"Only saints were gassed?" is the first note of disquiet that enters into the lives of Effi and Amir. "Only saints were gassed?" Why of course, how could the victims of the gas chambers be bad people? Crazy Hirsh must be crazy; why else does he live in the woods in his hut and wander onto Katznelson St. and yell such a thing?
Effi and Amir may not be "Old Enough" to be told about Shoah (The Holocaust), but they certainly know enough to know that he must be crazy. Look at them, they don't even have real family; they borrow people from here and there who become grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles, nieces, and cousins, because their families have so few of their own left that they have found people to play the parts for them.
If this is what our family is like, and every family similar, what kind of question is "Only saints were gassed?" It's a question that will have to wait until later to be answered because their priorities are to find out what happened first. Grandpa Lolek who fought with the Polish army, first charging tanks on horseback, then fleeing to join a Polish regiment that fought with the allies for the rest of the war; has no problems regaling them with tales of what he did during the war.
But of the camps, nothing, nobody wanted to tell them. Not even Grandpa Yosef, who could tell them the name of the longest river in the world, and arbitrated disputes about everything else on any topic. Like their own personal Talmudic scholar, he could resolve anything on any subject, but not even he could be drawn out to talk about the mysteries of "What Happened?"
In Grandpa Yosef's neighbourhood, Katznelson St. on the outskirts of the Israeli port town Haifa, nearly everyone was a survivor of the camps. One foot in the present and one foot in the past; it was Grandpa Yosef who helped them all straddle the line in safety. But it was also Grandpa Yosef who made sure that no one told the children the stories they wanted to hear.
But have you ever known children to be stopped or have their enthusiasm for a subject curtailed because they've been forbidden or told to wait for later? So it is with Effi and Amir in the recently translated Amir Gutfreund novel Our Holocaust. Being the resourceful types they try any means at their disposal up to and including bribery and theft, but nothing could break through the impenetrable walls erected to keep them from what they considered of vital importance.
On their visits to Grandpa Yosef's they could see the results of the Holocaust on display in the faces and the actions of the people who lived on the street with him. Aside from Crazy Hirsh, who in the end is not so crazy, each of the survivors wears the camps like an extra suit of clothes that they are unable to take off and hang in the closet.
Of course eventually they are old enough to be told the stories, but by then Effi has lost interest – she's a doctor now – but even though Amir is married and raising a son and built a life for himself, he is still moved to attempt to document what happened to the family at the least, and maybe even the neighbours of Grandpa Yosef.
It starts with Grandpa Yosef; almost like a generation letting go of a breath they didn't even know they'd been holding, they begin to tell Amir what he's wanted to hear for years. From the ghettos, to the camps, to the death marches, and finally liberation, but never really freedom, he bears witness and writes it down.
Grandpa Yosef knows the "why" behind Crazy Hersh's question, but can't or won't answer it. Others are far less reticent when it comes to the question and have no hesitation in describing the things Jews did to each other. Some of it was in the quest for survival, but some were just men who worked willingly with the Nazis for the sake of the power it offered them. But it was not enough to save them from the fate of their brethren who they betrayed, as they too ended up in the gas chambers.
Amir Gutfreund carries his namesake through an odyssey of obsession that turns him into as much a survivor of the holocaust as those whose stories he is documenting. He fumes over those responsible who are living lives of peace and prosperity, while their victims have no escape from their memories save in madness.
He worries that every year, even the year he is living in now, could be 1939, the year before the Holocaust spread its wings. Jews in 1939 lived their lives not expecting anything, just like they do today. But he can also see how within everyone, including Jews, is the potential for being the perpetrators of a Holocaust.
It's the ordinariness of evil that is so terrifying, how anybody, anywhere is quite capable of carrying out orders without question. Rounding up the undesirables, placing them in camps for the good of the country. That part of human nature is everywhere, and he sees it in the people around him. One day he thinks it could happen.
Without being a survivor, he turns into one. His obsession with the past and the Holocaust makes him want to raise his son to be capable of surviving anything. He must be able to survive a winter without shoes like his grandmother did or what will become of him? Amir can't understand: why his wife can't see that?
What had started out as childish interest and almost humorous descriptions of the children's attempts to discover more about their family's history, during the war, becomes, as the stories are revealed, more and more serious. Even though the author has tried to avoid graphic details, it is not possible to narrate stories of the Holocaust without including details of the unspeakable evil that men can do to each other.
Personally I've never been one for wanting to read about the details of the Holocaust, so it was with a great deal of trepidation that I began to read this book. Amir Gutfreund's approach of leading us into the stories by first introducing us to the people who the stories are about goes a long way in cushioning the blow. But at the same time, because we have gotten to know those people in advance of the stories and understand their connection to the Amir of the story, we can understand his obsession with the past and the way it is affecting his present.
It is still not an easy book to read, I don't think it is possible to write a book on this subject and make it pleasant. In fact in some ways that which eases us into the story in the first place makes it all the harder to continue as the personal tales of survival are recounted. Knowing the people involved, and listening to them recount their near-death experiences makes them all the more gutwrenching.
The author also makes sure that he doesn't take the easy way out and leave us stuck in the past with the stories. Instead he shows us that although the Holocaust is not something that can be forgotten, it is something that needs to be accepted and placed in a proper perspective. It can't dominate the lives of those of us who were not in the camps like it does the direct survivors, but for those who had family in the camps knowing their stories is important.
Amir Gutfreund's Our Holocaust is beautifully written document about one family and their coming to terms with their place in history. If you are willing to make the effort, this book will go a long way towards offering an explanation for why even people born well after the war are in some ways survivors of the Holocaust as much as those who lived through the camps.