer able to produce milk. Making a heartrending decision, he tosses one twin from the train in the hopes that at least that one might survive. That infant is found by the woodcutter’s wife. The emotions that child creates in the lives of the woodcutter’s family lead to a simple and heartbreakingly beautiful tale.

At the end of the novel, Frank Wayne, the book’s translator, notes his fear that his English version would not be able to reproduce the poetry of the original French. While I have not read the French version, the American edition of “The Most Precious of Cargoes” promises to become a classic.

“Our Darkest Night”

“Our Darkest Night” by Jennifer Robson (William Morrow) focuses on a lesser known part of the Holocaust: what happened to the Jews in Italy. Although Venice has been affected by fascist anti-Jewish rules, Antonia Mazin doesn’t feel that her life is in any real danger. However, that changes in 1942 when the German presence becomes more prominent. In an attempt to save his daughter, Antonia’s father asks for help from a former patient, a priest who lives in a small village in the countryside. Although she doesn’t want to leave her parents, Antonia bends to her father’s wishes – traveling with Nico Gerardi, a stranger recommended by the priest, to his family farm. However, in order to keep her safe, Nico says she must not only pretend to be Catholic, but his wife.

Life on the farm is not easy for Antonia, who was studying with her father to become a doctor. But Nico’s family is warm and loving – except for one sister who takes an immediate dislike to her. But even the village is not safe from the Nazis, especially one who takes an active interest in Nico’s life. The interaction between the two, and the fact that Nico is helping others escape the Nazis, places not only Antonia, but his whole family in danger.

“Our Darkest Night” is absorbing and the pages turned quickly. The last 100 pages were filled with such suspense it was impossible to put the book down. The characters were interesting, as was the development of the relationships between them. The ending felt wonderful, although it may strike readers as unrealistic. However, other parts of the work are based on events that occurred in a real town in Italy: The priest and parishioners of Mezzo Ciel have been honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles for their actions during the war.

“This Magnificent Dappled Sea”

Actions that manage to remain hidden for decades can suddenly come to light in unexpected ways. That’s the idea behind “This Magnificent Dappled Sea” by David Biro (Lake Union Publishing). At first, the novel’s two plots seem to have nothing in common: in 1990s Italy, 9-year-old Catholic Luca Taviano is unable to shake a cold. Unfortunately, that simple illness is not the real problem: he has leukemia. A bone marrow match is difficult to find: his father, who was adopted by the grandparents with whom he lives, died in a car accident. His late mother’s family, who want nothing to do with him, are also not matches. 

The second story, which takes place in Brooklyn, tells of Joseph Neiman, a pulpit rabbi who is suffering a crisis of faith. He finds himself falling into a dark hole of depression, not helped by the fact he seems to be unable to help his teenage son, who has been accused of theft. When a congregant’s daughter is diagnosed with leukemia, Neiman arranges for a bone marrow fair to take place. Imagine the surprise on both sides of the Atlantic when a Jewish match appears for a Catholic Italian child. What it means is that secrets from World War II may have to be revealed in order to save Luca’s life.

“This Magnificent Dappled Sea” is less a World War II story than one showing how the results of a simple action can reverberate for decades. The novel’s many characters are well drawn, particularly Luca’s grandfather and his self-punishing way of dealing with secrets. The ending is satisfying in that it feels realistic, especially when showing how Luca manages to forge a compromise between his conflicting heritages.

“The Plum Trees”

Some novels try to accomplish too many things. That’s true for “The Plum Trees” by Victoria Shorr (W. W. Norton and Company). The contemporary story – that of Consie who learns that her Great-Uncle Hermann may have survived the Holocaust – gets lost and as a result its conclusion feels unsatisfactory. Where the novel does succeed is in its portrayal of Magda, Hermann’s daughter, and her description of life before and during World War II, including her time in a concentration camp and a death march at the end of the war. 

The novel also succeeds in showing why Hermann’s family delayed leaving their home. Life changed slowly enough to make them believe they would be fine – until it was too late. Hermann’s struggle to understand what the Nazis really felt about Jews – which serves as a betrayal of his humanist beliefs in the goodness of mankind – is particularly effective, as are Consie’s later struggles to understand what occurred in Europe. She reads about the nature of evil and ponders what philosophers and political scientists, including Hannah Arendt, thought and wrote about that time.

Unfortunately, while all this is makes for interesting reading, the book doesn’t work as a novel. The original impetus for the story – whether or not Hermann survives the war – gets lost in the many other layers of the story. However, if readers are looking for insight into how a Jewish family felt about their lives in Europe before the war – the love of their home, the land they lived on and the culture to which they were so attached – “The Plum Trees” does a wonderful job portraying that, along with a graphic portrait of the horror of the Holocaust.

“Send for Me”

There are writers who demand a great deal from their readers. Take, for example, “Send for Me” by Lauren Fox (Alfred A. Knopf). Her novel feels disjointed, slipping back and forth between characters and different time periods without labels to orient readers. That makes it far too easy to confuse the characters of four generations of women whose interactions are both demanding and loving. 

Parts of the novel take place in Germany: Klara and her daughter, Annelise, clash over everyday chores and choices. Their relationship becomes less fraught when Annelise marries and has a daughter of her own. However, life in Germany has become dangerous and the families look to move to the United States. Unfortunately, only Annelise, her husband and daughter, Ruth, can get visas. With promises to find a way to bring her parents to the United States, Annelise and her family emigrate. Interspersed with this story is that of Clare, Ruth’s daughter, who seems unable to settle into adult life. When she falls in love with someone British, Ruth worries how that will affect her relationship to her mother. 

Readers are left to decide why Ruth and Clare react as they do, particularly in relationship to their mothers. Fox notes that her novel is based on family letters. While the plot and characters are fictional, excerpts from the letters – which are quoted between chapters – are affecting as they portray the feeling of a woman who longs to see her daughter. While “Send for Me” may not be a complete success as a novel, it does capture the essence of love and loss, in addition to showing how those emotions can influence several generations of a family.