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Can American Jews Understand the Holocaust?

Or are they too wedded to redemptive narratives? A timely reprint of Edward Lewis Wallant’s classic 1961 novel ‘The Pawnbroker’ raises the question.

Adam Kirsch
November 30, 2015
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock

It’s been less than a year since Fig Tree Books was launched as a publisher of books on “the American Jewish Experience,” but it is already performing invaluable work. In addition to bringing out new fiction on Jewish themes, the publisher has committed to republishing lost classics, and these books have turned out to be especially eye-opening. The canon of American Jewish literature has settled into a fixed, syllabus-ready form, revolving around the big names of Bellow, Roth, and Malamud. But in any period, more people are reading non- and sub-canonical writers than the big names; and so it is often these forgotten books that do the best job of conjuring the real texture and atmosphere of their period. Earlier this year, for instance, Fig Tree republished Meyer Levin’s Compulsion, a mid-century retelling of the Leopold and Loeb case that spoke volumes about American Jewish attitudes toward deviance, sexuality, and public image.

Now comes The Pawnbroker, a once-celebrated novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, which must be one of the earliest American Jewish stories to address the experience of the Holocaust survivor. The Pawnbroker was originally published in 1961; the following year, Wallant died at the age of 36, having produced just two books. (Today his name may be best known for the literary prize named after him, which is given annually for a work of American Jewish fiction.) The year of publication is significant, because a kind of historical consensus has arisen that the Holocaust was a taboo subject for postwar American Jews. Not until 1967, this story goes, with the inspiring Israeli victory in the Six Day War, did Jews become confident enough to start reckoning with the immense trauma of their recent past.

Historian Hasia Diner, in her book We Remember With Reverence and Love, has argued that this is a false interpretation—that in fact synagogues and Jewish groups made Holocaust remembrance a central mission starting in 1945. The Pawnbroker offers evidence for Diner’s view. Here is a 1961 book—three years later it was made into a movie by Sidney Lumet, which would have reached an even bigger audience—that already takes for granted the reader’s knowledge of many details of the Holocaust, including tattooed numbers and crematoria. The one thing missing is the actual word Holocaust itself: As far as I can tell, Wallant never uses this term in describing the experiences of Sol Nazerman, the title character.

Nazerman himself has thoroughly repressed his memories of what he went through during the war. Before 1939, we learn, he was a professor in a Polish university—a detail that doesn’t really ring true, given the extreme rarity of Jews in such roles in interwar Poland. However, it is meant to make us think of the young Nazerman as a cultured, civilized person and so to heighten the contrast with the middle-aged man we now see running a pawnshop in Harlem. He has come down in the world, not so much economically—thanks to a crooked arrangement with an Italian mobster, Nazerman’s shop makes good money—as spiritually.

It is in his dreams—which Wallant sets off as separate sections, in italics—that Nazerman remembers the experiences that have destroyed his interest in life and his faith in humanity. These glimpses of Nazerman’s past combine a perhaps improbable number of well-known Holocaust tropes. Every imaginable atrocity seems to have been visited on this one man, from medical experimentation to being forced to watch his wife service Nazis in a brothel. Wallant, who is not a subtle writer, wants to display the whole horror of the Holocaust in one man’s story, and these sections of the book are often unreadably painful and intense.

After living through such things, Wallant suggests, Nazerman has become a complete misanthrope. “I do not trust God or politics or newspapers or music or art. I do not trust smiles or clothes or buildings or scenery or smells,” he says. “But, most of all, I do not trust people and their talk, for they have created hell with that talk, for they have proved that they do not deserve to exist for what they are.” This is Wallant’s attempt to fathom the unfathomable question of how a person survives the worst and goes on living; and it suggests that he himself was cowed by the subject, unable to imagine its full complexity. Real survivors, at least most of them, somehow returned to life, married, had children, built careers, even as they lived with unbearable memories and guilt. Nazerman, however, is a kind of moral zombie for whom life itself has become a pointless charade.

The Pawnbroker stays very close to Nazerman’s point of view, and so we see his store and his city through his misanthropic eyes. Because the specimens of humanity who frequent his pawnshop are usually poor and black, The Pawnbroker often makes for uncomfortable reading, as Wallant describes Nazerman’s customers in deliberately repulsive terms. There is “the young Negro” with “the terrified, twitching face of a jackal,” who comes to pawn an obviously stolen radio, or another black character with “loose, rubbery lips.” If this is racism, however, it is Nazerman’s, not Wallant’s; and the author shows that racial hatred, in this dismal place, runs in both directions, with Nazerman’s black clients resenting “the Sheeny” as much as he looks down on them. The city itself, in Wallant’s emphatic prose, is charged with hostile force: “He went down the gum-and-spittle-scarred steps of the subway and stood in the dirty light of the platform, where everything had the color of grime and everything was defaced or mutilated—signs, walls, trash cans, everything.”

Are Americans, and American Jews in particular, capable of a real understanding of the Holocaust?

Wallant shows why everyone hates a pawnbroker: He is the person you go to as a last resort, when you are in desperate straits, and who then gives you less money than you need or deserve. When the pawnbroker is Jewish, as he frequently was in this setting—Nazerman’s clients derisively call him “Uncle,” the traditional term for such figures—you have a recipe for anti-Semitism. Nazerman is grimly aware of this dynamic, as he explains when his black assistant, Jesus Ortiz, asks “How come you Jews come to business so natural?” Nazerman’s answer is a short, bitter history of the Jews, showing how their poverty and landlessness condemned them to the most hated occupations: “And then, voila—you have a mercantile heritage, you are known as a merchant, a man with secret resources, usurer, pawnbroker, witch, and what have you.”

The relationship between Sol and Jesus reads like a deliberate rewriting of the similar relationship at the heart of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, which was published four years before The Pawnbroker. Malamud, too, tells the story of a poor Jewish storekeeper and his gentile assistant; but in Malamud’s novel, the Jew is saintly, and he offers the gentile an extended moral education. In The Pawnbroker, by contrast, Nazerman consistently treats Jesus with cold contempt, rebuffing his requests for teaching and friendship. Such rejections make Jesus ready to listen when three of Nazerman’s customers come to him with a proposal to rob the pawnshop. This scheme is the closest thing The Pawnbroker has to a conventional plot: Will Jesus go through with his betrayal of the man to whom, in fact, he owes no loyalty?

That question is bound up with deeper issue of whether Sol Nazerman is right to despise humanity as thoroughly as he does. Certainly there is nothing less American than despair, and so in its inquiry into Sol’s despair The Pawnbroker becomes, in a fascinating way, a kind of referendum on the spiritual value of American life. As evidence for a negative verdict, Wallant gives us Sol’s Americanized sister Bertha, who loves her husband and daughter because “you wouldn’t even guess they were Jews” and who sponges off her brother while hating “the degradation and filth [that] had rubbed off on him.” Sol’s family is Wallant’s nasty portrait of materialistic, complacent, inauthentic American Jews—the sort of people Philip Roth satirized, much more comically and subtly, in the Patimkins of Goodbye, Columbus.

On the positive side, Wallant gives us Marilyn Birchfield, a gentile social worker who insinuates herself into Sol’s life and urges him to adopt a healthier, more positive outlook. “I know there’s misery and cruelty and injustice in the world, Mr. Nazerman. I’m not quite such a dewy-eyed fool as you may think. But I have hope for everyone,” Marilyn declares. To which Sol replies, “There is a world so different in its scale that its emotions bear no resemblance to yours; it has emotions so different in degree that they have become a different species!”

Here is the central quandary of The Pawnbroker. Are Americans, and American Jews in particular, capable of a real understanding of the Holocaust? Can the pursuit of happiness be justified in a world where the Holocaust has taken place? And can Sol Nazerman be redeemed, or is the desire to redeem him a sign of hopeless naivete? The book’s dramatic concluding episode gives Wallant’s answer, which shows that, despite everything, he remains an American writer at heart. The Pawnbroker may be less highly esteemed than books like Goodbye, Columbus; The Assistant; and Mr. Sammler’s Planet—to name three that it partly resembles—because Jewish readers remain unsure that Wallant’s reassuring answer is the right one.


To read more of Adam Kirsch’s book reviews for Tablet magazine, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.