”...the world as it used to be, a world run by the seasons, not by soldiers with machine guns. With harvest dances and girls who wore flirty, flouncy skirts, singing as they spun flax in their parents’ parlors. When neighbors helped one another instead of running to tell tales, where people made an honest living working the land of their fathers, where it was against the law to kill another man’s children because of how they worshipped or the color of their hair.”
Excerpt from the story The Jew Hater
Ultimately for civilisation to ever be considered a true civilisation we must set aside those things that make us different and truly see a child as a child as a child. If we can see the child we can see their fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles as simply slightly different people from our own fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles. We all want to live and prosper, celebrate and grieve, and pass on our stories so the future always has a chance to learn from the past.
Helen Maryles Shankman asked if I would be interested in reading an advance reading copy of her new collection of short stories and I couldn’t reply fast enough...uhhhh yeah!! The stories are set in the city of Wlodawa, Poland during WW2. When you read these short stories you will have a chance to meet people who are surviving through various means such as collaborating, or by fleeing to the woods, or by ignoring the brutality perpetrated on their neighbors and hoping and praying that the terror will continue to move past them. There are no rules. Violations are arbitrarily decided and punished. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time takes on new meaning. What happened to the Jews seems like something that was concocted out of the mind of a novelist. How could such an atrocity happen in the 20th century?
But it did.
As I was reading these stories I kept thinking about the background behind these stories. A book is never just a book. The tendrils of personal experience, family history, and other writers/books all influence every new generation of books. I knew there was a larger story surrounding these stories and so I asked Helen if I could ask her a few questions. She kindly agreed.
Jeffrey: One of the things I really like about David Mitchell's books is the way his novels are really short story collections with the tales wrapping around each other. In the process he produces this wide lens view of the story because he is allowed to break from a linear narrative. You elected to publish this book as stories, but with the way the stories are so interconnected you could have published this as a novel. Conceptually did you always see this book as a series of stories?
Helen: I loved that about “Cloud Atlas,” even though all I did was watch the movie.
Yes, I always envisioned this as linked stories. I wrote the “The Partizans” in three frenzied days before Halloween 2009, followed immediately by “The Golem of Zukow.” By the time I finished “Golem,” I realized that I needed to live in that world for a while, my parents’ world, the world of war and atrocities, of pure evil and selfless heroism and the many shades of gray in between, where every instance of survival could be attributed to miracles and wonders. As I burned through story after story, I came to realize that what I was really creating was a portrait of the town.
JK: All the stories are set in Wlodawa, Poland. Atrocities against Jews happened all across Europe. Does this particular region have particular significance for you?
HMS: It sure does! My mother was from Wlodawa. I spent a lot of Shabbat mornings listening to her stories, my mouth hanging open with astonishment. Mom’s war experiences were very different from my father’s, which all ended in tragedy. There were hair-raising escapes in the dead of night, fearless partizans, heroic Polish farmers, Germans dashing in at the eleventh hour to pry their workers from SS extermination squads—and weaving through all of them, my wise and talented grandfather, who seemed to be friendly with everyone.
A lot has been written about the Warsaw Ghetto. What people don’t get is that Warsaw was more or less equivalent to New York City. Imagine if a despot came to power and moved all of New York’s Jews into, say, the East Village. Even if someone escaped, they’d be in the middle of a sprawling city. Who would help them? Where could they hide? Wlodawa, on the other hand, was heavily rural, situated on the Bug River, the border with the Soviet Union, and surrounded by forests, farmland and swamps. Because of its unique location, it was possible for Jews to slip out of town and try to live in the forests, or to convince a farmer to hide them, or join the partizan groups that flourished in the woods. There were Jewish partizans, Polish partizans, and Soviet partizans, a turncoat German or two. Even without the connection to my mother, it would be a fascinating place to set a World War 2 story.
Polish Partizans who were by any means necessary trying to thwart the German war effort.
JK: One of charming aspects of this book, even though it is dealing with a very serious subject, is the mysticism that runs through every story. The world was in such upheaval during this time period that it would make perfect sense that things long forgotten possible might emerge in the chaos. The skies were clogged with prayers for miracles. At the same time it takes a deft hand to weave these magical moments into a story without masking the true purpose of the plot. The changelings in The Partizans in particular had me thinking I just fell through a portal into another dimension. Do you believe that "unbelievable" and "unexplainable" things (beyond science) actually happen?
HMS: Thank you for your extremely kind words, Jeffrey! The way you phrased your question is absolutely beautiful, so lyrical. “...things long forgotten possible might emerge in the chaos.”
Magic is the only way I can approach the horror of what happened across Europe in 1945. Without it, all that is left is grim, inexplicable reality.
I’ve been to Poland. It’s the most haunted place on the planet. In 1939, three million Jews lived there. In 1945, poof, they were all gone. Ghosts of Jewish life linger in the occasional random star-of-David mounted in a building’s facade, in empty synagogues pressed into use as gyms or civic centers or museums, in folk carvings, in derelict, boarded-up structures whose ownership is in question because the owners disappeared, in lonely, vandalized, overgrown Jewish cemeteries. To find out what it feels like to be in the presence of ghosts, all one need do is walk through the fields of chimneys at Birkenau, or into the gas chamber at Majdanek. There’s a place in Poland for the enchanting tale of the fireflower, but also for the tale of Marzanna, goddess of death and winter, whom children ritually set on fire, then drown in rivers each spring, in the symbolic guise of a doll.
But that’s the long answer. Do I believe that “unbelievable” and unexplainable” things actually happen? I will let my character Pavel Walczak speak for me: “He had lived long enough to know there were things in this world that could not be explained.”
JK: I was reading a Margery Allingham book published in 1929 this weekend. One of the characters was Jewish. He was a member of a gang. Everyone else was referred to by their name, but The Jew was just called The Jew and every description of him dripped with contempt. Towards the end of the book Allingham does finally reveal his name is Gideon, but I was really taken aback by the antisemitism displayed by a British crime writer. It reminds me of the time that I revealed to my mother that I liked a certain girl, in 6th grade by the way, and she said to me..."You know she is Catholic." My response: "Huh?" I was stunned because it hadn't crossed my mind whether she was Baptist, Jewish, Martian or Catholic. I just thought she had pretty brown eyes.
I like the way in the story titled The Jew Hater that you humanized a man who in many ways didn't deserve to be humanized. You really made him see someone he loathed as someone better than himself. Pavel is a complicated character probably the second most complicated character in the book. Where did you feel his fervent antisemitism came from?
HMS: I know exactly what you mean. In 1932, Graham Greene published “Orient Express.” It was wildly popular in its day, a book-of-the-month-club selection, and his first big success. Reading the book, I felt my face flame with disbelief and shock. Page after page is filled with stereotypical antisemitic statements. In the 1920s, it was acceptable to harbor these vile, ridiculous views.
As a veteran of World War 1, Pavel would have known that in the years following the war, Poland was in upheaval, physically, financially and politically. In 1934, Pavel’s crop, and perhaps his property, would have been destroyed by record-breaking rains and floods in southeastern Poland. Pavel was a church-going Catholic; in 1936, he would have heard his priest read a pastoral letter from Cardinal August Hlond, the Primate of Poland, asserting that Jews were responsible for fraud, usury and white slavery, that Jews were in the forefront of bolshevism and atheism, and that Jewish children were an evil influence on their Polish friends. The antisemitic Polish nationalist parties that were ascendant after the more liberal Pilsudski’s death would have explained to the poor, the peasants, and the unemployed that everything wrong in their lives was the Jews’ fault. It’s a time-tested formula; when things are bad, and you feel powerless, find a scapegoat.
The point of Pavel’s redemption was this: I believe that most people would drop their prejudice against a race, a religion or nationality if they only spent time with someone from that group. During the course of ordinary, workaday friendship, every kind of senseless hatred just fades away.
SD ( full title Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers-SS, or SD). They were the intelligence agency of the SS. Here they are depicted in Wlowada.
JK: We meet Commandant Willy Reinhart in the very first story, In the Land of Armadillos, which is one of my favorites from the book. He has the reputation of being a Jew Lover and is constantly seen interfering, when he can, to save the lives of certain Jews. As I learn more and more about him I start to realize that he is mostly interested in saving talented Jews. The best at painting, baking, saddle making etc. He was building a bizarre utopia of his own making. Is he based on a real person or did you conceive him from the clay of your mind like a golem?
I couldn't help but like Willy.
HMS: I’m so glad you liked my “Armadillos!” I love that story, too. It was very hard to shake myself free of it. I didn’t write anything for months afterwards.
Let me quickly address your comment about Reinhart wanting only to save talented Jews. In April, 1940, he wouldn’t have known that the official German policy towards “The Jewish Problem” was going to end in annihilation. (The Wannsee Conference, where the “Final Solution” was approved, took place in January, 1942.) Reinhart didn’t begin with the intention of saving Jews--he was just doing his job, organizing his labor camp, and for that, he was seeking the best workers. That seems like normal administrator stuff to me.
Willy Reinhart is a fictional character. I made him up, a charming, dashing, Alan Furst-flavored antihero. For a visual, I occasionally glanced at a particular photo of Gunter Grass from the cover of his controversial biography, “Peeling the Onion.” In it, he is swathed in smoke, crafty, watchful, bemused.
In part, the character of Reinhart was inspired by stories I heard from my mother and uncle about a man named Willy Selinger, a powerful German who protected their family until the summer of 1943. Selinger was known among Jews and Poles as “A good German.” Over and over again, he saved his Jewish laborers from German death squads, bringing the killers to his castle and plying them with food and liquor while he phoned friends in high places in order to get the executions called off. My mother smiled when she remembered the way he looked at my grandfather when he was talking to him: “He liked him,” she said. “You could tell. I think they knew each other from before the war. He never wore a uniform, always a coat and a hat. He looked like a movie star.”
With Reinhart, I wanted to explore a theme; what makes a man risk his life to save another man? During World War 2, so many millions just looked the other way.
Wlodawa Jews forced to perform labor for the Germans.
JK: As I was reading The Messiah I kept thinking to myself Helen is going to get herself in trouble with this one by depicting such a beloved Christian figure in a very human way. Has there ever been a better time to quit on the human race than during World War Two?
HMS: Heh...as I wrote this story, it didn’t occur to me that the Messiah is a beloved Christian figure. (Though I did borrow the Northern Italian Renaissance-era version of his looks.) In my religion, he is a much-yearned-for Jewish figure, especially in times of violence and strife. During World War 2, as things went from bad to worse, my father says that the people in his town were certain that the Messiah must be coming. My mother spoke of it, too. It was on everyone’s lips, a wish echoed in Bruno Schulz’s legendary long-lost manuscript, “The Messiah.”
I agree, there’s never been a better time to quit on the human race than during World War 2. But my Messiah gives up on God. He’s had it up to here with His master plans and the whole Heavenly Host. Defiantly, he chooses to rejoin the human race.
I did feel pretty sacriligeous writing his dialogue, particularly when he’s conversing with the angel Gabriel. (I didn’t have it in me to let him talk to God that way.) From what I’ve read, partizans were never the pillars of the community. They were the kids who couldn’t sit still in class, kids who disappointed their parents by hanging out with the wrong sort of friends, shaving off their beards and earlocks, joining the army, or maybe dabbling in the criminal world. Saviors were people who bent the rules. Or rewrote the rules to suit the times.
JK: Thanks again to Helen for letting me cross examine her. The book is due for publication on February 2nd, 2016. I hope you all enjoy these stories as much as I did.
Helen Maryles Shankman
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