The ProsenPeople

D. A. Mishani and the Mystery of the Hebrew Detective

Monday, May 27, 2013 | Permalink

D. A. Mishani is an Israeli crime writer, editor, and literary scholar, specializing in the history of detective fiction. His first detective novel, The Missing File, was published in by Harper. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

How I came to read The Hound of the Baskervilles when I was only 8

My fascination with detectives started very early on.

I remember that one of my strongest reading experiences as a child—when I was maybe 8 or 9 years oldwas discovering with growing terror and amazement The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I was reading at night, in bed, under the blanket, and I knew I was intimidated by this strange character, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, even more than I was by the monstrous giant dog he was chasing.

And there's another experience I remember very strongly:

I was 11 or 12 years old and I had already finished all the Agatha Christie novels available in the adult section of the municipal library in my home town, Holon, an urban suburb of Tel Aviv. I was standing in front of the library shelves that offered almost no other detective novels and asked myself: And now what? Are there really no other detectives in the world for me to read?

Many years later, as a young literary scholar pretending to write a PhD thesis on the detective novel, I found myself going back to these two important moments in my personal history of reading. This time I could ask myself the questions I couldn't formulate as a child: How did I come to read the terribly horrifying story of the hound of the Baskervilles when I was only 8 years old? And why was it that the shelves in the municipal library in Holon offered no other detective novels after having finished all of Hercule Poirot's investigations?

I understood then, that my own intimate history of reading, as a child in Israel in the 1980's couldn’t be separated from the bigger social history of reading in Modern Hebrew. I was facing the mystery of the Hebrew detective, or the mystery of the detective in Hebrew: Why is it so difficult to write a detective in Hebrew?

And for me, at that moment in life, it wasn't just a theoretical question, but a very personal one, almost a question of life and death, because secretly, without anybody knowing, I wasn't going to finish my PhD thesis on the genre; instead, I was planning to write my own detective, in Hebrew. I was going to write the first investigation of police inspector Avraham Avraham.

Read the second installment of D. A. Mishani's "The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective" here.

Joanna Hershon on Assimilation and Romanticizing the Past

Friday, May 24, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Joanna Hershon wrote about an insult and a memorial service she attended for a friend's father. Her new novel, A Dual Inheritance, was published earlier this month by Ballantine Books. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My paternal grandparents lived across from a canal in Long Beach on Long Island. We went to their house every weekend and—at least in the confusing palace of memory—I spent much of my childhood sitting on their porch, rocking back and forth on a glider in the shade. I remember my grandmother’s pliant arms, her strong opinions, my grandfather’s worry, his strength, his pale blue eyes. I could have listened to them telling stories for hours, and often did.

Because my grandfather was religious, it’s him that I think of first when I think of being Jewish: his broad back in his gray suit and his quiet sense of bearing the weight of the world. I often think that if he were a foul-tempered man instead of gentle and beloved, I might have had negative associations with Judaism. But my grandfather trudging off to temple is linked for me to how he was a landlord who could never bring himself to collect rent if the tenant’s child played a musical instrument; it’s linked to the poetic stories he told me about how the bluebird became blue. His Jewishness is linked with his goodness, and I see him in every talis, every yarmulke.

We tend to romanticize the past, the older generation. They sang Passover songs with so much more feeling, with more gusto than my parents. Now my parents are the eldest and they sing with more gusto than me. In that house by the canal, there were so many great aunts and uncles: dashing and troubled, sweet-tempered and oddly formal, fat and funny and weary. We miss our elders, their less polished style; their more (how, exactly?) obviously Jewish voices. We miss their more direct line to the old country—whichever country, the borders were always changing—somewhere in Eastern Europe. We miss them but we are not like them. We are more like everyone else.

Read more about Joanna Hershon here.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 24, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes by Edouard de Pomiane

Thursday, May 23, 2013 | Permalink
Last week, Rebecca Miller wrote about Gluckel of Hameln. She has been sharing texts that shed light on the history of Jewish life in France, the setting of her new novel, Jacob's Folly (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe series. 

When I was researching my last novel, my friend Michael Rohatyn found a book at the Strand he thought I might like: The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes, by Edouard de Pomiane. De Pomiane (1875-1964), a physician, was also one of the most famous chefs and cookery writers of his day. Born Eduard Pozerski, he was born into the Polish aristocracy, brought up poor but refined. Both his parents were Polish patriots who fought against Russian domination of their homeland; his mother fled to France with the young Eduard when his father was deported to Siberia for insurrection against the Russians. Coming of age within the close-knit community of Polish exiles in Paris, he was sympathetic to liberal causes and was a proponent of the Dreyfus cause.

His ethnographic book about Polish Jewish culture and cooking, written in 1928, was originally entitled Cuisine Juive; Ghetto Modernes (Jewish Cooking; Modern Ghettos). It is, perhaps, the weirdest book I have ever read. A tantalizingly vague recipe for Carpe a la Juive (“Take a large, live carp. Kill it…”) follows a horrifying description of a pogrom, relayed to de Pomiane by a museum guide who had survived the massacre by hiding under a heap of hay in which his sister suffocated overnight: “A corpse, belly ripped open, lay with its guts wrapped around its neck…A child wandered aimlessly, haggard, mute, crazed, its body beaten to a pulp.”

In de Pomiane’s writing, appreciative paragraphs about the accomplishment of certain refined Jews rubs shoulders with unwittingly racist pseudo-science. “I observed as a biologist…wrote as a scientist,” claims de Pomiane, as he cheerfully divides all male Jews into three types:

1. “The dark-haired Jew, with a long beard and a delicate, aquiline nose. His lips are often thin, his ears lie flat against his head. His eyes are deep, almost mystical. He is less excitable than the others. It could be said that he belongs to an ethnic aristocracy. He has an Egyptian profile.”

2. “This type is also dark-haired, and much more common. His beard is black, shorter, his eyes are bulging and bloodshot, his nose is squat, his lips are thick and very red, and he enormous, flat eats. This is the excitable Jewish type. When he laughs, he sniggers. The face, overall, has a cruel and bestial appearance. Certainly this type of Jew would frighten a child in France, even if that child were himself Jewish.”

3. “A third, and rarer, type is completely red-headed. The beard is shorter and divided in two. He has the same negroid facial charactersitics as the preceeding type. The lips look even thicker and frame the teeth with two red borders of eaqual sixe. Although they are red, the peissy look brown from being rolled, twisted, and curled between fingers that are constantly being licked.”

Having provided us with this helpful diagram of Jewish types, he takes us on a tour of Jewish Poland, beginning with Kazimierz, the Jewish Ghetto in Crakow since the Middle Ages:

“The whole place seems fairly, and in some places, extremely, poverty-stricken. The more so since the population is dirty and strange. In Kazimierz, everyone dresses in black, everyone rushes about in a hurry, they all bustle about irritably, pushing, shouting, arguing. One would think the whole city were in the grip of some nervous disease.”


De Pomiane believes that these poor, nervous Jews give us a sense of what the tribes of Israel must have been like, “these people who when settled among us became the educated and refined individuals with whom we are familiar.” So, De Pomiane argues, the less “Jew-y” the Jews are, the more European, the more refined they are—and hence, it seems, equal to non-Jews. Unfortunately in only a few years there was no refinement that could save a Jew in Poland, or indeed, France: being Jewish was considered a racial fact, not a cultural subtlety. But de Pomiane’s distinctions are fascinating because they are being spouted by a man who was actually sympathetic to Jewish culture.

De Pomiane’s observations are strikingly detailed. Describing the typical kaftan, he states, “they wear a long black cloth gown which descends to their feet. It is not waisted like an overcoat, but is slightly fuller. Two rows of buttons secure it over the chest. This kaftan is quite high-necked.”

And then, he describes a head-covering that can be found in contemporary Williamsburg: “Older Jews wear black hats of brushed felt. These head-coverings are worn very far forward, a little over the eyes, because on the crown of the head, under the hat, they wear a little black scull-cap.”

He speaks of prostitution: “Just as in the Orient, one sees in the streets of Cracow and Warsaw, Jews attempting to draw in the passerby to admire a supposed daughter or niece.”

And the book is not short of anecdotes: a friend of de Pomiane’s was tempted by an old man who spoke of a girl “as beautiful and fresh as a mountain stream.” Tantalized, he followed the old man into an ancient house and through a rather dark and very smelly courtyard. “The Jew opened a door; my friend entered a room which was quite clean and saw a young girl in profile.” She was a perfect beauty. Then she turned to face him and he saw that one of her eyes had been gouged out. When he left in a panic, the old man cried, “It wasn’t for an eye that you followed me here!”

De Pomiane takes us to a stylish health resort called Zakopane. There, de Pomiane finds a lot of rich Jews. “What is so surprising?” he asks. “They alone…engage in trade. They alone are rich, and they alone can afford to vacation in Zakopane.”

Spending time with these wealthy, assimilated Jews, Pomiane is amazed at their patriotism. A doctor he met “defended both Zakopane and the whole of Poland…he was a proud Polish nationalist. There are men like these among Jewish intellectuals who have achieved a certain status in life… having left the kaftan and the ghetto behind…they have almost forgotten Yiddish, replacing it with very good German. They call themselves Polish.”

De Pomiane the ethnographer paints a fascinating portrait of a class divide amongst the assimilated versus the unassimilated Jews:

“Try and imagine a Jew in his worn, shiny, discolored kaftan, with his beard and side-locks on his temples. Imagine him strolling down the Avenue Henri-Martin in Paris, which is inhabited almost exclusively by wealthy French Jews. Would he be welcomed as a compatriot by those elegant ladies getting out of their automobiles, whose children speak English to their nannies? Definitely not. These “Israelites” [a term favored at the time by assimilated Jews as more politically correct than ‘Jew’] avoid the Polish Jew, whom they have dubbed ‘Polak’.”

The book encapsulates contradictions and subtleties within the Polish Jewish population between the wars, but also within the writer himself, a Polish Francophile exile who loved food and had an abiding interest in Jewish cuisine. Beef Bouillon with Sauerkraut, Chicken Soup with Almonds, Goose Soup with Barley, Carp a la Juive—these recipes and many more are all lovingly preserved for the curious gourmand in this most curious of books.

Read more about Jacob's Folly and Rebecca Miller here.

Joanna Hershon, an Insult, and a Very Jewish Conversation

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Joanna Hershon wrote about a memorial service she attended for a friend's father. Her new novel, A Dual Inheritance, was published earlier this month by Ballantine Books. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I was twenty, I met a charming elderly man on a train in Greece who told me I looked like an angel. He insisted on escorting me to my destination. At some point during our time together, during the man’s patient explanation of Greek history, he explained to me that the Jews were evil.

I looked him in the eyes and said: But I’m Jewish.

No, he said, no, no. As if I was merely confused.

Yes, I assured him. I’m a Jew. This was one hundred percent true and my family (as far as we know) is one hundred percent Jewish. There was nothing complicated about that fact.

And I was raised by my parents to marry someone Jewish. There was no ambivalence there, no liberal-minded wiggle room.

When I met my husband in my mid-twenties, he was living in a small town at the bottom of the Baja Peninsula. He is neither Mexican nor is he Jewish. We fell madly in love and that was that. Though he is not a fan of organized religion, he agreed to raise our future children Jewish, but this was going to be my responsibility. How, I wondered, was I going to nurture a religious identity, when my own life didn’t include much in the way of religious ritual?

Before our twin boys were born, I tried to articulate what I wanted in terms of passing on Jewish tradition, and I usually returned to this: I want them to feel Jewish.

But they will, my husband always calmly explained. You’ll make sure they do, because it’s important to you.

But is it? I wondered.

It is, he assured me.

We’ve always spent most of our winters living in Mexico, and this was the fourth winter our boys have gone to school there. We have an international community of friends and it’s a life we treasure. This past winter one of my seven-year-old sons came home from school and he looked upset.

What’s the matter? I asked.

He told me how a boy had announced that Christians were better than Jews. And that hurt my feelings, my son said, because I’m a Jew.

It was obviously a distressing moment, but I admit I felt a tiny twist of relief. Because despite having lived a largely secular life, despite being part of a family tree that is one half gentile, there was no question that my son felt personally insulted. And though of course I don’t want my child to feel insulted, I was also grateful to know he felt this sense of Jewish belonging. What followed, that afternoon, was a discussion about identity and religion and bigotry. We asked each other questions, my son and I. We each went on at length. It was—I realized—a very Jewish conversation.

Read more about Joanna Hershon here.

Joanna Hershon and the Memorial

Monday, May 20, 2013 | Permalink
Joanna Hershon's most recent novel, A Dual Inheritance, was published earlier this month by Ballantine Books. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I recently attended my friend’s father’s memorial. It was held at the Faculty House of Columbia University in a perfectly lovely nondescript room with a bar. An elegant man with an appealingly mysterious accent led the service. I imagined he’d been a student of my friend’s father, who was a playwright and professor, or perhaps he worked for the University in some capacity. As the memorial unfolded, three things immediately came to mind: the deceased was roughly the age of the two protagonists in my new novel, A Dual Inheritance; like my protagonists, he’d gone to Harvard, and—though I knew my friend’s father was Jewish—there was no reference to it here. It was an entirely secular experience.

I thought of how my mother always says that there’s something cold and empty when an official service has no religious framework, and as so many friends and family paid loving and witty tribute to this obviously talented, stubborn, erudite, caring man, I carried on a mental argument with my mother, whose Judaism is expressed differently—more politically, more conservatively, less fraught—than mine is. I argued in my head for secularism. Here was a great example, I reasoned; here was a deep tribute without being defined by a religion into which my friend’s father happened to be born. He’d been orphaned fairly young, had a massive heart attack as a young man, had never thought he’d live past forty. He’d also been widowed young and had raised a daughter—my friend—who was now happily living in Berlin, raising a German-speaking son with a non-Jewish husband. You see, I told my mother in my silent protest, life can be so much bigger than religion.

At the end of the evening, after many remembrances, the man who’d led the service stood. He introduced himself as not only a friend of the deceased, but his rabbi. Though my friend’s father hadn’t led a religious life, he’d evidently been interested—especially toward the end—in questions of faith. The rabbi then introduced the deceased’s friend from Harvard, a man as not-Jewish as one can possibly be, an opera singer who stated it was his friend’s request that he sing this particular song, a song he imagined his dear friend enjoyed assigning because it was one that the opera singer didn’t know. I think he also knew how much I’d enjoy learning it, he said.

Then he sang.

It was the Mourner’s Kaddish.

And—despite all of those (deeply held!) mental arguments with my mother—that’s when I finally started to cry.

Read more about Joanna Hershon here.

Collective Guilt vs. Collective Fear: Shame, Truth, and Reconciliation

Friday, May 17, 2013 | Permalink
In her first two installments of “Collective Guilt vs. Collective Fear,” Randy Susan Meyers wrote about an essay in which the writer met with an elderly former SS officer and the plight of the ordinary German citizen during World War II. Her newest novel, The Comfort of Lies, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“The schools would fail through their silence, the Church through its forgiveness, and the home through the denial and silence of the parents. The new generation has to hear what the older generation refuses to tell it.”  ― Simon Wiesenthal

I worked for many years with batterers—men who were adjudicated into a program for domestic violence prevention, men who had beaten, hit, punched, and sometimes killed their wives. They sat and stared at me, denying with the most innocent of eyes the very crimes I had laid out in photos in front of me.

She ran into my fist.

I grabbed her arm and then she ran in circles around me, and that is how she broke her own arm.

She had a soft head, and that is why she died when her head hit the iron railing.

People ask if the men ever changed and my answer remains the same: only if they are able to face their crimes and cruelty. Denial, and the shame these men felt (whether shame at being caught, shame at hurting people they should have loved, or shame at their hidden crimes being brought into the bright sunlight), blocked their change. How do you change if you can’t admit what happened?

Questions of shame and guilt spill to the next generation in families where domestic violence occurs. Are children of abusers doomed to abuse or be abused? Can they inherit a denial of familial guilt, which prevents them from comfort in their own skin and belief in their memories?

Does awareness that your people were killed in vast numbers (for being Jewish, which you are) leave one forever frightened?

What does it do to the frightened, to have that past denied?

What does it do to the children of perpetrators of violence? How does one put together love for a parent even in light of feeling revulsion for the deeds they did or the beliefs they carried?

Should there be a scale of pain and justice here, for these generations now and future? Or should we accept that everyone is the star of their own show, that pain is always relative?

For me, it’s all in the truth. I take no comfort in lies, half-truths, and fairy tales.

I learned from my scientist husband that what is, is. This lesson crystalized for me when, after a lifetime of trying to run from facing issues of fluctuating weight issues, I learned truth could be freeing. Like most women, the size of my dress rules my mood, while at the same time I veil myself from accepting the reality of that number. Pictures where I looked like a whale? Bad camera. Skirts tightening beyond the ability to button? Must be shrinkage at the dry cleaners. Don’t think about those waistbands. Put on an elasticized skirt.

What is, is.

After a lifetime of avoiding the scale, I began weighing myself. And continued to weigh myself every day. And, knowing the truth, I lost weight.

When a nation faces truth, perhaps the psychic weight begins to fall away and collective guilt lifts. Recently a series on German television, Our Mothers, Our Fathers, gripped the nation. According to War History Online:

Reviewers have praised the drama for breaking new ground by showing how the Nazi system reached into every corner of life. Christian Buss, a culture editor for the magazine Spiegel, wrote in a review of the drama that while the question of Germans’ collective guilt had been resolved, the role of individuals remained unclear.

“Who has had the conversation with their own parents and grandparents about the moral failings of their elders?” he wrote. “The history of the Third Reich has been examined down to the level of Hitler’s dog while our own family history is a deep dark crater.”

I want to see this series. The closest I can come to leaving my fear is by understanding how a vast number of people turned to evil—and that they are willing to examine it right. Pretending that nobody in their family ever knew what was going on is far more frightening. If a tiny portion of a nation could truly commit such horrors with nobody knowing but the smallest handful of people—what hope does a frightened child have? If the grandchildren of American slaves are told, “nobody knew it was happening,” why should they believe it couldn’t happen quite easily again?

When I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC the exhibit which most captivated me was a film of survivors talking about their experience—in specific, a man who said that while he was in the camps he thanked God each day in his prayers. I don’t remember the exact words, but the essence was this:

“What are you thanking God for?” he was asked.

“I am thanking God for not making me him,” he said, gesturing towards the guard.

There is pain in participating in evil—especially if one feels bullied into that involvement. Choosing a path of righteousness is always easier in one’s imaginings, but it’s also true that evil flourishes best in silence.

Compassion towards those who feel forced to participate in something as enormously evil as slavery or genocide (whether in Armenia, Rwanda, or Germany) is a kindness that can only be meted out when a perpetrator acknowledges his or her role. A wronged community needs justice and truth to reach reconciliation.

Anti-Semitism, racism, and hierarchies of cultural, racial, and religious power are alive and well. Compassion towards perpetrators of evil (and those who blinded themselves to the evil next door) must be leavened with keeping truth in place. Smothering reality with blankets of kindness is in the end no kindness: not if our goal is preventing future generations of children from living in collective fear.

Read more about Randy Susan Meyers's here.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 17, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Ben Lerner: Working Against the Image of the Conventional Novel

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 | Permalink
We prompted this year's Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about "how they came to write their book." Over the next several weeks, we'll share their responses. Today, Ben Lerner discusses his novel Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press). 

A little more than halfway through my novel, the narrator claims: “I will never write a novel.” It’s only one of many lies the radically unreliable Adam Gordon tells, but, like most of his lies, it contains an element of truth, indicating his resistance to many of the more conventional attributes of the genre: a tendency to reduce the irreducible messiness of experience to a neatly symmetrical plot, the way so many protagonists undergo an unambiguous journey of redemption. Adam Gordon—like me—is largely interested in something else: in depicting the arc and feel of (often neurotic) thinking, the texture of time as it passes in both dramatic and non-dramatic experience, and changes in personality that are too subtle or ambiguous to register in novels concerned with grand transformations. I came to write this novel, then, in part by working against an image of the conventional novel—by writing my resistance to the form into the form, narrating the pitfalls of narrative. Adam Gordon is a young poet abroad trying to figure out if he’s worthy of his art, if his art can endure in an age of mass media and spectacle, and so his coming of age as an artist—or, depending on your reading, his failure to come of age—isn’t just something the prose describes: it’s enacted in the writing itself. 

Increasingly I feel that explanations of how a fiction arises are part of the fiction—that writers necessarily tell themselves a story about the origin of a work because it helps the work get written, or helps integrate it into a narrative that lets them move on to the next book. That said, part of why and how this novel originated feels clear to me. I’d just finished my third book of poems and felt like I’d temporarily exhausted my sense of the poetic line, that I wanted a break from the particular maddening challenges and pleasures of that form. Around the same time, I’d finished a long academic essay on the poems of John Ashbery, a poet who figures prominently in my novel (I stole the title, Leaving the Atocha Station, from one of his poems). Many of the concerns that I’d pursued in my poems and essays—how one makes verbal art with a language saturated by commercialism and militarism, the distance between what a poem aspires to do and what it can actually do, how the flow of time can be captured and intensified in a work of literature, etc.—remained my obsessions. I wanted to take these ideas about poetry and the arts and place them in a life, watch them spread out into a character’s experience, track their effects once they were placed in a particular body, mind, and time. One reason I love the novel—when I love it—as a genre is that it’s so absorptive; it can incorporate poems, the language of criticism, historical events, personal drama, etc. I think Leaving the Atocha Station came into being because at that particular juncture the novel allowed me to assimilate all my different languages and concerns into an overarching form. 

Actually, I’m not sure I think that; I believed it when I wrote it, but now (a few days later), I think even that general description exaggerates the amount of conscious control I have over the direction my writing takes. As many writers would probably tell you, the form and content of an artwork largely have to be discovered in the act of composition; otherwise, what’s the point? Maybe I should just say that one day I started writing—I’m not sure why—sentences whose syntax captured the rhythm of this Adam Gordon character’s thinking. Even when I’d tried to write poems, all I could generate were more of Gordon’s sentences. In some ways he’s an exaggeration of my most unfortunate tendencies, and in other ways he’s entirely strange to me. The book that unfolded was as much an effect of his language controlling me as it was of my controlling his language. Tolstoy once told an acquaintance that he was hurrying home to see what Vronsky would do next, indicating, I think, how much a book develops according to concerns outside of authorial control. I suppose the novel itself is as close as I can get to an account of its genesis, describing, as it ultimately does, a young poet’s futile resistance to a novel’s demand to be written.

Ben Lerner is the author of novel Leaving the Atocha Station and three books of poetry. Lerner has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010-2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College.

Collective Guilt vs. Collective Fear: Ordinary German Citizens During WWII

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 | Permalink
In her first installment of “Collective Guilt vs. Collective Fear,” Randy Susan Meyers wrote about an essay in which the writer met with an elderly former SS officer. Her newest novel, The Comfort of Lies, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“It is obvious that the war which Hitler and his accomplices waged was a war not only against Jewish men, women, and children, but also against Jewish religion, Jewish culture, Jewish tradition, therefore Jewish memory.” ― Elie Wiesel, Night

Like most Jewish children born in the fifties, the Holocaust was a constant shadow. If the German generation born after WWII suffered from collective guilt, trying to cast off the shame of their parents and grandparents, or convince themselves or the world of the innocence of their parents and grandparents, the generation of Jewish children born of the same time, suffered from collective fear.

I didn’t grow up in a traditional Jewish family (if such a thing exists) by any stretch of the imagination. The first time I entered a synagogue was for a friend’s Bar Mitzvah. But I read voraciously, and from the time I received my ‘adult’ card at the Brooklyn Public Library, I was reading accounts—fiction and nonfiction—of the Holocaust. The non-fairy tales of my youth were The Diary of Anne Frank, Mila 18, and Night (which then morphed to Jubilee and Roots, as I conflated the horrors of slavery and concentration camps into one mass of fright).

I grew up with a sense of doom—partly from these stories I consumed, partly due to my own family’s silence (my paternal great-grandparents emigrated from Germany, but I never knew why) and perhaps partially the hours spent looking at photos my father sent my mother from his post in Africa during WWII. That vast wasteland of desert merged in my mind with the nuclear wasteland I envisioned thanks to those elementary school drills spent under my classroom desk—the desks meant to shield us come the nuclear attack.

I never knew whether it was more likely I’d end up a survivor of a bomb, cowering under a desk, or sleeping on a wooden plank in an Auschwitz-like camp. Sophie’s Choice haunted me after my daughters were born. When I received an engagement ring, my crazy first and unbidden thought was that I could sew it into the lining of my coat if I needed to bribe a guard or save a child.

Should I compare my fear to the collective guilt of generations growing up on the other side, German children never wanting to question their parents or grandparents about their past? Can my inherited fear help me understand why the author of the essay, a woman whose parents and grandparents were in Germany during the war and post-war period, wanted to believe that the menorah on display at a SS officer’s house was likely to be a gift from a grateful patient as it was to be the spoils of war?

There has been a spate (or perhaps it’s always been there and I am just noticing it now) of novels about the trials of ordinary German citizens during the war. Many claim—a belief that seems most comfortable for many to live with—that the ordinary German had no clue what was happening. The entire Holocaust was carried about by a small slice of the population. Could this near-impossible-to-believe-assertion be possible? Or is it true, as reported in Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany:

The mass of ordinary Germans did know about the evolving terror of Hitler's Holocaust, according to a new research study. They knew concentration camps were full of Jewish people who were stigmatised (SIC) as sub-human and race-defilers. They knew that these, like other groups and minorities, were being killed out of hand.

Does this matter? Do we need to pound on the question of whether or not men and women in WWII Germany did or did not know about the horror unfolding around them? Does it matter whether or not this dying-out generation of SS officers and soldiers knew what they were doing? That their wives and neighbors knew there was a culture of genocide during these years?

For me, yes.

I believe lying and denial increases future racial and cultural terrors. Slavery bred concentrations camps, which bred Rwanda, which today breeds . . .

I want to know the plight of the ordinary German citizen—but I want to know it as it truly was—including deprivation and horror, but not painting away knowledge. I want to know how blind eyes were crafted—so these blindfolds can never be made again. I want to know more about the painful heritage of the children and grandchildren of the people of Germany who did know what was going on.

Check back on Friday for the final installment in "Collective Guilt vs. Collective Fear." Read more about Randy Susan Meyers's here.