I admit before reading this book, I had a strong bias toward books that are published only online, but the title and synopsis I read of this novel, plus the fact that Greg Dinallo, an author I am/was unfamiliar with, has published hard copy books in the past, I decided to take a chance on reading this. Being an e-book only, the price was right, too.
The novel is actually two within one, with the primary story beginning when an advertising agent, Stacey Dutton, with a penchant for retrieving discarded goods for personal use, and thus having a goldmine of interesting furnishings, etc., finds a Steinbach suitcase discarded on a sidewalk behind a famous apartment building in New York City. She retrieves it and immediately begins thinking of how it could be used in an advertising campaign that she and her company are about to embark upon with Steinbach & Company, who have produced high quality suitcases in Germany since the mid-19th century. When approached with the idea of following the suitcase’s journey, including through the Holocaust, the CEO of Steinbach & Company, Sol Steinbach, is intrigued and excited about this approach. Questions are then asked: who owned this suitcase? how did it come to be discarded in New York City and why? what is its connection to the Holocaust? and what is inside, as it is locked and things are clearly stored inside it.
After a lot of research, it appears the suitcase belonged to a prominent New York City orthopedist, Dr. Jacob Epstein, a Holocaust survivor as well, and the founder of a famous Jewish foundation that is involved in charity work and honoring, among others, Gentiles who helped save Jews during World War II. He and his family are approached by the ad agency to engage in telling the story of the suitcase’s travels and in the process, honoring the Holocaust victims and survivors, which he agrees to do.
As the agency and he embark on this process, a young newspaper reporter, looking for the story of a lifetime that might guarantee his job at the newspaper for which he works and which is laying people off – and, incidentally,Stacey Dutton’s boyfriend – begins to suspect and unravel secrets surrounding the suitcase, Dr. Jacob Epstein, and another Holocaust victim (albeit Gentile), Max Klein. His suspicions arise when he notes that there are two photographs of the same Auschwitz tattooed numbers on the arm of Dr. Epstein, and the two photos clearly show a different style of writing the numbers!
The second story within this novel is the history of the suitcase, but more, the history of the people involved in World War II, including Dr. Epstein himself, Max Klein, and others involved in helping Dr. Epstein and Max’s girlfriend, Eva, escape the SS and Gestapo after having originally been given waivers to practice at the hospital regardless of being Jews, needed because of the lack of German doctors. The waivers are suddenly revoked, and their stories become a history of the fears, flights, and hiding, ultimately ending in the concentration camps for Dr. Epstein and fortunately for the girlfriend, in Italy, where her parents lived and which has not experienced the complete horrors of the rest of the European Jews. The suitcase belonged to Max Klein and was given to Dr. Epstein at the beginning of his flight out of Germany and he managed to keep it with him throughout his incarcerations.
Meanwhile, Max Klein, who had to reluctantly become part of the SS to protect his own family, becomes the target of a particularly vengeful military officer because of his involvement with his Jewish girlfriend, Eva. He is sent to Dachau to work as a doctor on the ramps from the cattle cars and make the decisions of which Jewish prisoner went where, to a line that would send them to the gas chamber immediately, or to a line where they would become overworked and underfed slaves and die a slow death. He tries to avoid this but cannot without jeopardizing his family, and so learns what other “good” German doctors learned at these ramps, how to shut down, make the choices, and then drown the memories in drink and sleep.
It is here at the ramp where he recognizes his best friend, Jake Epstein, who is transferred from Auschwitz to Dachau. He rescues Jake by telling other doctors at the ramp that he and the accompanying doctors from Auschwitz have been sent to help with the prisoners’ suffering and dying from typhus, since they haven’t enough doctors at Dachau for this, and who cares if Jews die treating other Jews. Both Jake and their mutual doctor friend Hannah contract typhus in the process. From here, their relationship is complicated by various events, including the suspicions of Gestapo and SS officers and, eventually, the Allies arriving at the camp, which results in unrestricted vengeance by prisoners and some of the U.S. troops.
The stories in the present and the past are told alternately in every other chapter and at first, I thought this would be distracting, but I actually liked the style, partly because I didn’t have to wait until later in the book to learn how a specific present-day scene related to the past. As the book went on, it became easier to figure out what had happened in the past, even before it’s revealed totally, but even so, that did not interfere with either part of the novel.
The characters, both past and present, were totally believable in their actions and reactions. Those who had to make horrible choices were clearly fraught with ethic dilemmas throughout. The moral dilemmas were evident in both the past and the present, when people had to choose the lesser of two evils and choose if not making a decision was the right decision to make. At times, particularly among the modern characters, it was easy to dislike some of them, but then I would find myself realizing that they weren’t all bad and had consciences and were struggling just like most of us would.
The ending was not terribly surprising but it was satisfying, and I would recommend this book. I also discovered that my bias toward publishing only as an e-book was totally unwarranted and that’s encouraging because it could mean more books for more people at lesser cost. But I will definitely read some of Dinallo’s other books now.
This newest collection of Englander’s short stories is mesmerizing, a fascinating mix that runs the gamut from humor to homicide, from pathos to the pathetic. Englander gives us a multifaceted view into the minds and hearts of a people which has been fighting for — and occasionally running from — its own identity for centuries.
Some of these stories have the ring of an old Isaac Babel or Isaac Bashevis Singer story (“Sister Hills” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows”), while others smack of Woody Allen (“Camp Sundown” and the title story). All of them are designed to provoke the reader, as Englander’s tales of fear, guilt, anger, vengeance and mercy are meant to challenge our own moral compass. A gang of young American Jewish boys, inspired by tales of Masada, band together to battle the anti-Semite in their community and learn a lesson about violence, while a philosophy professor in Israel carries the corrosion of violence forever inside him. A prosperous Jew indulges in a moment of lust at a peep show, and learns more than he bargained for about who he is and where he came from. A camp for Jewish senior citizens turns into a nightmare parody of a concentration camp when lanyard-weaving campers suspect there is a former Nazi guard in their midst. And Englander includes an autobiographical piece about his search for his family’s history, which is both hysterically funny and a surprisingly poignant self-reflection which speaks to all of us.
One story I keenly felt, entitled “The Reader,” expresses Everyman’s fear of extinction, whether through cultural death or physical death. A once prominent author returns to the bookstore circuit after spending a decade on his last great novel, only to discover a very changed terrain and no audience. Englander’s personal nightmare or a commentary on the tragic decline of a reading public? Perhaps both.
My favorite story, however, was the lead “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” in which a secular Jewish couple from Florida and an ultra-orthodox Jewish couple visiting from Israel get stoned together, and play the “Righteous Gentile” game. This story had me in stitches from the first page, and had me crying at the end, and I will say no more except that everyone should read this story and then spend a little time getting to know oneself. I can’t say that every story in this collection grabbed me the same way, and a few had me downright squirmy, but Englander’s talent in turning uncomfortable issues into unavoidable ones is a valuable contribution that shouldn’t be missed.
Originally published as The Dark Room in 2001, Lore is being re-published now in support of a film due out this year. The novel is divided into three chapters, each dealing with one German and his/her experience of WWII and the aftermath of the Holocaust. The overriding themes deal with German guilt and the appropriate German response to its past.
Chapter one focuses on Helmut, a Berliner in his 20s, unable to enlist in the military because of a physical disability. Helmut is embarrassed, frustrated and jealous when his peers ship off to war and he is still home with his parents. He keeps detailed journals about the trains and passenger populations passing through the nearby station, noticing the while people keep coming into the city, the population still seems to be diminishing. To keep busy, Helmut starts working as a photographer’s assistant and finds he has a talent for the art, but the ends to which he employs this talent and his enthusiasm for it are disturbing. Helmut himself is a strange character. In addition to his physical impairment, he seems to have some social and emotional problems as well. The reader may be shocked by some of the things he does, but at the same time, the description of life in a bombed out, shell-shocked Berlin might elicit some pity, too. Helmut is a troubling character.
Chapter two is about Lore (Hannelore), a 12-year-old girl who becomes responsible for her younger siblings when her Nazi parents are arrested by the allies at the end of the war. Lore doesn’t understand exactly what has happened to her parents or why, but she knows that she has to hide evidence of her family’s connections to the Reich. As she takes her siblings on foot on the long journey to her grandmother’s house, the reader sees the poverty, hunger and displacement visited upon the Germans after the war. The reader cannot help but feel pity for Lore and her siblings. Their hunger and exhaustion are tragic and more than children should have to bear, but for Lore, there is also the gradual realization that the world she thought she knew is very different from reality.
Chapter three is Micha’s story in Germany in 1997-1998. Micha is 30, living with his German-Turkish girlfriend and working as a teacher. As a result of a lesson related to the Holocaust, he begins to investigate his own family’s history during the war. Micha knew that his grandfather (Opa) had served in the Waffen-SS, but he, like the rest of the family, never bothered to ask questions about where he served, what he did, or what happened to him while a POW in Russia. As Micha investigates, he upsets his entire family and his girlfriend, who see no point in pursuing the question. Their feeling is that Opa was a good man who loved them, and learning the truth would make no difference; Opa is dead, so the truth cannot be known. But Micha’s research becomes an obsession and he is compelled to carry on. As he gets closer to the answers, however, he seems to hold back from learning the truth and struggles with his own motivations in pursuing it.
While the focus of the novel is on Germans’ experiences, Jews and the Holocaust are the unspoken backdrop. They are not characters, but the fact of their existence colors the reading of each chapter. You feel bad for feeling any sort of pity for the Germans, but you also question whether you would be any different than they were. And I think that is what the author wants. Be uncomfortable. Recognize the humanity of the enemy and deal with your feelings of revulsion and pity. It is a provocative novel and I couldn’t put it down.