County of Birches

by Judith Kalman,
192 pages,
ISBN: 1550546244

100 Cigarettes & a Bottle of Vodka

by Arthur Schaller,
257 pages,
ISBN: 1894121007

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Surviving in the Third Person
by Sherie Posesorski

As many survivors of the Holocaust are compelled to do, Primo Levi kept retelling the story of his ten months in Auschwitz in his essays and memoirs. In his last book, The Drowned & the Saved, the explanation for why lies in the epigraph Levi has chosen from Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "Since then, at an uncertain hour,/ That agony returns,/ And till my ghastly tale is told/ This heart within me burns."

The compulsion for Holocaust survivors to tell again and again the ghastly and miraculous tales of their survival informs two recent books: The Country of Birches, a collection of linked short stories by Judith Kalman, a journalist, and 100 Cigarettes & a Bottle of Vodka, a memoir by Arthur Schaller.

Dani Weisz in The Country of Birches has heard her mother's and particularly her father's tales of their lives in Hungary so often that they have become as harrowingly vivid and real to her as her own experiences.

"Not for Me a Crown of Thorns" is the story of her mother Sari's early life in Hungary. Pre-war Hungary is a bourgeois Eden for Sari and her family. This Eden is inevitably ended by the war and the family's plunge into the hell of Auschwitz, where most of them perish. Kalman packs a novel's worth of aims into this story. In it she sets out to outline the family's genealogy, portray the character and legacy of Sari's family, recreate the social and physical environment of pre-war Hungary, and contrast it with the war years. Consequently, the story feels rushed, thin, and overdetermined. The selection of incidents seems tailored by thematic concerns rather than being an elicitation of the free flow of memory. However, the most problematic aspect of the story is the narrative voice. Sari's perspective and voice are marred by Kalman's use of elevated, turgid prose and a tendency to pronounce meaning portentously. When Sari is punished by her father for something her sister did, this is her response: "it incensed her to be implicated in Cimi's caprice." That hardly sounds like what a young girl would say, and neither does Sari's description of her father: "Apuka's passions played through his body as through an instrument. He had a quick, impatient mind that expressed itself in neuralgic aches and pains."

Those narrative and verbal strategies plague all the stories in the section called "The Old World". What could have been a lovely Singer-like fable of how Dani's father Gabor Weisz's family name evolved, loses its potential ironic poignancy in the telling, in "What's in a Name?" The storytelling sessions between Dani and her father began when "Gabor's mouth filled with verbs parsed in the past tense, and Life was rendered in the telling.of what Gabor described as an anomalous bourgeois, name-shuffling, gold-disbursing csalad clan." Sentences and sentiments like these, along with a too discursive narrative, undermine belief in the storytelling voice. It's a shame, because the story is a moving tale of how a family's character and fate were tied up in the family name. The family traces itself back to Itzig the Nothing. Renowned for his generosity, once Itzig became wealthy, he was dubbed Groszmann meaning "big man". This remained the family name for generations, until Gabor's uncle decides to magyarize the family to Szemes, meaning "clear-sighted". The family is anything but clear-sighted, however, refusing to flee from Hungary. And so Gabor's family suffers the same fate as Sari's, and Gabor becomes Gabor the Nothing, who takes his late father's given name Weisz as his surname.

In the title story, the romance of Sari and Gabor in 1945 is told. Here again, Kalman is trying to cover too much ground, and the result is a story that is crammed with incident yet frustratingly sketchy, narrated in a prose so Latinate that its formality drains the characters and the story of its emotional and dramatic impact. All the stories in this section, rich with distinctive, finely drawn characters and dramatic incidents, cry out for the expansiveness of the novel.

Kalman comes into her own in the stories in "The Grey World" and "The New World", which focus on the adjustments, but never assimilation, of Sari and Gabor, and their daughters, Lillian and Dani, first in London, England, then in Montreal. There is an appealing immediacy, ease, and fluidity to the storytelling, and in the writing, that is lacking in the earlier stories. That is largely due to the tighter, compressed focus of the story lines and to the intense, strong, vital presence of Dani, whose natural-sounding narration is a seamless blend of a child's sharp-eyed perspective with an adult's insight and understanding. Not only is she the family historian, but also the family's truth-teller, and their bridge between the old and the new world.

In the stories set in London, Dani is frustrated and frightened when confronted with her parents' vulnerabilities and bewilderment. Suddenly, she and her older sister Lillian are thrust into the roles of having to look out for their parents, since they have picked up English more easily. In fact, Lillian has adjusted all too well, and her assimilation and her embrace of all things English become a source of conflict in the family. Long after they have moved to Montreal, Lillian is shoving English books at Dani, who'd much rather read about the Hardy boys than about a bunch of English schoolgirls at an abbey.

Dani and her parents, however, resist the tidal wave pull of assimilation. Both her uncle in London and her aunt in Montreal have converted to Christianity, and their children do not know anything of their parents' past, which horrifies Dani's parents. Her parents are constantly being criticized by the relatives when, God forbid, they slip a word of Hungarian into the conversation and because they remain so Jewish. Their relatives can't understand why Gabor gravitates towards the Jewish shopping and business areas of Montreal, and he only has contempt for their conversions or their reform synagogues; as he says, "Who ever heard of a choir in a shul? They don't know the difference between a synagogue and a basilica." To make sure that Dani does, he keeps on telling her his family stories. So when she is assigned a school project on Jesus, she complains to her mother that she can't do it because it's against her religion. Her mother's exasperated response to yet another act of rebellion from Dani is "I wish it were against your religion to have such a mouth."

An indelible family portrait of four fierce, uncompromising, formidably individual individuals emerges in these stories of how each makes a way in the new world.

For twenty years after World War II, Arthur Schaller could not speak about his wartime experiences, as he states in his preface to 100 Cigarettes & a Bottle of Vodka. When he was able to do so, he could only speak about himself in the third person. On what drove him to speak, and to write his memoir, beyond his stated desire to honour his parents and brother, he remains silent.

One can only assume that like many aging survivors, Schaller has been compelled by the desire to document his story so that there will remain a loving, eulogistic remembrance of those who died in the Holocaust and a record that can serve as a "never again" admonition to future generations.

Reticence and restraint mark Schaller's memoir. It almost seems as if he is keeping his wartime experiences at a third-person, arm's length distance, almost as if he fears being consumed by the pain and grief of his memories. There is sometimes a flatness and numbness to his narration, as if he still can't believe what happened to him.

His understated, minimalist telling simultaneously weakens and benefits his story. The advantage of his understated manner is that frequently his experiences, particularly those when he was passing as a non-Jewish Pole, speak powerfully and eloquently for themselves, without elaboration. The clarity and simplicity of his telling give his tale a documentary-like veracity.

On the other hand, this documentary distance, while enabling the reader to picture Schaller's family, world, and life, can make it difficult to intimately share his experience, since there is so little reflection. The little there is, is more a statement of feeling than an evocation of his thoughts and emotions. E. M. Forster once wrote that "the historian records whereas the novelist creates." Ideally, the memoirist writes in both genres, recording and documenting events with the fidelity of the historian, and bringing them to life with the skills of the novelist.

As the historian of his life, Schaller records his wartime experiences in a concise and straightforward manner. His voice is honest, earnest, and direct; throughout, his mentschkeit shines through: his kindness, generosity, courage, humanity, and love of life. All these qualities makes us want to know him better, and wish that more of his inner life had been revealed in this affecting and absorbing memoir.

Born in 1928, Schaller had a comfortable, cultured, middle-class life until the beginning of the war. Bathed in the love of his father Henry, the owner of a lumber mill, and his mother Halina, a music teacher, his protected existence revolved around schools, synagogues, seders, and music.

In early 1939, seeing that war with Germany was inevitable, his father began to stockpile food and transfer his money to the now notorious Swiss banks. War broke out in September, and by the end of the month, the Germans were occupying half of Poland, the other half being occupied by Russia under a pre-war pact.

Believing that the Germans would send only Jewish men to labour camps, not women and children, Schaller's father fled to Lvov, in Russian-occupied Poland. Schaller never saw his father again, and learned after the war that he had died in an epidemic.

In preparation for the Final Solution, the Germans took the first step of placing the Jews of larger Polish towns and cities in ghettos. In 1940, the Jewish area of Warsaw was enclosed by a wall. Over 500,000 Jews were enclosed in the forty hectares of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Along with the terrible hardships of the ghetto, the epidemics and malnutrition, there flourished a rich cultural life. There were libraries, orchestras, and theatres, in which Schaller actively took part. In 1942, the Germans began liquidating the ghetto. His mother was arrested in the first round of Jews gathered up for deportation to the death camps. Before she was taken away, she managed to pass a note to a friend to give to Schaller, advising him to go to a family friend, a Jewish Polish officer for help. Schaller never saw his mother again and could never find how and where she died.

The officer urged Schaller to escape from the ghetto and pass himself off as a Polish orphan since he didn't look Jewish. Very reluctantly Schaller agreed that it seemed best to leave his brother in the ghetto, and did so. He never saw his brother again, as Jerzyk died during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

For the next three years, Schaller became Joseph Szalewski. He worked as a farm-hand at a series of farms. This part of his story has the dark picaresque mood of Agnieszka Holland's movie Europa, Europa. The conditions were often harsh; he hardly had enough food to eat, his clothing was rags, and he was often infested with lice.

Each time the matter of his registration papers came up (all Poles had to be registered with the German authorities), he lied and said they'd been burnt in a fire. One farm wife was persistent, however, and the day she took him to the authorities to be registered was one of absolute terror: "my mouth was dry. Is this the end, then? Will I run again? Sleep in the fields, and dodge Germans like a hunted animal? I liked the place and the people. They liked me. I was a human being again."

To his delighted astonishment, the German authorities believed his story, and he obtained registration papers. Toward the end of the war, he started earning money by bartering cigarettes and food with the Germans. He became so successful at it that he had to hire another farm-hand to herd his cows. With his money, he bought a violin and accordion and rekindled his passion for music.

When the war ended, Schaller returned to Warsaw to search for his family. He contacted the Jewish Committee of Warsaw, and in a painful ironic reversal, the Committee initially refused to help him because they didn't believe he was Jewish. To prove it, he recited two Jewish prayers.

He had no luck in finding any of his relatives, and when he stumbled upon a group of kibbutzim heading for Israel, he decided to join up with them. In Rome, while en route to Israel, after hearing about an American Jewish Committee sponsoring Jewish orphans to Canada, he decided to go to Canada instead.

Primo Levi has written that the best survivor-historians "have the skill to tell what they saw, suffered, and did with the humility of a good chronicler," and this Schaller has aptly done. 

Sherie Posesorski is a Toronto freelance writer and editor.


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