Ellen Ullman’s new novel pushes a psychoanalyst, a patient, and a mysterious eavesdropper back to their traumatic roots—in the Holocaust
Most of the novel consists of reports of these sessions, interrupted from time to time by glimpses of the narrator’s struggles to stay absolutely still, or his aimless existence when the patient or the doctor go on vacation. It is an awkward narrative device, and it leads to some obvious improbabilities. The patient recounts a sexual encounter in terms more graphic than anyone would use with a therapist (“her entire pelvis vibrating in time with Dorotea’s tongue”); long conversations are recounted in perfect detail; the narrator just happens to be in his office at one in the morning when Dr. Schussler is confiding crucial information to her tape recorder. Still, it’s not hard to accept these violations of realism as the price we pay for Ullman’s deliberately claustrophobic narration.
The double structure of By Blood sets two kinds of suspense in motion. Even as we wonder what the patient will discover about her background, we wait tensely for the narrator to lose his tenuous grip on reality. But as the novel progresses, Ullman seems to lose interest in the second of these plots. The narrator’s madness remains fairly static, and it is not giving much away to say that he never explodes into violence as we are meant to fear he might. Instead, more and more of By Blood is devoted to the mystery of the patient’s origins, and their effects on all three participants in this odd triangle: the patient herself, the doctor hiding her past, and the narrator hiding his very existence from the other two.
Only gradually does it become clear that this mystery is going to be tied up with Jewishness and with the Holocaust. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to address this element of the book without giving away some of its secrets, so consider this a spoiler alert.) The first sign of this, oddly enough, is when the patient asks her mother for the truth about her origins, and the mother confides that the patient was born a Catholic. This comes as a great surprise to her, because her father was always virulently anti-Catholic: “My father’s hatred is irrational, relentless. It’s not like a normal person’s prejudice. It’s a … racial hatred.” But all of this seems off, in the way that a dream or a false alibi might be off: People don’t often have this kind of feeling about Catholics. We know the name of the religion that does attract such irrational, relentless, racial hatred.
And sure enough, it turns out that while the patient was adopted through a Catholic agency, she was actually born Jewish. Her mother, known on the adoption form only as Maria G., was a Holocaust survivor who ended up in Bergen-Belsen, which was turned into a Displaced Persons camp at the end of the war. Nothing more is known about her, or seemingly knowable. But by this point, the narrator has gotten so engrossed in the patient’s story that he decides to help her in her search. With less than credible ease, he tracks down Maria G. and sends the information to the patient, fueling the fire of her obsession so that he can eavesdrop on the results.
Soon the patient is flying off to Tel Aviv to meet with Michal, as her mother is now known, to find out the whole story of her birth and unlock the secret of her Jewishness. Why, she wants to know, was she given up for adoption, deprived of any connection to her Jewish heritage? The answer comes in another of Ullman’s shock chapter-endings:
Then she simply gazed at me. She looked at my hair, my mouth, my chin. And then into my eyes. On her face was an expression of love so powerful, so open, that I realized I had never been loved in the whole of my life. Then the emotion moved on.
I wanted to make sure you would not be a Jew, she said.
The line, and the scene, are an homage to the great scene in Daniel Deronda where Daniel tracks down his Jewish mother and receives a similar answer. And if a mother might want to spare her child the stigma of Jewishness in the 19th century, how much more understandable is the wish in the year 1946, for a woman with Michal’s history. Born to a wealthy, cultured Berlin family, she ended up passing as an Aryan, then working as a kind of eugenic prostitute in a Nazi maternity home, then being tortured and raped by concentration-camp guards. After the liberation of the camp, she experienced a Zionist awakening, whose symbol in By Blood is a recording of Belsen inmates singing “Hatikvah.” (An author’s note explains that this is a real recording, which can be heard here.)
In this way, Michal becomes the patient’s, and the reader’s, conduit to the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, the primal scenes of Jewish history in the 20th century. And By Blood may be most interesting for what it suggests about the way that history is now regarded by American Jews. In a sense, as Ullman shows, the structure of Freudian psychoanalysis is always a kind of horror story—the analysand digs deeper and deeper into the past until she discovers the buried trauma that accounts for her current pain. In this sense, to discover the Holocaust at the root of your identity—to learn that you were literally conceived at Belsen—is the ultimate therapeutic climax, the ne plus ultra of repressed memory.
At the same time, if much of By Blood reads like a 19th-century novel, then the patient’s discovery of her Jewish identity is also like the happy surprise endings of so many such novels: The discovery that the urchin is the heir to a fortune, or that the dairymaid is a duchess in disguise. For all her initial discomfort with being Jewish—“You see, I don’t know any Jewish people. … I have no idea what it means to say, I’m a Jew”—she quickly grows excited about the idea, and particularly about her connection to horrors. After all, if the Holocaust is the most significant and authentic experience of the 20th century—as many people now seem to believe—then to be born in Belsen is to belong to a kind of aristocracy of authenticity.
This is especially true, perhaps, in the eyes of American Jews. When Michal tells her daughter, reasonably, “You are not a Jew just because I bore you,” the patient replies, “A Jew is something I am!” For American Jews, it can often seem that the very historical luck that brought us out of Europe also attenuates our claim to this kind of emphatic Jewish being. The stories that Ullman tells, through Michal, are our talismans of ultimate Jewishness—the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel—yet they are not in fact our stories. The way Ullman writes about them, as occluded yet irresistibly attractive mysteries, speaks volumes about the way we think about the Jewish past. Perhaps this is what it means to belong “by blood” to a history that—like Ullman’s hidden narrator—is always both absent and present.
The literary journal Di Goldene Keyt nurtured Yiddish writers in Israel and the Diaspora—and made an author in Baltimore dream