In the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, followed by the communist governments in the Eastern Bloc, and Yugoslavia, countries that the majority of us had never heard of before started appearing on maps of the world again for the first time since the beginning of World War II. Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, and Macedonia were just some of the new place names that cartographers had to try and squeeze onto maps of Eastern Europe. While this might have seemed like an upheaval of unsurpassed proportions to some of us, at the other end of the century, from 1900 to the end of the second World War, things were just as tumultuous.
In that time a person could literally not move an inch and wake up one morning to find yourself living in a new country. At the onset of World War I, parts of what's now present day Poland were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the end of that war resulted in the dissolution of the Empire, out of its ashes were formed countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and many other Eastern European countries. Those borders didn't last long as the European powers gave Czechoslovakia to Germany without a fight in an attempt at appeasing Hitler. The Russian-German pact of 1939 split Poland between them, so when the Germans invaded Poland from the West, the Russians came in from the East for their bit. Of course those were some of the first territories "liberated" by the German armies when they invaded Russia in June of 1941, only to see them revert back to Russian control four years later when the tides of war swam the other way.
For those keeping score, that means if you lived in Eastern Poland between the years of 1900 to 1945 — assuming you managed to survive, that is — you would have had to change your passport five times. While your chances of survival weren't great no matter who you were, they were reduced dramatically during the period of German rule if you happened to be Jewish. Only with the greatest deal of luck could you have survived the liberation of Poland by the Nazis if you were a Jew.
In Angel Wagenstein's Isaac's Torah, the author's most recent work translated into English, published by Handsel Books and distributed in Canada by Random House Canada, we follow the life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, one of those "lucky" few to have survived. I'm not normally one for reading "Holocaust fiction," as I call it, books that detail the suffering and horrors of the camps, but the way the book was described made me think this would not be the usual book about this period of history.
Among the Jews of Eastern Europe, long accustomed to poverty and persecution, humour was one of the few reliefs they had from the drudgery of their existence. Aside from jokes that deflected anti-semitic attitudes around them, or deflated the pompous in order to remind people they were all equal in the eyes of God, one of the more popular comic traditions is the fool. While this fool is very often an object of ridicule, he is also like the Fool in Tarot decks who, although always on the verge of falling off the cliff, manages to somehow never quite topple over the edge. So it is with Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld as he weaves his unsteady way through life.
From a very early age he learns that if you act the fool chances are that not many are going to take you seriously enough to consider you a threat or worry about what you're doing. At various points throughout the story Isaac draws upon this rich vein of Jewish humour to help tell his story. Aside from providing momentary relief from the events that Isaac finds himself helplessly propelled through, these jokes also often serve as moral lessons and parables. They offer a kind of backwards logic that throws the absurdity of a world in chaos into relief, helping you see just how ridiculous life can be.
For example, Mendel was looking to take the train from his home to Moscow and he goes up to the wicket where's he's told the price of a ticket to Moscow will be 20 rubbles. When he tries to bargain and offer 15 he's told to go away. So, he goes to the back of the line and eventually ends up at the wicket again where he again he offers 15 rubbles for the 20 rubble ticket, and is again told there will be none of that and to be off with him. So, again he goes to the back of the line, and this time when he gets to the wicket the train to Moscow is pulling out of the station – and he looks into the wicket and says to the clerk, in his most satisfied voice, "Now look, you've missed out on fifteen rubbles".
How ridiculous is Isaac's life? Well he's drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army just in time for the war to end and comes home to discover that he's now Polish. In 1939 he's drafted into the Polish army to defend his homeland against the German invasion in the West, and just as he and his troops are preparing to head out Russian tanks pull into their village. In June of 1941 when he's drafted into the Russian army to go East to Manchuria to fight off the invading Japanese, the train he's travelling on is bombed by the German airforce as he gets caught in the opening salvo of that invasion.
As he says, it's a good thing they come from a small Jewish town. Russian trains never stop in Jewish villages, so he'd become adept at boarding and disembarking trains through the windows while they are moving. Otherwise he might have been scattered around the wheat field with the rest of the train. As it is, he is now a Jew in German-occupied Russia, which isn't exactly the healthiest of circumstances. Lucky for him, though, he is able to acquire identification papers that recognize him as a Polish national, which should keep him safe. However, he has the misfortune to be caught out on the street when three trucks pull up and grab everybody off the street to come and do emergency war work for his new fatherland – and he's shipped off to Germany.
However, things don't turn out so bad for him. As a Jew he speaks Yiddish, which is as close to German as you can get without speaking German. So when the labour camp's commandant asks if any of new workers can speak German without sounding too much like an idiot, Isaac volunteers. All is well, until one day a general roll is called and two Gestapo agents come into camp and take every tenth person away in trucks. The hundred men, among whom of course Isaac finds himself, are taken to a prison where they are locked up with other undesirables of the state: Jews, Communists, Gypsies, and even some real criminals. In the middle of the night the guards come into the cell blocks yelling Jews move, and foolishly Isaac responds only to find himself on a train heading for a concentration camp. Which may sound pretty awful, and it is, but he finds out later that the other 99 people he came to the jail with were taken out and shot the next morning.
Like the Fool, Isaac blindly steps off the edges of cliffs and makes it through, yet lest you think this is a light-hearted romp through one of the darkest periods of modern history, his wife and children either die in the camps or fighting the Germans. His village's Jewish population, as all the fit men had been sent to fight the Japanese, wasn't even considered worth sending to a concentration camp. They were herded out of their houses one night, lined up at the edge of a ravine, and machine gunned. The ravine was then filled in with gravel and everybody he had known, including his parents and the rest of his family, ended up in that mass grave.
There are no lurid details of conditions in the camps, Isaac says why should he talk about that as others have done so before him and he figures he can spare us and him details, yet still sorrow stalks the pages of this book like few others. It is a such a human book, full of laughter and love, that the horrors of what's going on as backdrop to the absurdities that Isaac describes are somehow even more disquieting than the most graphic descriptions could ever be. No matter how much we are able to laugh in the face of adversity, no matter that we are able to see how absurd life can be, it doesn't prevent us from tasting the salt of our tears or feeling the bitterness of anguish.
Laughter may take the edge off, and it may indeed be the best medicine, but it can't hide reality. Isaac's Torah doesn't hide reality – if anything it brings it heartbreakingly to life. At the same time, though, it shows how it is possible to find hope in what many would consider the most hopeless of circumstances. After all, as Isaac says in conclusion, if life was given us to live it, we will live it, there's no other way.