On the Bookshelf
The latest in Holocaust and Lebowski scholarship
Given the remarkable successes of Elie Wiesel’s Night and The Diary of Anne Frank—the latter of which receives an exemplary close reading by Francine Prose in Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the After Life (HarperCollins, October), as discussed last week on Vox Tablet—publishers know that stories about the Nazis’ youngest, most vulnerable victims have the power to move contemporary readers like nothing else. And, sadly, there was no dearth of children and teens who suffered or died at the hands of the Third Reich, each of them with a story as heartbreaking as it is appalling.
Rita Lurie’s family paid a non-Jewish Pole to hide them in an attic on his farm during the war. Unlike Anne Frank, Rita managed to survive, though she saw her brother and mother die in hiding, and she watched as two other relatives were shot. Lurie and her daughter, Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, a former lawyer and television executive, describe her experiences, and the continuing fallout of those traumas decades later, in Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir (Harper, September).
Janusz Korczak dedicated his life to caring for abandoned Jewish children, long before the Nazis set their sights on Poland. He founded a revolutionary orphanage in Warsaw in 1912—a little ways up Krochmalna Street from the house in which Isaac Bashevis Singer grew up—in which children administrated their own government, legal system, and media. When the Nazis deported the orphanage’s children to Treblinka, Korczak insisted on staying with them to the end. Tomek Bogacki, a Polish-born artist and children’s book author, presents Korczak’s bravery for an audience around the same age as his charges, in The Champion of Children: The Story of Janusz Korczak (FSG, September, ages 9–12).
Hannelore Brenner’s The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Therensienstadt (Schocken, September) meanwhile focuses on a group of Jewish women who met in the Theresienstadt camp between 1942 and 1944, when they were teenagers. Living today in England, Israel, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the U.S., these survivors now gather once a year to reaffirm their fellowship, and they have contributed their diaries, drawings, and recollections to Brenner’s tribute volume.
The camp, near Prague, where Brenner’s subjects were imprisoned functioned both as a sort of Potemkin Village to appease the Red Cross and as a way station for Jews en route to their extermination. Further insights into the camp’s operation and atmosphere can be found in the diary kept by Philipp Manes, a Berlin furrier, during the two years he spent there before his murder in Auschwitz. As If It Were Life: A WWII Diary from the Theresienstadt Ghetto (Palgrave Macmillan, November), Manes’s diary, like Brenner’s book, depicts the cultural vibrancy that Jews heroically kept alive in Theresienstadt—among other things, inmates wrote and staged a “children’s opera,” Brundibar—as well as the bitterness of living at the whim of the Nazis in a showpiece ghetto.
Even after eluding the carnage of Hitler’s Europe, some Jewish adolescents found themselves jailed again, like the four orphaned protagonists of Anita Diamant’s novel Day After Night (Scribner, September). The novel takes place in 1945, and each of Diamant’s heroines has followed a different path through the Holocaust, dramatizing the variety of its horrors: one, like Rita Lurie, hid out in a barn, another survived the camps, a third battled with the partisans, and the fourth waited out the war turning tricks in a Parisian brothel. Drawn, like many of the women featured in Girls of Room 28, to the Land of Israel—whether through ideology or desperation—these girls wind up in Atlit, a camp for illegal immigrants established by the British rulers of Palestine.
Many of the young European Jews who escaped to the U.S. before the onset of the war found themselves in ideal positions to fight in the Allied military: fluent in German, familiar with strategic locations, they were, most importantly, extraordinarily motivated to risk their lives to defeat the Nazis. Two new popular histories—Patrick K. O’Donnell’s They Dared Return: An Epic Story of Jewish Refugees Who Escaped Nazi Germany, but Returned for Vengeance (Da Capo, October) and Steven Karras’s The Enemy I Knew: German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II (Zenith, October)—tell the tales of such soldiers. Karras’s book adapts material from his 1999 documentary, About Face, but the film that best explains why two volumes on this subject would be published almost simultaneously this fall is Quentin Tarantino’s Inlglourious Basterds, the world-wide earnings of which recently topped $230 million. At least until a Basterds tie-in book appears (apart from Tarantino’s screenplay, which has floated around the web for years, and has been available for purchase since August), Karras, O’Donnell, and their editors can hope to profit from a burgeoning market for military dramas of Jewish revenge.
On the subject of Hollywood tie-ins: as Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man fills movie theaters with the sound of Yiddish, fans of their remarkable oeuvre may be interested to discover the uses to which their films have been put in a couple of new books. Cultural studies scholars can turn anything into analytical fodder, so no one should be surprised by The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies (Indiana, November), edited by professors Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe. It contains essays titled “The Big Lebowski and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism,” “No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism, and the Oil Industry in The Big Lebowski,” and “Abiding (as) Animal: Marmot, Pomeranian, Whale, Dude,” among others—and, yes, both the editors and authors seem well aware that what they’re doing is at least a little ridiculous. Less self-conscious is Cathleen Falsani’s The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers (Zondervan, October), which sets out “to uncover what the overarching spiritual messages of their films—their ‘gospel,’ if you will—might be.” Notwithstanding the “Foreword” Falsani has wrangled from a Montana rabbi who calls her, absurdly, “the Rashi to the Coens’ scripture,” not much insight into the filmmakers’ religion or ethnicity can be expected from The Dudes Abides. Falsani’s evangelical publisher aims primarily to “glorify Jesus Christ” (and includes in its catalog such literary gems as How Jewish Is Christianity, in which one thoughtful contributor worries that the spread of Messianic synagogues might undermine efforts of bona fide Christian churches to “reach out to the Jewish people in evangelism and discipleship”). Might evangelical Christians cull spiritual wisdom from Fargo and Barton Fink? The idea recalls a saying of that great Jewish sage, Walter Sobchak: “Donny, you’re out of your element.”