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Duty and Passion

by Manny Drukier
326 pages,
ISBN: 1896266967


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Survival as Duty
by Linda Davidson

The title highlights the themes that drive both the story line and the anti-hero Armand Wczesny. Conventional wisdom teaches that duty and passion are mutually exclusive, yet they inextricably intertwine in Armand's universe. The present is the milieu of Holocaust survivors attempting to normalize their lives and relationships. The past intrudes on this present even when it is not insinuating itself as graphic images and tragic undertones. What links the two dimensions is the anti-hero's apparent lack of control over both sets of realities.

Armand co-authors his Uncle Adam's memoirs about a group of Jewish partisans who survive Nazi occupation and immigrate to Canada after the war. Hearing that the manuscript is accepted for publication, he feels duty-bound to voice Adam's fear that Jewish publishers might "try to inject their own views into the narrative." The publisher's assurances allay his fears, but when the book is adapted to the big screen his initial fears prove justified.

The novel opens on Armand's meeting with the movie producer. Armand objects to the glamorization of characters in his novel, "the chubby blond children squeezed into the gas chamber." His concerns reflect those of many: Authors like Wiesel have often expressed serious reservations about popular literary and media treatment of the Holocaust.

Duty and Passion is an important addition to the genre of Holocaust literature. It invites us into the inner world of Holocaust survivors in recession-ridden Toronto of the 90s, where their successes and failures, relationships and business pursuits are juxtaposed against the backdrop of their suffering. Most of Armand's business and social connections emanate from their shared experience of having stayed together in a granary hideout. "Who were they, did it matter? Óall except one survived." History bound them together¨Uncle Adam, Armand's father Gabriel, Joe Rich, Yosel Bogacz, Shmuel the baker, and Charles Pascoe or Pasek. Armand's father was the one who hadn't come out alive. The other characters' fates remain inextricably linked in Toronto, for better or for worse. The recession of the 90s plays havoc with their lives accentuating past alliances and alleged betrayals. We may love them or hate them yet we find ourselves empathizing with the trauma that molded them, even with the repulsive Pascoe, a former wartime Jewish policeman, "who spent decades trying to erase the errors of his youth," an aspect of the novel that raises another controversial issue, namely that of Jewish collaboration.

The elevator scene early in the book is crucial in that it gives us a glimpse of Armand's psyche¨his past triggers and is triggered by his fear of imminent death, crisis or failure. It is also an obstacle to planning for the future, as he finds himself its emotional hostage, always expecting the worst. Yet he is also not above using his tragic past to evoke a response from those with whom he is romantically involved. Kathryn comments on the "undercurrent sadness in his makeup, he calls it facing up to reality. It colours his view of life, love, business. I find it disturbing, also beguiling."

After his mother's death, Armand refuses his lover's attempts to comfort him; "it's sinful to wallow in sybaritic pleasures when thousands were murdered in the cold darkness of gas chambers." The death of Uncle leaves Armand bereft of the one emotional support he'd come to rely on. These two losses are the turning point for Armand. He is overcome by an overriding sense of duty and is determined to outdo the Š614th commandment', defined by Emil Fackenheim as "the duty of the Jew to survive in order to testify through his very existence to the presence of God in History." Elie Wiesel was the first to describe the obligation of survivors to bear witness to the Holocaust. Armand, co-authors uncle Adam's memoirs, but he also seeks an alternate way to attain justice where law and G-d are unable to exact it.

At the chapel service for Armand's mother, one of the employees is identified as the Preacher, a war criminal responsible for the death of many Jews. Wirth, the Preacher, is dismissed as a result but argues that the "accusation [was] made by a bitter old man. . .the atrocities that he said I had taken part in, never took place." He is not the first to challenge the veracity of Holocaust testimony. Adam's memoirs contain a trial, and this is another reason for reading the novel. Drukier underscores the significance of the trial in his story. It is the one scene in the movie that Armand does not take issue with. "We got the trial right which is what is important," says the producer to Armand.

There are many wonderfully introspective passages that move the reader alternately to tears and laughter. Kathryn's letters to Armand are a sensitive portrayal of the female heroine. She stands in stark contrast to his estranged wife Estelle, beautifully articulating her compassion and love for Armand: "This is what I cannot bear above all, the enormity of their dreams being silencedÓPerhaps the container large enough to hold the Holocaust is our personal, and collective grief."

The novel's ending implies that perhaps duty and passion are not mutually exclusive, that resolution of one dilemma may lead to fulfillment in the other. Armand's role as "the great avenger" is fitting in our day and age¨perhaps too idealistic, but it satisfies our sense of poetic justice nonetheless. He understands that to liberate his black thoughts he needs to act because "a person who held his/her emotions in check was a walking time-bomb." His sense of duty to Adam and his passionate desire to redress past crimes against humanity drive him "to perform the last great act of his lifeÓ" The manner in which he chooses to avenge his people entails a twist, which comes out of suffering and the enormity of the Holocaust.

This book is highly recommended for a wide range of readers; readers who choose Šhistorical' novels, researchers interested in Holocaust survival and legacy, as well as readers who enjoy good literature which meets two criteria¨that of being instructive and entertaining. ˛

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