What They Didn’t Burn, by Mel Laytner

Josef Lajtner rarely spoke of what happened to him between 1940 and 1945. His son, journalist Mel and author of What They Didn’t Burn, only knew a few things. He knew that Josef had been imprisoned at Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Buchenwald. He knew that his father had survived partly because he knew how to weld, but there were hints of strange stories and bits of luck that the elder Lajtner never really spoke about. Later, when Mel interviews another Holocaust survivor and asks why the survivor never recorded his testimony, the survivor says, “Why should I?…I don’t have to justify my survival.” Although he never said, I wonder if Josef rarely spoke about the Holocaust because he also didn’t want to discuss why he lived and so many other didn’t. What They Didn’t Burn is the fruit Mel Laytner’s efforts to fill in the blanks. He doesn’t “justify” his father’s survival; he treats it like the extraordinary occurrence that it was.

In the years after the Holocaust, numerous organizations—the Auschwitz Museum, Yad Vashem, the Arolsen Archives—have answered queries from survivors and descendants of survivors looking for information. Mel Laytner sends out calls for any piece of documentation that can help him find out what happened to his father. Laytner also seeks out his father’s friends to glean more names, dates, and events that he can use to trace Josef’s path across Poland and Germany as he worked in a series of forced labor camps. He also travels to Poland, to the towns where his Lajtner relatives lived and the remains of camps where his father and thousands of other Jews struggled to live. By the end of all that travel and research, Laytner knows a lot more about how his father survived, but he’s also left with big questions that he wishes his father was still around to talk over with him.

One question that frequently arises in What They Didn’t Burn is how far can one bend the rules to survive? How far should one bend those rules? The Nazis didn’t give Jews and other prisoners in their custody enough food to live for long. To endure the work, the cold, and the punishments, people had to “organize” food and clothing. Organizing (this verb was constantly used by the survivors Laytner interviews) can range from foraging while on work details to bartering to straight-up theft. Some Jews became kapos for extra rations and privileges. Josef Lajtner was offered a post as a kapo, but refused it because he wouldn’t commit the acts of violence that the position would require of him. Laytner tells us that kapos are a taboo subject among survivors, yet offers multiple examples of Jewish men who used the post to lessen the suffering of their fellow prisoners. Laytner—and his father’s decisions—ask us to take a more nuanced look at the things people had to do in the face of an entire regime and its allies trying to destroy them.

Laytner also touches on the changes in attitudes toward and memorialization of the Holocaust. When he first visits Poland, for example, the Blechhammer camp where his father was imprisoned for most of the war was mostly ruins. There was a sign that let visitors know where they were and what the site was. They had to imagine the rest from what they’d learned or remembered. Years later, parts of the camp had been rebuilt. The difference between Laytner’s first and second visits to the bigger cities in Poland are more troubling. Holocaust tourism (if you’ll forgive the phrase) had become a fully developed industry between those visits. What does it mean for our understanding of the Holocaust that, in some places, no traces remain while in others, history has been recreated for public consumption?

Nothing is simple in What They Didn’t Burn. The documents Laytner receives are complicated by their context and provenance. The physical sites are burdened by years of either erasing the past or preserving it, resurgent anti-Semitism, and the sheer passage of time. I appreciated all of the challenging questions Laytner raises. All too often, I see history oversimplified to the point that it loses meaning. To really think about history and its complexity is to truly engage with it and learn. This may not be the most innovative or startling work about the Holocaust I’ve ever read, but its honesty and Laytner’s depth of scholarship are a perfect tonic to novels that use the Holocaust as window-dressing or nonfiction that plays it safe.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Karolina and the Torn Curtain, by Maryla Szymiczkowa

It’s been three years since Zofia Turbotyńska solved her first case (see Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing). Since then, Zofia has settled back into domestic life. She still keeps up appearances between the great and the good of Kraków and trying to get her absent-minded professor of a husband a promotion at the university. That case is a real feather in Zofia’s cap, one that she’s not afraid to point out whenever relevant. Given her willingness to talk about her skills as a detective, it’s no surprise that she metaphorically elbows police and investigators out of the way when one of her maids is discovered dead at the beginning of Maryla Szymiczkowa’s* Karolina and the Torn Curtain. Antonia Lloyd-Jones does a beautiful job of translating this new entry in the series.

Karolina Szulc only recently handed in her notice at Peacock House when Zofia receives news that she has been found stabbed to death in an unsavory neighborhood. As soon as she learns about the murder, Zofia and her senior maid, the faithful Franciszka, leap into action. Franciszka searches Karolina’s old room while Zofia starts calling in markers at the local police station. It isn’t long before Zofia starts to put the pieces together—especially when the pair uncover information about a handsome man who made Karolina promises that were too good to be true.

The arc of a mystery plot usually follows a slow upward trajectory that starts to leap the closer we get to the big conclusion. The plot of Karolina and the Torn Curtain races at the beginning, before slowing down after an apparent suspect is cornered and shot by police. Zofia has doubts that grow the more she thinks about them. While the police are satisfied that they got the right guy, Zofia continues to ask questions. These questions take her into dangerous territory; she might be on the tracks of a large criminal conspiracy.

Early in Karolina and the Torn Curtain, Zofia has a brief discussion with a Mrs. Bujwid, a reformer who wants to help women and girls get an education. Zofia is initially annoyed by Mrs. Bujwid. She thinks the woman is reaching beyond her station and social status is very important to Zofia. (The third-person narrator frequently points this snobbery out for comic effect.) That conversation makes Zofia—and us, as readers—start to pay a lot more attention to the conversations of the men around her. These men are usually colleagues of her professor husband, so their discussions often include ludicrous “reasons” why women shouldn’t have more rights or more education. Zofia’s growing awareness of the discrimination around her and her increasing knowledge of the world of prostitution and trafficking in Kraków affect her. She becomes much less likely to assume that the authorities and her social betters have everything under control as the façade fades away.

Like Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing, Karolina and the Torn Curtain offers a vivid look into life at the end of the nineteenth century in Kraków. Zofia’s powers of observation take in faces, clothing, sounds, and smells as she whisks back and forth across the city, from posh addresses to neighborhoods well-bred women shouldn’t even know about. This book is historical fiction at its best.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

*Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym of Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński.

Plunder, by Menachem Kaiser

At one point during what the author calls his memory-quest, Menachem Kaiser is told by a Polish man during an informal interview that “one cannot replant old trees.” That phrase hit me hard as the most succinct and poignant way to talk about the central problem in Plunder. Kaiser is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. His grandfather never talked about those years much. All Kaiser and the rest of his family (all born after the war) knew was that their grandfather lost almost his entire family and that he had been trying for decades to recover an apartment building that had been lost or stolen during the war. This building, on Małachowskiego in Sosnowiec, provides the excuse for Kaiser to do what so many descendants of Holocaust survivors do: return to the alte heim (old country) to find out what traces their families and the war have left on the world.

Plunder is a meandering, often funny book. Kaiser has a great eye for the absurd and his commentary is frequently hilarious. Those moments of levity—especially among Polish treasure hunters seeking lost valuables from World War II—balance out Kaiser’s deeper thoughts about what it means to look for family history in the wake of the Holocaust, to try to reclaim lost property, and whether or not all of this can help him understand his grandfather better. During his memory-quest, Kaiser talks to an 80-year-old Polish lawyer called The Killer who specializes in helping the descendants of Holocaust survivors, other descendants looking for lost history, tangling with the Kafkaesque Polish judicial system, and a lot of people who are fascinated with secrets still hidden in Poland.

Kaiser’s musing fascinated me because, although Kaiser never says it, I have to wonder what (if anything) would be just reparations for the loss of the world of European Jews. When I read the dialogue about replanting an old tree, it struck me that the Holocaust split history. If it had never happened, the Kaiser family would never have had to leave Poland or change the spelling of their name from Kajzer. So many lives would’ve been able to continue and who knows what our world would be like now? But the Holocaust did happen, the spaces where so many people would’ve lived, others moved in and had their own lives for decades. If the Kaiser’s reclaim the building on Małachowskiego, it would be a hollow victory. It could uproot a lot of people and it wouldn’t bring anyone back.

Plunder is one of the best books I’ve read by a descendant of a Holocaust survivor because it tackles so many unanswerable questions about the Holocaust and its aftermath. I was left with an aching sense of how much is still known. Most of what Kaiser has to work with are things that were remembered (and occasionally misremembered) by his family members. What documents he’s able to find are in Polish or Yiddish, which require translation. Almost everyone he talked to has to be translated, too. Even when Kaiser learns definitive facts about his family, he knows that it doesn’t fill in much of the mystery. Yet, this immense absence doesn’t seem to depress Kaiser that much. In the end, Kaiser argues that his seeking—and the searching of other descendants and the treasure hunters—keep the names and memories of the dead from being lost forever.

Postcard of Sosnowiec from between 1925 and 1936. (Image via Wikicommons)

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing, by Maryla Szymiczkowa

After reading two weighty books on the experiences of women in Korea and Japan, I desperately needed something that was more like my usual fare. Thankfully, my hold on Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing, by Maryla Szymiczkowa*, came in. This novel—perfectly and fluidly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones—whisked me away to Kraków in 1893. Mrs. Zofia Turbotyńska is a status conscious upper class woman who busies herself with organizing charities and cultivating relationships with the city’s aristocracy. I should have been annoyed at Zofia’s social climbing, but I couldn’t. I loved watching her solve a series of crimes that no one else could and wake up to the knowledge that there’s more to life than trying to reach the top of the social heap.

One quick note: If you’re not familiar with the Polish language, I recommend watching a quick video on Polish pronunciation like this one. It really helped me get through all the Polish names because I don’t know what to do with all those consonant clusters.

As the book opens, Zofia accompanies her much put-upon cook to Helcel House, a home for the elderly run by nuns. The cook is there to visit a relative. Zofia is there to trade on her acquaintance with Sister Alojza to get free prizes for a raffle for scrofulous children. Zofia finds Helcel in turmoil, which Zofia immediately starts to quell. Mrs. Mohr, one of the wealthy inhabitants of Helcel, has gone missing—which is strange because Mrs. Mohr has been bedridden for most of the time she’s been at Helcel. Mrs. Mohr is later found dead in the attic, with bright pink cheeks that belie the coroner’s finding of hypothermia. Zofia’s insistence on an investigation is immediately dismissed by the detective in charge of the case. Everyone is satisfied with how quickly things were wrapped up, but then another resident is found dead and yet another goes missing.

Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing is not exactly a fair-play detective story. Zofia sometimes has sudden epiphanies that are only explained later, but I wasn’t bothered for three reasons. First, I was having such a good time in the Kraków of 1893, a time and place I’ve never visited in fiction before. This novel beautifully captures the lost world of Austro-Hungarian Poland, with its elaborate social rituals and more aristocracy than Burke’s Peerage. I soaked up all the historical details that are judiciously sprinkled through the book. Second, Zofia always explains her epiphanies. These epiphanies are usually the result of Zofia’s powers of observation and her ability to piece together motives from the backstories she winkles out of people.

The third reason I didn’t mind Zofia’s sudden-idea-then-explain-later improvised process was the way this book is written. The prose is full of witty little sentences that would take the mickey out of Zofia if she could hear them. I love the narrative voice of this novel. Here’s an example from the beginning of chapter VIII of the kindle edition:

On Saturday, just before noon, a green hat with a wide brim and a peacock feather secured by a gold-plated brooch cautiously emerged from the gateway of a house on St. John’s Street. First the hat hesitated, as if wondering if it was going to rain—inevitably changing the streets of Cracow into muddy channels with streams of dirty water racing down them—and finally set off ahead. It passed the stone peacock adorning the facade of the house, then crossed the little bridge between the Piarist Monastery and the Czartoryski Palace, continually under repair. At St. Florian’s Gate it turned right, and narrowly dodged a fast-moving carriage. The peacock feather quivered angrily, then headed in a straight line toward the towers of St. Mary’s Basilica. It passed the house where, as all of Cracow knew, for years on end Mrs. Matejko had been having terrible rows with her famous artist husband, and a little farther on the house where Mrs. Dutkiewicz had not had any rows with her husband for the past two years, since he had been laid to rest in Rakowicki Cemetery. Past the junction with St. Thomas’s Street, at house number ten, the hat abruptly stopped and tilted.

This description of Zofia walking through the city through the perspective of her hat delighted me so much that I couldn’t get the grin off my face for pages.

Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing is a highly original historical mystery, and Zofia steals the show. She’s such a great character! I loved the setting and the way that the authors brought it back to full-color life. I look forward to more mysteries featuring the irrepressible Mrs. Zofia Turbotyńska.

Warsaw in the 1890s (Image via Monovisions)

* Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym for Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński.

Marrow and Bone, by Walter Kempowski

Every now and then, I see pictures that blend old and new images of a place to show how much has changed and how much as stayed the same. A lot of them show scenes from World War II alongside rebuilt walls and buildings. The protagonist of Marrow and Bone, by Walter Kempowski and pitch-perfectly translated by Charlotte Collins, Jonathan Fabrizius, has the same kind of vision. His interest in medieval history and his own family history from the end of World War II is always at the front of his brain. Fabrizius isn’t particularly bothered by his past vision, but he does wonder what it means that history is only lightly buried below the mundane, contemporary surface, waiting for someone to scratch.

Jonathan lives a comfortable—if not wealthy—life, expending the bare amount of effort to maintain his relationship with a Swedish part-time curator and his job as a freelance writer of cultural articles. Eventually, he plans to write a book about brick Gothic cathedrals in Europe but there’s all that endless research to get through first. The arrival of a job offer intrigues Jonathan enough to get him up off his couch. A Japanese car company wants Jonathan to travel to northwest Poland with a company representative and a famous race car driver in one of the company’s vehicles, then write up the sights, sounds, and car specs for a feature article. The big draws for Jonathan are a) a chance to see one of his brick Gothic “Goddesses of the North” in person and, more importantly, b) see the place where his mother had died after giving birth to him and the place where his father had been killed on the Vistula Spit.

Traveling with this trio is a strange experience. While Jonathan spends time walking down his own memory lane, the company rep chatters to him about what he should be writing down and unraveling as their careful plans go awry in Poland. The only one who seems to be having a good time is the race car driver. He’s having a good time because he doesn’t expect anything. Also, since he’s the driver, he has a captive audience for his tales of driving glory. At times, Marrow and Bone struck me as a more serious version of Three Men in a Boat because of the string of disasters that occur.

St. Mary’s Church, Gdańsk, Poland, c. 1900, one of the “Goddesses of the North” (Image via Wikicommons)

Marrow and Bone struck me as a story about a whole host of people who aren’t all that tethered to reality. Jonathan’s lost in the past. His girlfriend and friends in Hamburg are always wheeling and dealing to make their fortunes. The company rep is determined to be upbeat no matter what happens. All of these characters, except for Jonathan, are dancing along the surface of some deep, violent history that they refuse to imbue with any meaning.

Marrow and Bone was no doubt written for a German and European audience but, as I read it, I couldn’t help thinking about all the violent history that lives below the surface in my patch of the planet. Where I live was (is) Ute territory. This territory was later taken by Mormon settlers, who have a pretty dark history. Wars have been fought here. Sometimes, like Jonathan, I’ve wondered what this land might have looked like before it was built up by settlers. Also, like Jonathan, I didn’t have to stretch my imagination all that much; there are close-by remnants of wild landscapes that I can easily mentally populate with bison and horses. Thinking about places and history this way is a curious blend of wonderment and sadness. The wonder comes from imagining all of the years that came before, all the people who might have walked here once upon a time. The sadness comes from crimes and deaths that had to have happened here without anyone facing justice. We can pave it over, sure, but the history is still there for those who bother to learn about it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

Janina Duszejko is very happy with her existence in a remote village in Polish-Czech border. Well, mostly. She likes the solitude and closeness to nature. She loves the wildlife all around her. The problem is that no one else seems to respect the wild the way that she does. There are rumors that the quarry will be started up again. There are hunters and poachers who kill out of season and kill more than they need. Also, she doesn’t know what happened to her beloved dogs. In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk and perfectly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, all of the things in Duszejko’s life come to a head one winter when she is summoned to the cabin of a loathsome neighbor, only to find that he has died suddenly.

The village where Duszejko and her neighbors live is the perfect place for people who don’t quite fit in. Duszejko likes that she can work on her star charts (she is a committed astrologer) and help her friend, Dizzy, translate William Blake’s poetry into Polish. Her neighbor, Oddball, liked being left on his own. Her other neighbor, the now deceased Big Foot, likes that he can do what he wants without the law interfering. Duszejko wishes there was a bit more legal oversight. She’s endlessly frustrated by the poaching and having her concerns dismissed by the police. No one seems to care about all the deer, pheasants, and other animals that are being killed by the hunters.

After Big Foot dies, other members of the hunting group start turning up dead. One of them is found in a well, surrounded by deer prints. Another is caught in his own snare. Duszejko develops a theory that the animals are taking revenge for their killed relatives. It’s the only thing that makes sense to her—but then she also thinks that the position of the planets affects human behavior. It’s almost more fun following Duszekjo’s astrological and intellectual thoughts than it is trying to figure out who who or what is killing the hunters. She is firmly convinced of her own logic, even though it’s pinned on the whirling planets above.

I didn’t get what I was expecting from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Because this is a book by an award-winning writer from Poland, I was expecting historical grimness or something that was so experimental that I would have to reread lines to parse their meaning. (I haven’t read Tokarczuk before, but I have read other award-winning eastern and central European authors.) Instead, I got something much more readable, even funny at times. I would recommend this to readers who like off-beat, surprising, and original mysteries with great atmosphere. I really enjoyed this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman

Tom Hope is a good man. He is kind. He is reliable. Unfortunately, he is also unlucky in love. His first wife leaves him twice, foists an illegitimate child on him, and then snatches that child away after Tom grew to love him. But The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman, is not the story of Tom’s first marriage. Instead, it is the story of his second marriage and the long healing it provides for himself and his Holocaust-scarred wife, Hannah Babel. 

I had requested this book so long ago from NetGalley that I had forgotten it was a Holocaust book. The first chapters didn’t do much to remind me, as they open on the last weeks of Tom’s troubled marriage on his farm somewhere in Victoria, Australia, in 1962. Tom frets and broods at his farm, wondering what he might have done to keep his first wife while trying to take care of her child, Peter. He broods even more when, after Peter turns five, his first wife reclaims the boy and whisks him away to a repressive Christian community south of Melbourne.

The only things that finally shakes Tom out of his funk are his determination to start dating again and his fortuitous meeting with Hannah Babel shortly after he makes that decision. Hannah has arrived in Hometown, the biggest settlement near Tom’s farm, to launch a bookstore. Hannah’s quirky joie de vivre brings Tom back to full life. Before long, the two are lovers. Then they are engaged. They’re married before the halfway point of the novel; this book is truly a whirlwind.

The only fly in the ointment is Peter’s situation. The boy is desperately unhappy with the Christians. He’s been singled out for a lot of corporal punishment because he refuses to follow the dictates of the communities leader and because he keeps trying to run away to get back to Tom. Tom would swoop in in a heartbeat to rescue Peter if he could do it with the law’s blessing—and if the presence of a young boy didn’t stir up painful memories for Hannah of the loss of her own child at Auschwitz.

My only criticism—and it’s really more of a quibble—is that it feels a little too fast. I wanted to wallow in this book and its wonderfully unique characters, but it was over almost before I knew it. Still, this is just a preference thing. I think other readers who like unusual love stories and give extra points for an uncommon setting will find a lot to love here.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is great book group fare. There’s plenty to talk about as readers learn more about Hannah’s past and her heartbreaking memories. Tom’s struggles with rejection and love are also a fruitful avenue for discussion. It’s a lightning fast read, so group members are more likely to finish it on time. It’s in a fresh setting and Hillman skillfully recreates rural Australia in the 1960s and early 1970s, both the physical landscape and the social mores. At times, it felt like a lighter version of the classic Australian novel, A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute, which also tells the story of characters finding love at healing in the Australian Outback after harrowing experiences during World War II.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Reckonings, by Mary Fulbrook

38819242In Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, Mary Fulbrook concentrates on the way that we—survivors, perpetrators, descendants, academics, non-academics, and so on—frame the Holocaust in our minds and our speech. Each of the three sections has a slightly different focus, but they all thoroughly discuss post-war silence, court proceedings, literature, museum exhibits, memorials, and conversation above all. I have to take my hat off to Fulbrook for tackling a topic that I would find impossible to write about. The atrocities of the Holocaust are such that the usual words—horrible, terrible, appalling, evil—don’t seem powerful enough to accurately describe what happened. But in Reckonings, she dives deep into the very question of how we do and do not talk about the holocaust.

Reckonings touches on so many topics that I wonder if it should have been broken down into two books: one on the court and legal history and the other focusing on psychology, literature, and memorialization. The first third and a lot of the second read like a traditional history, with some very astute arguments about the motivations of perpetrators who dodged justice after 1945. Because they are more typical of history writing, it’s easy to follow Fulbrook’s progression from Aktion T4 to the Holocaust to judgment in West Germany, East Germany, and Austria. Fulbrook argues that Aktion T4—the Nazi program of euthanizing or starving mentally ill patients or patients with congenital disabilities to death—served accustom ordinary Germans to the idea of killing “less desirable” members of their society. It was shockingly easy for leading Nazis to convince doctors and health workers (often Party members themselves) to kill their patients. There were protests from the relatives of the murdered, but only enough for the killers to stop for a while, resume their work, then transfer on to death camps across Europe.

After the war, West and East Germany vied against each other to be considered the toughest on the Nazis caught in their territory. Both fell short. In West Germany, the fact that many members of the judiciary had been Party members and the decision to use pre-Nazi law that had curious definitions of murder, combined with a pervasive attitude that members of the SS, the Wehrmacht, and the Nazi-era civil service should be lightly punished, if at all. Many mass murderers were acquitted or served insultingly short sentences. In East Germany, sentences were harsher, but many former Nazis walked free. Austria had the worst record of the three countries Fulbrook covers. Their record is so dismal that many prosecutors and survivors gave up pursing cases against former Nazis.

It’s only in the last third that I started to see what I thought was Fulbrook’s overall purpose. In that last third, Fulbrook points out that the way that anyone talks about the Holocaust reveals a lot about their attitudes toward what is arguably the worst thing that one group of humans has ever done to another. Unfortunately, this section has weaknesses. There are several sections where Fulbrook steps outside of her expertise as a historian to psychoanalyse the people she quotes. She has a better grip on literary analysis, but there are passages where I feel that Fulbrook does not have enough evidence for her claims. I much prefer it when an author lets their subjects speak for themselves, quoting enough of the primary sources that they unambiguously support the author’s suppositions.

Fulbrook does sterling work in Reckonings when it comes to victim groups that, for various reasons, are not often given much attention in most discussions of the Holocaust. She provides heartbreaking testimony from two gay men, one French and one German, who suffered horrific abuse but could not talk about what was done to them because homosexuality would be illegal until the 1960s and generally disapproved of for decades more. The Roma and Sinti also receive more attention from Fulbrook, especially in the overview of Holocaust memorials. Even decades after the war, there is still widespread prejudice in Central Europe against the Roma and Sinti.

Reckonings could do with lengthier quotes from primary sources and a bit more editing to root out some of Fulbrook’s pet phrases (“as we have seen”), but overall I found it to be a thoughtful exploration of why people talk about the Holocaust the way they do. She discusses the need for many survivors to not speak of what happened to them and the competing need for perpetrators to not implicate themselves. I was particularly interested in her careful dissections of how perpetrators and their descendants, when forced, dodge around the crimes committed during the Third Reich. Her analysis of how the Holocaust is framed in speech, writing, museum exhibits, court proceedings, and so on was definitely needed. It’s not just enough to talk about the Holocaust. We, as a society, have to think more about how we can talk about the Holocaust in a just way, in a way that hopefully fulfills the prayer of “never again.”

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.

The Book of Dirt, by Bram Presser

35215661Unless a family is particularly close knit, garrulous, and practice good document management, the histories of specific members will be forgotten after a generation or two. Documents and photos can give descendants hints about the full, rich lives that were live (except for all the Norwegian potato farmers in my family). When disasters, war, and other destructive events swept through, we lose clues to the past. In the case of the narrator of Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt, the greatest disaster—the Holocaust—not only meant that there were few documents to trace his family’s story, but also that the survivors were unwilling or unable to share their stories. So, the narrator (who is also named Bram Presser) set out to write stories for his maternal grandparents. The Book of Dirt is the product of Presser as narrators’s research and imagination.

Presser the Narrator (a character separate from the actual author of the book, for the sake of this review) only has a few pieces of information about what happened to Jakub Rand and Daša Roubíčková between 1939 and 1945. Rand was incarcerated in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and a subcamp of Sachsenhausen. Roubíčková had a similar journey. After the war, they found each other in Prague, married, and emigrated to Australia. Decades later, Presser the Narrator sends emails and letters, then visits Yad Vashem, Beit Terezín, and museums in Prague to try and find out more. This story would have been enough to fill a book, but there are also tantalizing hints in Rand’s story that point to his possible participation in the Talmudkommando, a group of Jewish scholars assigned to sorting and cataloging looted Jewish artifacts and written materials.

When Presser the Narrator tries to find out more about his grandfather’s part in the Talmudkommando, the documentary trail goes cold. The limited paper trail about the group doesn’t mention Rand at all. The lack of evidence suggests that Rand was either mistaken or fabricating his experiences. Presser the Narrator, nothing daunted by the gaps in the record, sets out to write his grandparents’ stories as they might have been. Using his memories of his grandparents’ stories; genealogical research; and research about Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and the Holocaust, Presser the Narrator creates a fuller version of their hardships and how they managed to survive. Presser the Narrator builds a joint memoir that explains why Rand and Roubíčková tried so very hard to never look back or talk about their long, terrible, incarceration.

The Book of Dirt is one of the most metafictional books I’ve read in a long time, so much so that I am reminded of HhHH, by Laurent Binet, in which the author writes as much about his struggles with his research and writing process as he does in actually writing a history of Operation AnthropoidThe Book of Dirt contains family photos and historical records, which are spread through chapters in which Presser the Narrator talks about his research travails and longer chapters that follow his grandparents from the 1930s through the end of World War II. All of these things are blended together into a Frankenstein-like whole.

It’s hard to tell what’s real, historical fact and what Presser the Author invented. Some readers might be bothered by this. At times, I was, because I didn’t always like the liberties Presser the Author took with the historical record. Other readers may like Presser the Author’s premise and find The Book of Dirt a meaningful tribute to his grandparents. There’s a fine like between presumption and audacity, and I’m on the fence about which side I think Presser the Author falls on. If nothing else, I appreciate the thought that Presser the Author wanted to bring back into reality what was previously lost.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. 

The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason

37946436If Gavrilo Princip had not fired the shot that started World War I, Lucius Krzelewski would have had to slowly make his way through the ranks of the endless Austro-Hungarian medical bureaucracy to become a doctor. Instead, he enlists as a medical lieutenant and is shipped to a field hospital somewhere in the Carpathian mountains. The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, follows him from his days as a student to the hospital to the end of the war, as he grows from the textbook definition of a callow youth into an emotionally battered field surgeon.

Lucius, when we first meet him, is the privileged youngest son of an aristocratic family living in Vienna. He doesn’t know how to make small talk. He definitely doesn’t know how to talk to women (including his mother). He stutters under pressure. The only thing that brings him pleasure is scientific observation. Medical school is pure joy for him, once he finally convinces his parents to send him and pay his tuition. Study does start to wear a bit thin when he realizes that the extremely stratified bureaucracy above him means that he will barely be allowed in the same room as patients for ages. It doesn’t take much wheedling from his closest friend to encourage him to enlist when war breaks out.

Because the Austro-Hungarian Army is desperate for anyone with any kind of medical knowledge, Lucius is readily accepted and sent to a field hospital near the Eastern Front. On arrival, Lucius learns that all of the previous doctors and medical personnel are dead or fled. The only one who knows anything about medicine is a nursing sister called Margarete. Without her, it’s a wonder anyone would have survived either in Lucius’ hands or during the doctor interregnum. There are scenes in the first half of the book that reminded me strongly of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which is based on the life of Mikhail Bulgakov who found himself in a similar situation as an untested doctor in a remote part of the Soviet Union. Lucius slowly becomes a competent surgeon and field doctor under Margarete’s roughly diplomatic tutelage.


Patients and personnel at an Austro-Hungarian field hospital on the Austrian-Italian front.
(Image via Wikicommons)

In addition to Lucius’ growth, a major theme of The Winter Soldier is the growing problem of what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. One soldier, named Horvath, is the first case Lucius has a chance to observe in his field hospital. We never learn what Horvath saw, but his condition is so extremely debilitating that Lucius fights to keep him from being re-conscripted by a sadistic Austrian officer. At the time, “shell shock” was viewed as cowardice or malingering. Men with this condition were subject to horrific punishments and “treatments,” in order to get them back into the fight. Lucius’ intervention has awful consequences, deepening The Winter Soldier from bildungsroman to a more complicated portrait of a naïve man caught in the middle of a collapsing empire at war. His intervention also means that his romance with Margarete takes a sharp turn towards tragedy.

The Winter Soldier is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read about World War I. Characterization is fully-realized, which I appreciated. What I loved about this book, however, was the way Mason recreated the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its catastrophic end. The book highlights the divisions between the empire’s ethnic groups which became fracture lines by the end of the war. Many of the recruits did not speak German (the empire’s official language) well enough to follow officer’s orders. There are shortages of everything. Transportation is a mess. All of that comes through sharply through Lucius peripatetic attempts to find Margarete in the later half of the book.

I would strongly recommend this book to readers looking for a good read about World War I.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 11 September 2018.