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By Amir Gutfreund
Translated by Jessica Cohen
In my hometown of Toronto, Holocaust survivors migrated to the Downsview neighborhood to begin their new life in Canada. Staples of a typical Jewish community slowly emerged. Jewish schools were founded, kosher bakeries opened and synagogues were built and grew, including Beth David B'nai Israel Beth Am, known for its massive stained glass windows behind the rabbi's pulpit.
The art at Beth David included typical biblical symbols and modern day images of an Israeli flag and IDF soldiers coupled with Holocaust motifs. Synagogues set ablaze are meant to symbolize Kristalnacht. Deportation trains head toward Auschwitz-Birkenau and the infamous gates marked "Arbeit Macht Frei." A crematorium and concentration camp barracks are noticeable. Yellow Stars of David dot the area beneath the Holy Ark. The number 6,000,000 stands out.
As a youngster, it felt odd attending friends' bar mitzva ceremonies, and more recently, their weddings at Beth David Synagogue. For behind the joy, images of hell were on display. And yet, while reading Our Holocaust by Amir Gutfreund, I kept recalling those stained glass windows. The powerful imagery and symbolism on display at Beth David Synagogue also appears in this wonderfully haunting debut novel. Joy is coupled with sadness; celebration is mixed with mourning.
Take the opening pages, for instance. Grandpa Lolek is introduced, described as the parsimonious elder with a sorrowful past who resides in Haifa. He is a miser whose penchant for frugality was born during a different era on the European continent. Empty bottles are collected and returned to reclaim deposits. Mostly depleted liquid soap in his bathroom is diluted and refilled with water. Tea bags are used repeatedly before being inspected by Grandpa Lolek, who would estimate the bag's vitality and decree its fate. It's a process watched by Amir and Effi, the children of Holocaust survivors (like author Gutfreund himself), whose childhood was pockmarked with incidents of such oddities.
LOLEK AND his Holocaust survivor friends live in a neighborhood of Haifa, but they are stuck in a netherworld defined by trauma. Food is never thrown out at home. Why? "Because people died for a single potato. Because people turned their parents in for a morsel of cabbage. Because people were so starved that they ate wooden planks in their huts in Buchenwald."
Amir and Effi spent one summer with a family at a kibbutz playing an invented game called Buchenwald: "The rules of the game were simple: No eating."
That changed when adolescence set in and the two boys "abandoned the Shoah." Instead, they were consumed with their raging hormones, Maccabi Tel Aviv's victory in the European Cup and Yizhar Cohen's Eurovision Song Contest win. But as the generation of survivors begins to age and pass away, Amir's tortured memories and the stories he's been told creep to the surface. As much as he might want to, he can never forget.
Thus ends "1993: Our Laws," the first section of Our Holocaust, the anchor of the book's three sections. The chapter is packed with various characters, narratives, peculiar tales and troubling imagery, creating a choppy and disjointed plot - a literary tool used to convey a sense of madness.
In contrast, the subsequent chapter, "1991: Grandpa Yosef's Travels" is fluid, linear and ripe with rich descriptions. As Grandpa Lolek rested in a hospital bed, unwell, Grandpa Yosef, another family member of sorts, tells an unbelievable story of survival during the Holocaust when he was forced on a horrific journey with an SS officer from town to ghetto to concentration camp to liberation.
Gutfreund must have heard this story many times. How else could he recount this information in such particular detail? Rather than answer this question and spoil the conclusion, the afterword offers a window into the author's motivations and offers a small surprise.
The final chapter ends with the deaths of Gutfreund's characters, a natural coda to an unnatural life lived by the subjects of the novel. Yet this chapter, titled "Yariv" and named for Gutfreund's son, sets the tone for future generations who must contemplate life after the survivors pass away. Gutfreund is forced to reconcile his family's past with Yariv's future. What kind of life does the author want for Yariv and how will the Holocaust shape future generations of Gutfreunds?
The same question can apply to the younger congregants of Beth David synagogue looking to create a healthy new world for their children, yet remain truthful to their parents and grandparents' experiences during the Holocaust. Will (and should) a day come when the stained glass at Beth David Synagogue is no longer palatable for the worshipping crowds?
For Amir Gutfreund, Our Holocaust is an attempt to make peace with his family's Holocaust experiences. And yet, a nagging question remains. "Who will tell the stories?" the author asks, when the generation of survivors pass away. Perhaps the answer is Amir Gutfreund.
The writer is the television producer of White House Chronicle, a political talk show that airs on PBS.
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