February 6, 2008 | 0 comments
This is an utterly beautiful novel about life in Nazi concentration camps, but the author, Fred Wander, nevertheless portrays the horror of those camps. As the narrator says, “No, we won’t presume that the hours spent standing under the gallows raise one’s consciousness of existence. That would be water on the mills of the despisers of life. Let’s take it at face value: dying means dying.”
Fred Wander knew whereof he spoke in this novel. Born in 1917 in Vienna, the son of a traveling salesman, he spent much time on the streets. In 1938 he left his family and ended up in France where, when the war began, he was imprisoned as an “enemy alien.” During the war, according to the translator Michael Hofmann, he was “an inmate of twenty different Nazi camps in France, Germany, and Poland.”
He survived to become a photographer and journalist who moved to East Germany. Though he was a lifelong leftist he grew disillusioned with life there and eventually moved back to Vienna. He survived to tell his story (the novel appears to be a thinly veiled memoir and you can tell when he is speculating or embellishing because the narrator tells you he is) which ends up being about the power of stories to help the prisoners remember, to go on living in the midst of the horror.
The first inmate to show the narrator this power is a “master of words, the magician, Mendel Teichmann,” from whom the narrator asks advice for telling a story. He knew that “[w]ords had magical powers [for the inmates of the camps], they could conjure up an entire beautiful lost world — a richly laid Sabbath table, the winsome loveliness of a Jewish girl, the heady aroma of sweet Palestine wine and raisin cake. It could take just one word to make the men turn pale, make them think, cry, laugh; words lashed them, choked them, made them ache and sweat.”
The narrator asks Mendel how to do this. Mendel’s answer is that “either you have it in you or you don’t.” He then goes on to tell of a young man coming to him back in pre-war days and saying, “‘I wouldn’t mind being a writer like you, but I’ve had no experience!’… How can such a thing be, I ask, and where did he live, because so far as I know there wasn’t anywhere in the world where you could hide from life.”
THERE ARE STORIES of men separated from their wives and children, of a son who goes mad because he sees his mother killed, of a father on a death march dying on the side of the road — when the prisoners give up and can’t go on anymore they just wander off the road and the jackboots shoot them — gently cajoling his son to go away so that he too is not killed: “Behind him stood the jackboot, like an embodiment of death. The prisoners held the boy’s eyes shut, and disappeared into the crowd with the boy. The bang was barely audible.”
The narrator at the end is in Buchenwald and as the jackboots keep calling out various nationalities for transport elsewhere, he does not go with his fellow Jews, he hides with the French and then sneaks away first to the infirmary then to the children’s barracks. The Americans are coming and camp discipline is breaking down.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online