Last week, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York charged 17 Russian-speaking employees and associates of two Holocaust-restitution funds with defrauding the claims programs of $42 million. The suspects allegedly recruited Russian-speaking applicants and either doctored or invented claim-worthy stories on their behalf.
For me, the news served as a doleful affirmation: The alleged criminals seem to have had the same thought I did when I filled out my now-deceased grandmother’s application for reparations years ago. The details of her story were true: She spent 26 months incarcerated in the Minsk ghetto, managing to escape a month before it was liquidated and her parents and maternal grandparents were murdered. But as I considered the application’s thin verification requirements, I thought: How easy this would be to fake.
So I did.
For the last year, I have been inventing stories of Holocaust suffering: a mother suffocating her wailing child to save the other Jews hiding in a cellar; a ghetto work detail sorting the blood-spattered clothes of murdered Jews; Belarussian Nazi collaborators pausing between executions at street tables loaded with chicken and beer. But rather than feeding some criminal scheme, these stories are at the heart of a novel I’ve been writing—the story of a young writer, a failure in New York magazine journalism, who, in frustration, takes to forging Holocaust restitution claims at the prompting of old Soviet Jews in Brighton Beach and other parts of Soviet Brooklyn.
In the book, as in real life, these are people who have suffered unimaginably—as Red Army soldiers in World War II; as Jews in the Soviet Union; as immigrants in the United States—but not in the way the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany specifies they need to have suffered to qualify for the reparations the German government has been making to Holocaust victims since 1952.
Slava Gelman, my fictionalized letter-writer, wants to resist the logic of these old immigrants even as his heart breaks at their misery. He, too, is a Soviet émigré; his elders brought him to America so he wouldn’t have to live by the deception that they did. In the Soviet Union, Jews were kept out of elite institutions and posts; Jewish veterans who had lost limbs at the front were taunted for having sat out World War II; a Jewish woman could hardly touch a loaf of stale bread at the food store without having her “grubby Jewish fingers” berated by the cashier. Soviet Jews lived in an inconceivable limbo of unfairness and hypocrisy. Many would have been too happy to forget their faith, but their countrymen never allowed them to.
I was also born in the Soviet Union, where Jews like my grandfather had no choice but to live by the black market. Ostensibly a barber, my grandfather developed a clandestine barter network that would impress a CIA station chief. A haircut on the side for a stick of salami; salami for free Aeroflot tickets; free tickets for the ear of a powerful person in case trouble comes. The only way to get by was to cheat the system—there simply wasn’t enough to go around fairly. It’s hard to think of a regime that claimed to do as much in the name of its people while impoverishing them more—materially, physically, morally. It’s hard to fault an ex-Soviet person for feeling owed. But, as a character in the novel says, “the Soviets aren’t offering restitution. The Germans are offering.”
The low burden of proof required by the reparations program wouldn’t tempt the average American: The law is the law here. That is the wonder of this country, for all its flaws: There’s enough to go around. Connections, pedigree, and money all help, but so many ordinary people can achieve what they’d like simply by working fairly and honestly. You can afford to be decent here.
Had the defrauded funds been American rather than German, it isn’t hard to imagine the news sticking in some immigration-obsessed Tea Party congressman’s craw, with its easy iconography of interlopers illegally sucking down precious native resources. The law is the law; the Holocaust-fund suspects should be prosecuted. So should, for that matter, those who cross the border illegally. But what should find no tolerance is the nativist demonology that so often accompanies news of malfeasance by a small portion of a minority group. The Russians have gotten off easy, their persecution limited to movies like Red Dawn and Gary Shteyngart’s novels. But what of more hideous gestures, such as Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s video of faceless Mexican marauders scaling the walls of our innocent land? The vast majority of illegal Mexican immigrants are here to make money to put clothes on the backs of children in Puebla—money earned doing work most Americans won’t deign to do, and for a pittance. Since so much modern journalism seems to have squandered its traditional mandate to force primitive instinct to contend with nuance, perhaps fiction has to step in.
The poison inside the people who allegedly defrauded the Holocaust fund would be inside you, too, if you had lived as Jews in the Soviet Union. Whatever their sins, these people are heroes, too, for having survived it. The struggle to defeat its legacy requires a daily application of conscience and will, even for members of my generation. I actually envy Slava, my own fictionalized protagonist, for the way in which he chooses America at the end of the book. Fiction is freeing that way; that’s one of its limiting seductions. For some, in real life, it’s simply too late.
Nothing is more uplifting than the American gospel of self-reinvention, but America forgets that human nature sometimes has a limit. That is part of America’s vital, ferocious, oblivious beauty. But it’s too late for those who traded their complimentary American synagogue memberships for cash; for those who sign for imaginary pills and massages to split profits with doctors who file for Medicare reimbursement; for those for whom it’s still 1977 in Minsk.
Slava spends only the 400 pages of my book arguing with his grandfather about the meaning of justice; I have spent more than a decade arguing with mine. In this time, I have achieved things I never imagined, but I have changed nothing about what men like our grandfathers see in the world. That creates one kind of conundrum for the American legal system, and another for Russian-Americans of my age. Our grandparents are our shame, but they are also our wisdom, courage, and tenderness. They gave up everything so we could have more. But in the United States, they remain Soviet—that singular cocktail of cunning, fear, paranoia, ambition, materialism, anti-intellectual refinement, tribalism, prudery, soul. It is the lasting curse of our magical, hideous birthplace. How do you forgive and revere these people at once? How do you honor someone whose definition of honor is entirely different from yours?
I found my only answer in fiction: Consider them individually, as the idiosyncratic, reduction-imploding human beings that they—that we all—are.