The Free World: A Novel
by David Bezmozgis
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 356 pp., $26)
David Bezmozgis, winner of the 2004 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction for his story collection, Natasha, returns to the theme of Soviet Jewish immigration in his first full-length novel. The freeing of Soviet Jewry—a cause that captured the hearts and minds of American Jews—generally brings to mind the heroism and sacrifices of the refuseniks who paved the way for other Jews to leave. The characters in Bezmozgis’ novel are Jews who left the Soviet Union when the trickle of emigrants had already become a flood; their heroism resides in their willingness to take a huge chance to make their lives better.
In the summer of 1978, the Krasnansky family is stranded in Ladispolis, a suburb of Rome, along with hundreds of other Soviet Jews waiting for visas to the United States or Canada. The Jews who chose to use their Israeli visas flew directly from Vienna to Tel Aviv. But brothers Karl and Alex Krasnansky, who left Soviet Latvia because of its stagnant economy, hoped to find more opportunity in the West and their parents, Samuil and Emma, came along mainly not to be left behind. In Samuil’s case, the transformation of his life from a respected Party Member to a stateless refugee is devastating, particularly when his medals for bravery as a Red Army captain during World War II are confiscated by a Soviet border guard.
Ladispolis—a seaside town of wooden bungalows and cheap apartments—represents the immigrants’ first heady encounter with the Free World. This is a pivotal moment for a temporary community of refugees, still stunned that they were able to leave the U.S.S.R. and uncertain where they would wind up. In need of cash, many take up dubious jobs, such as self-made tour guides and rental brokers, and shadier ventures, like the auto-body shop that Karl fronts for some Russian thugs. Meanwhile, Alex, a handsome, charming 26-year-old, can’t stop womanizing despite the presence of Polina, his non-Jewish wife who has joined him in exile. Freedom, as Alex will soon discover, carries the burden of responsibility for one’s choices.
While Alex is the prime mover of the plot, the heart of the novel is Samuil, a character who bears the full weight of Soviet Jewish history—under the czars, through the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Holocaust. A true believer in Communism, Samuil is the kind of man who helped build the Soviet Union; he is also a man with great fidelity to his own values. Watching his wife and his Jewish daughter-in-law, Rosa, recite the Sabbath blessings they just learned from the Lubavitch rabbi, he laments the reversal of “two generations of social progress.” It is clear Samuil will not adapt; in Ladispolis, he spends his days at the Club Kadima, a Jewish community center, in the company of Josef Roidman, a one-legged veteran who was able to keep his medals. “The young generation is quick to criticize,” he complains to Roidman. “It is easy to criticize if you never experienced life before communism.”
Rich in history and understanding, this novel captures images of a transitory community, like an old Kodak movie camera recording an extended family gathering before everyone scatters in different directions.
Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible’s Intriguing Firsts
by Meir Shalev, translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman
(Harmony Books, 295 pp., $25)
Journalist and novelist Meir Shalev approaches the biblical text from the perspective of a secular Israeli with a great appreciation for and familiarity with the Hebrew Bible. Bringing a storyteller’s sensibilities and a keen eye for details to his reading of biblical stories, Shalev also expresses a deep annoyance with the rabbis of the Talmud for “whitewashing” biblical characters at their least heroic moments. Those problematic biblical scenes are precisely the ones that engage him most, for the moral and psychological questions they raise, as well as for the skill with which they are depicted.
Beginnings is a provocative, stimulating, and idiosyncratic collection of essays, each one building out from the first appearance of a single word—the first love, the first hate, the first dream, the first king—and moving on to an exploration of other stories linked to that category. The first love mentioned, for example, is Abraham’s love for his son Isaac, whom he is called to sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Shalev deals with the plain meaning of the text, but also shares his reactions to it. Concerning the binding of Isaac, known as the akedah, he writes: “I don’t think the story is intended to combat the practice of human sacrifice, but rather to demonstrate how the obedience of the Bible’s most obedient believer may lead into the darkest of alleys.”
More to his liking is Jacob, who wants specifics when he bargains with God: “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat, and clothing to wear, and if I return to my father’s house, the Lord shall be my God.” According to Shalev, “Jacob’s very first word—‘if’—announces to God that here is a new type of believer.” Jacob understands that God also needs humans in order to be present in the world.
Shalev’s assessments are often as acerbic as they are astute. King Saul, he writes, was a tragic figure “because he lived at the same time as Samuel and David. Up against the rigid extremism of the one, and the magnetic genius of the other, he didn’t have a prayer.” David, on the other hand, was a leader with too much charisma—“a man who was loved by so many, a man who didn’t need to lift a finger to win the heart of others, which is why his emotional life became so distorted and corrupt.” Likewise, Shalev compares Elijah, “the consummate prophet, his entire being given over to the Lord’s service,” with Jonah, who would rather see a city destroyed than a blemish on his record for prophecy.
As a secular Israeli, Shalev regularly gives voice to his distrust of politicians, religion, and religious establishments, both ancient and contemporary. In this spirit, he does not refrain from critiquing the tenth commandment, “Do not covet,” which is a prohibition not of an action, but of a feeling. “Everyone covets…. Everyone fails the last commandment,” he writes. “Thus, the biblical lawgiver made sure that no Jew would ever get a perfect ten in the test of the commandments. Nine is the highest score on the Jewish report card.”
The Eichmann Trial
by Deborah E. Lipstadt
(Nextbook/Schocken, 237 pp., $24.95)
Many trials of Nazis and their collaborators were held following World War II—in the American and British-occupied zones of postwar Germany, in France (the trial of Vichy prime minister Pierre Lavel), and in Poland (the trials of concentration camp commandants Rudolf Höss and Amon Göth). Yet the first of the Nuremberg trials, in 1945, and the trial of Adolph Eichmann, in 1961, remain the best-known Holocaust trials of the 20th century. In her brilliant analysis of the Eichmann trial, Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt explains why this trial was a watershed event in the world’s perception of the genocide.
The trial made headlines, beginning with the Mossad’s capture and abduction of Eichmann from Argentina and Israel’s decision to hold the trial in Jerusalem. Portions of the trial were broadcast on television worldwide. But the reason for its impact and lasting impression was its use of survivor testimonies, which did not happen at the Nuremberg trials.
“At Nuremberg, the murder of the Jews had been an example of crimes against humanity,” she writes. “Here it would be the centerpiece.” Chief Prosecutor Gideon Hausner decided to use survivor testimonies to “paint a broad picture of the entire destruction process” in which Eichmann played a part. He immediately saw the trial’s potential to educate Israelis, Diaspora Jews, and non-Jews about the Holocaust.
Not all of the testimony was directly related to Eichmann, as the defense counsel and even the presiding judges were quick to point out. He did not have a direct role in many aspects of the Final Solution the witnesses described. But in Hungary, where he headed an SS unit dubbed “Sonderkommado Eichmann,” he was directly responsible for the deportation of a half million Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Contrary to his claim of being a “little cog” who “followed orders” in a bureaucracy, he was present at the Wannsee conference, where the so-called Final Solution, the plan to annihilate Europe’s Jews, was revealed to those who would carry it out. According to transcripts of an interview he gave to a Nazi colleague in Buenos Aires—which became damning evidence in the trial—he was proud of his work and carried it out zealously.
Lipstadt devotes a chapter to Hannah Arendt’s reportage of the trial, which in its own way has become as famous as the trial itself. Arendt’s articles, written for the New Yorker and published in book form as Eichmann in Jerusalem, incensed many Jews for her scathing remarks about the lack of Jewish resistance and her claims that members of the Jewish Councils, set up by the Nazis, were essentially collaborators. Lipstadt answers Arendt’s more egregious remarks, which tended to blur the distinction between victim and perpetrator and put Jews on trial instead of Eichmann.
Ironically, some of Arendt’s criticisms mirrored those of the Israeli public at the time. “In Israel and many other places,” Lipstadt writes, “there was a persistent leitmotif when the discourse turned to Holocaust survivors: Why didn’t you resist? Why did you comply with orders? Why didn’t you revolt?” At this trial, survivors spoke about how armed resistance was nearly impossible for starved and demoralized people with little or no political organization. Taking the witness stand, Abba Kovner, leader of the Vilna Ghetto revolt, declared: “Rather than demean the victims, contemporary generations should recognize how ‘astonishing’ it was that there was a revolt. That is what was not rational.” With testimonies like these, the Eichmann trial transformed the status of Holocaust survivors from victims to witnesses— both within Jewish communities and throughout the world.
Most significantly, Lipstadt debunks Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann as an exemplar of “the banality of evil”—an ordinary man who unthinkingly became a killer in a totalitarian society. Citing a memoir Eichmann wrote during the trial (which the Israeli government made available to Lipstadt during her own trial in 2000, when Holocaust denier David Irving sued her for libel), she maintains that he knew perfectly well what he was doing and was deeply committed to the Nazi ideology of racial purity. Arendt’s theory is flawed, she writes, because it “ignored the bedrock of the Holocaust: the long, tortured history of anti-Semitism. Any attempt to separate anti-Semitism from the ignominious legacy of the Final Solution is to distort historical reality.”
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.