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In the Wake of War

Two Novels of Memory

The question is not why we keep writing about the Holocaust, but how to keep writing about the Holocaust so that others will pay attention. In Displaced Persons (William Morrow, $25.99), a profoundly moving novel about a group of tightly intertwined survivors in New York and Israel, Ghita Schwarz approaches the unfathomable and unspeakable horror obliquely, as remembered by those who lived through it.

After the war, Pavel, Fela and Chaim come together in a Displaced Persons Camp, or rather in a desperate attempt to escape the camp and start over. Like millions of other dispossessed, deracinated men, women and children, they hope to find a lost spouse, parent, sibling, or even distant cousin, but will settle for forging a new family to sustain and help them as they face a new world, a new language, a new life. As Pavel observes later in the book, when all three have made it to New York, “A sister was the only thing that held him to the past. There were some people who came out with no one, not a bone left to say Kaddish for the whole tribe.”

Pavel needs to be “held to the past.” Others are more eager to escape it. Chaim, a son to Pavel not by blood but by choice and love and the sheer miracle of survival, is reluctant to tell stories of his youth even to his wife, Sima, who, fortunate enough to have both her parents, is torn between following her husband to America and staying with them in Israel.

Does she choose the new allegiance or remain bound to the old? Can she let her father face death with no loved one by his side, after so many have died anonymous and alone?
The questions that these characters, and others whose lives are closely linked with theirs, face every day, is how to honor those gone, protect those who come after, go on living, and manage to love after so much loss. The question that haunts the book, as it haunts writers, psychiatrists, and survivors themselves, is why some succeed while others remain mired in grief and loss. Why do some emerge from an immoral world to behave honorably while others learn the tricks of betrayal?

Schwarz does not answer these questions, but she does illuminate them with a cast of fully realized, deeply sympathetic characters who live on in the imagination long after the last page has been turned. One reason for this is the evocative pitch-perfect language in which they think and communicate. Schwarz has said she wanted to recreate the rhythm, pulse, and flavor of Yiddish in her prose, and she has succeeded stunningly. The novel is written in English, but I read it as if in Yiddish.

Brutally honest, heartbreakingly compassionate, Displaced Persons deepens our understanding of a generation by viewing it through the dark prism of its own haunting memory.

The Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman, a novel based on an incident the author overheard, also explores the conflicting demands of family loyalty and love, but here the clash is more explicit and romantic and therefore less haunting and humanly engaging. The day after Lenka weds Josef, he tells her he has visas for his mother, father, sister, himself, and her. A priceless wedding present in prewar Prague, except that Lenka has a mother, father, and sister of her own. Does she opt for her beloved husband and a chance at survival, or her own blood? The choice is one no human being, let alone a new bride, should have to make.

Lenka chooses, and much of the book traces the misery and brutality of her years in the camps. But through force of will, faith in art, and sheer luck, she survives and marries again, as does Josef. In the chaos of the postwar world, each has given the other up for dead.

Sixty years and two full lives later, in New York City, each is heading for a long-awaited precious moment. Lenka “had to pinch herself to make sure that she really was still alive to witness” her granddaughter’s wedding. “To see him [his grandson] getting married is a gift I never thought I’d live long enough to receive,” muses Josef. As Lenka’s granddaughter marries Josef’s grandson, another pair of lovers rediscover each other in this story of a love that refused to die.

Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, and most recently, Next To Love.