Picking Up The Holocaust Pieces


Even as more and more books are published about the Shoah, so many stories are still untold. To mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht, we look at some recent works of fiction and nonfiction. If there’s a common theme, perhaps it’s “After” — after the camps, after the War, new generations finding their place in the wake of the Shoah. Here are authors searching, picking up the pieces.

Julia Ain-Krupa’s first novel “The Upright Heart” (New Europe Books) is set after World War II in Poland, a land traversed by people and by souls, some in the liminal state between death and what might follow. In poetic language, Ain-Krupa fully captures her characters, Jews and Catholics, including those unseen. The narrative shifts between the present and memories of the past, between the story of a Jewish man named Wolf who returns from Brooklyn to his native town, where those closest to him were murdered, and other threads, including the story of a group of schoolgirls, all named Sarah, caught between worlds.

As Wolf is on a train with the ghost of a companion, unknown to him, “The world drifts away as night gives way to dawn and heartbreak, their backs turned toward the future.

The novel reflects the author’s uncommon background: She’s the daughter of an American-Jewish mother of Polish descent and a Polish Catholic father, both involved in theater, who met in New York City and then moved to Krakow. Julia was born in Poland and spent the first two years of her life there, returning to New York in 1981.

“I have this complex, seemingly contradictory history that I couldn’t completely reconcile for myself,” she tells The Jewish Week. “What does it mean to have opposing sides inside of you?”

In 2012, she received a Fulbright to go to Poland and write about mixed marriages there, and she was inspired to write a novel instead, using the stories surrounding her. Living in Poland as an adult, she says, left her with greater integration and also greater and deeper questioning.

The novel has an ethereal quality, and Ain-Krupa says that her own experience of reality has that very ethereal, magical element. “It feels very true.”

“I grew up very much in the theater with my parents, exposed to fantasy all the time, for better and for worse,” she says. Recently married to an Israeli, she plans to spend the near future in Tel Aviv.

For Ain-Krupa, an upright heart, a phrase drawn from the Psalms, refers to a buoyant heart. “It’s hard in this life to preserve a sense of beauty and tenderness and love for the world when you go through a lot of loss.” She adds, “Sometimes you have to tell yourself stories to see what’s around you with love.”

Susan Gordon, who has often contributed to these pages, did extensive research into her family’s past, uncovering clues to family estrangements, and learning of a web of relatives she hadn’t heard of before, tying her closer than she previously imagined to the Shoah. Her memoir “Because of Eva: A Jewish Genealogical Journey” (Syracuse University Press) unveils her findings about her immediate family and beyond, which proved to be, as she describes, “a slide door into the past, where family history merged with world history.”

Starting with the phone book, she tracks down a cousin who provides some information about her family, which leads her to find the unknown woman who took care of her grandfather in his final days. This was the Eva of the title, by then living in Tel Aviv; she helped the author trace what happened to those of her family who stayed behind in Budapest and other Hungarian towns.

Gordon, who grew up in Queens, the daughter of divorced parents and divorced grandparents, is energetic in her pursuits, honest in her telling. What she learns deeply influences her sense of family and loyalty as well as her connection to Judaism.

“These works provide an opportunity for me to repair history – to revive the dead, dispatch sentimental stereotypes, come to grips with life’s disappointments and losses, and then finally to find the joy,” actor, director and playwright Eleanor Reissa writes in the foreword to “The Last Survivor and other Modern Jewish Plays.”

Reissa’s six plays are about her own parents, survivors of the Shoah, and about others who survived and those who did not. In this play cycle, she captures their distinctive language, syntax, attitudes, dreams, culture, some humor too. She realizes that in telling their stories, she is, ironically, telling her own.

Annette Libeskind Berkovits’ father spoke often of his experiences during the Shoah to his family. Still, Berkovits encouraged her father as he got older to write down or record his memories for future generations — his memory was sharp throughout this life — but he demurred. After his death, she discovered that he had indeed followed her suggestion, privately, and she found several years’ worth of tapes in his closet, detailing his experience.

“In the Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags, and Soviet Communism” by Annette Libeskind Berkovits (Wilfrid Laurier University Press) is a daughter’s account of her father’s life; he survived a pre-war Polish prison, escaped the Nazi invasion of Lodz in 1939 and was sent to the Soviet gulag, where he helped others survive. After the war, he and his family went from Poland to Israel to the U.S.

The author, whose brother is architect Daniel Libeskind (who contributed the book’s foreword), was born in Kyrgyzstan, and provides a historical context for her father’s memories. Throughout it all, Nachman is never bitter, seeing the possibility of good in all.

“Most war stories are untold,” Paul Levy reminds the reader in his book, “Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence” (Bauhan Publishing). He explains that many who return from war choose to bury their stories, and for those soldiers who don’t return, both their war and pre-war stories are untold.

In Levy’s family, Phil was known only for the dates of his birth and death, and the fact that he was killed in action in France. This memoir is the true story of Levy’s discovery, more than 40 years later, of details of his uncle’s life and death, prompted by a package of letters and a journal sent to him by his uncle’s wife. Through his research, Levy learned that Phil, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Russia who went on to found a successful produce business in Indiana, was killed in a tank at the Battle of Wingen. He found a book written by the German commanding officer who dropped a grenade in the turret of the tank, and Levy then sought to learn all he could about the man. Traveling with his family to Wingen, Levy also found the exact spot where his uncle’s life ended. He also learned details about his uncle’s achievements, and about the after-effects of war — atrocities, stereotypes, responsibility, heroism — on all sides.