This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:
Kristallnacht, the first incident of state-sponsored mass violence against the Jews of Nazi Germany, marks a turning point in history. Hitler used the shooting of a minor German diplomat named Ernst vom Rath by a 17-year-old Jewish boy in Paris — the story I tell in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright) — as the pretext for the sudden escalation of his war against the Jews on November 10, 1938. One of the overlooked but highly telling facts about Kristallnacht is that the Nazi regime issued a list of approved phrases to be painted on Jewish storefronts during the “spontaneous” demonstration of righteous German anger. Among the sanctioned graffiti was “Revenge for the murder of vom Rath.”
Here is another reason why history has not been kind to Herschel Grynszpan. When he fired a shot in anger at a Nazi diplomat on that day in 1938, much of the Jewish world was still convinced that passivity and patience offered the only strategy for survival in the face of Nazi anti-Semitism. The shot that Herschel fired in Paris was seen by his fellow Jews as nothing less than a catastrophe. So it was that one Jewish newspaper in Paris was moved to publish an open letter of apology to vom Rath’s mother in which the writer “expressed great sorrow on the death of her son” and implored her that “it was unjust to blame all Jews for her son’s death.”
Today we know that the Jewish response to the Final Solution was tragically misplaced. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, for example, Jews in Germany were required to surrender any weapons they might own. In my book, I tell the story of a man named Rosenberg in the town of Fürth who defied the order by throwing his Browning pistol into the Pegnitz River. A time would come soon when the ghetto fighters and partisans in eastern Europe would risk their lives to add a single battered weapon to their tragically sparse arsenals, and yet the thought apparently never occurred to Rosenberg that he might one day need a weapon to defend himself against the government that sent the Brownshirts into the streets on Kristallnacht.
Of course, the Nazis themselves claimed to see a threat in the Jewish population of Europe. Himmler, the master architect of the Holocaust, once told his Nazi comrades that it would have been “cowardly” for him to spare Jewish children form mass murder precisely because they would “grow up to be the avengers who would kill our fathers and our grandchildren.” That was the whole point of the show trial that Hitler planned and Herschel foiled. Jewish vengeance only came later and never posed a real obstacle to the Final Solution, but we cannot deny that Herschel Grynszpan was one of the first Jewish resisters. To dismiss young Herschel as nothing more than a distraught adolescent — or the aggrieved victim of a homosexual seduction — is to ignore the meaning that he fully intended to convey to the world when he picked up a gun.
“For three lines in history that will be written about the youth who fought and did not go like sheep to the slaughter,” declared Dolek Liebeskind, a member of the Zionist underground in the Cracow ghetto, “it is even worth dying.” One of my goals in writing The Short, Strange Live of Herschel Grynszpan has been to afford him something more than three lines in the history of Jewish resistance.
Jonathan Kirsch is author of 13 books, book editor of The Jewish Journal, and an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.
Before I’m labeled a raging feminist for mentioning that gunmen have been men, I’m telling you I love men but hate machismo. This is a call to purge the world of macho “gunitis” (to coin a new word) like it was hepatitis.
The Gun mystique is glaringly present world over: in every park or city square, there’s a monument mounted on high of some big general flashing his sword or some GI Joe clutching his bayonet. I used to wheel my baby grandson Mendy in Central Park and I made sure to point out (even though he was only two years old) that there was no glory in carrying a rifle, no pride in wearing a uniform. My indoctrination began when I saw his delicate baby face looking up at the fierce military statue on 71st Street and fifth Avenue. A group of bronzed soldiers appear to be falling onto the ground. “Oh,” I whined, “my goodness, look, Sweetie, the soldiers are going to get all dirty; what do you think the soldiers should do?”
Baby Mendy blurted out loud and clear, “they should go home to their Mommies.”
It’s confounding, isn’t it, how some baby boys when they become toddlers, play “bang, bang, you’re dead.” Where did these darlings learn this?
Please don’t laugh and think it’s cute. Even toy water guns should be banned. A young woman I know argued there’s no use—that her kid would substitute a spoon or a stick or something else if he did not have his toy gun. I told her, “that’s fine. Let him shoot with a spoon or a stick—at least he won’t aim with what looks like a gun.”
At the birthday party of my grandson Adam when he was three—as he unwrapped the present from his baby sitter who brought this flashy toy gun all the way from China—I announced aloud, “Nana hates that toy gun.” I did not care whether my testy remark was heard in the noisy celebration; I even held my nose for emphasis as though the gun smelled bad as everyone stared at me.
Next time I visited, little Adam said, “Nana, I hid my gun in the drawer because I knew you were coming!”
“Goody,” I applauded. “Now I don’t have to see that terrible ugh, ugly, pukey gun.” And this time I wrinkled my nose and opened my mouth pretending I was about to throw up.” It’s a start. Better to indoctrinate a sense of loathing instead of raising shaking my head and shrugging off the boys-will-be-boys syndrome.
Notice how “gunitis” creeps into our nice well wishing:Congratulations, make a killing!
It’s terrific, dynamite!
Don’t give up - stick by your guns!
It’s certain, surefire!
I’m not kidding - I’m dead serious!
You’ll be one of the top guns!
You’ll be one of the big shots!
Compliments are spiced with “Gunitis” too like when a guy raves about a gorgeous woman to his bar pals or locker room buddies:
Man, she's a pistol,
She’s a knockout,
She’s a bombshell,
She slays me!
The NY Times reported that Batman sales were high despite the shootings. “Studio officials in private spent the weekend marveling at the ability of The Dark Knight to maintain much of its momentum in the wake of the killings. The total cost of this PG movie was over 400 million dollars; they took in 162 million. This summer, Warner will release Man of Steel featuring an updated version of Superman.”
What’s creepier is the immediate reaction to the Colorado shooting reported in The NY Times as ”a scramble to buy guns.”
It’s The Great Disconnect.
The cry for gun control, a global keening, could not be heard through the wall of silence that has been built in tandem with the National Rifle Association. There are efforts to prohibit sugary drinks, but there had been no such effort for a prohibition on guns.
Only now, with the massacre of children in their school, has the wall of silence been pierced.
There is an urgency for a quick temporary solution until the crucial day when the sale of all guns becomes illegal except for use in the police and military:
1. Here is my own temporary solution:
OK, guns can be legally sold (go sell, go to hell); however, guns can only be legally sold to women!
(Watch ninety percent of gun sales go up in smoke!)
The regulations would include these rulings:
Armaments cannot be mailed: Metal detectors would be used in the post office as in the airport; women over the age of 21 may buy guns but only in person; the buyers and the sellers will be photographed; the buyer’s personal history will be recorded by police officers standing guard at gun stores – current and past addresses, name of spouse or partner, place of employment.
See, this temporary law makes perfect sense; males are not in need of protection from gunwomen, because for the most part there have been no gunwomen to fear.
2. Bullets should cost a million dollars, says Chris Rock. No one would be able to afford them.
3. My 13-year-old granddaughter, Melea, suggested that psychological workshops be mandatory in high school just as phys.ed is mandatory. Expert psychologists and drama therapists would discern problem tendencies and alert parents so that mental health workers can treat these symptoms before they become the poisonous insanity we have been witnessing.
4. Now, after the most tragic killing of children in the supposed safety of their school, the President had better ban the assault weapons that can kill one hundred at once. The President had better make sure there are required intensive background checks which does not take away (oh, g-d forbid!) owning guns.
Helène Aylon is an Activist Artist whose work has been shown in MoMA, the Whitney and the Warhol museums. Her memoir, published by the Feminist Press, is called Whatever is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist.
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, Shani Boianjiu discusses writing her novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid (Hogarth).
Jews are known for asking questions. From the Four Questions in the Passover Haggadah to the Jewish teaching style, questions have an important role in the histories of Jews from all corners of the Diaspora and are also a distinctive feature of Israeli culture. Brash Israelis like myself are famous for asking inappropriate questions at inappropriate times. Questions are also an integral part of stories. Every story I ever wrote was my attempt to answer a question that would not leave me alone.
Questions can make the one questioned defensive because they are all too often actually differing opinions rather than questions. Differing opinions being, of course, one more thing Jews are known for. I know that questions about my book can make me defensive. When I am asked why I wrote my book in English, what I hear is that I should have written it in Hebrew, my native language. When I am asked why my first novel focused on female Israeli soldiers, I wonder what is wrong with writing about that.
By far, the questions that leave me most speechless are the many political questions I receive from both left and right. This is because these questions are most often actually specific assertions of differing opinions. The person asking them wants to know why I did not use my fiction to advance his own political view regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.
It was not my goal to advance one specific statement about anything when I wrote this book. I started writing fiction because I could not not write. I spent countless hours staring into sand during long army guarding shifts and the only way I could pass the time was through telling and re-telling stories to myself, tweaking every image and word dozens of times. By the time I finally got a few days at home and had access to a computer, I already knew the words I would write by heart.
A few years later, when I was in college in the U.S., I wrote entirely different stories, but the way in which I wrote did not change much. I would let sentences and characters and scenes live inside my head for a very long time, and only wrote them down when I felt that if I did not get rid of them my head would explode. I wrote to answer what were burning questions for me: what it meant to be young under certain conditions; what a certain realization might taste like in my characters’ mouths. I wanted to write forever stories, and what was most important to me was to aspire to reach the type of books that lived in my own head forever, even when most of the time when I began writing my first book I failed and had to start all over again.
I did not set out to write about female Israeli soldiers. When I wrote my first book I was only a couple of years past my own service days. It only made sense to me that the characters I most wanted to spend time with were close to me in age. And military service just happens to be a fact of life for young Israeli females. I did not set out to write a book about an experience rarely described in fiction. I wrote what I had to say.
By far the most difficult question for me to answer is why I chose to write my book in English. This is a legitimate question to ask any writer whose native language is not English. But for Israelis, who cherish the Hebrew language as our most prized accomplishment, this is a particularly loaded question. The opinion I hear hidden in this question is that I have abandoned the Hebrew language that others have worked so hard to save from oblivion.
Moreover, modern Hebrew is a recent creation; it is only in the last forty years that there have even been many people who grew up speaking no language but Hebrew. Jewish history is full of writers who wrote in their third or even fourth language, at times mixing and matching and bending the rules of the languages they were working with to create a language that was entirely their own as Jews immersed in their diverse places of residence. Judging by the many times I have been asked why I chose to write in English, this particular Jewish literary tradition is expected to have stopped with Israelis.
I always start my answer about writing in English by saying it was an accident. And, the fact is, it was an accident in the truest sense of the word. I fell in love. I fell in love with the endless well of words that exist in English. With the ambiguities and subtleties it allows, the richness of the cultures it swallows, the sound of Hebrew phrases and slang as I transported them into English.
When speaking with fellow Jews and in particular fellow Israelis, I used to start my answer about English by saying I was sorry, guilt being another known Jewish tradition. But the more I think about it and hear the world’s response to my first book, I realize that I am not sorry at all. Is it not the prerogative of a native Hebrew speaker to fall in love with a different language? To celebrate her native tongue by writing about it in another? Is that not what being a nation among nations could also truly mean?
I am certain that the next time I am asked about writing in English, or any other question about my writing, I will start by saying I am sorry. But I hope that one day soon I can follow that by saying: actually, I am not sorry, I am not sorry at all. This is what I have to say and this is the way I choose to say it. The most I can do is ask you to listen.
Shani Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem in 1987 and is from an Iraqi and Romanian background. She was raised in a small town on the Lebanese border. At the age of eighteen, she entered the Israeli Defense Forces and served for two years. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is her first book.
“I have to protest in a way that the whole world hears my protest,” he wrote to his parents in a confessional postcard that he was unable to mail before his arrest, “and this I intend to do.”
Herschel is not the only young Jew who showed more vision and more courage than his elders in those terrible times. After all, it was the youthful activists of the Bund and the Zionist movement, both left and right, who banded together in the ghetto uprisings in Warsaw and elsewhere while some older and supposedly wiser members of the Judenrat cooperated with the Germans in drafting the deportation lists. (To be sure, young people can be impulsive and even reckless — we have seen yet more evidence of this fact in recent headlines — but we should not deny that sometimes a hotheaded boy can be right.)
Yet it is the young ghetto fighters who are remembered, honored and celebrated, while Herschel Grynszpan is almost wholly ignored.
More than one reason can be cited to explain why Grynszpan has been derogated, diminished and sometimes entirely left out of the history of Jewish resistance during the Second World War. In my book, I explore all of the rumor and speculation that has attached itself to the Grynszpan case, including a catalogue of conspiracy theories, some focusing on the Jews and some on the Nazis, which have been offered to explain his exploits. (Hannah Arendt embraced one of the more bizarre theories in Eichmann in Jerusalem.) One reason, however, stands out.
At a crucial moment in the Grynszpan case, when the boy was awaiting his murder trial in Paris, Herschel’s attorney made a remarkable proposal to his client. The French were fearful of war with Germany, he pointed out, and no jury would dare to acquit him of the crime if they believed that he had murdered a Nazi diplomat as a gesture of protest against the Third Reich. But what if his motive was something more intimate? What if the Nazi diplomat whom he killed was a sexual predator who had seduced and then abandoned him? If so, the attorney suggested, the jury might be persuaded to regard the whole affair as case as a crime passionelle rather than a political assassination.
Grynszpan rejected the scandalous theory of defense and insisted on justifying his crime as a legitimate act of protest against Nazi mistreatment of the Jewish people. The idea was abandoned by his attorney, who dismissed Herschel as “that absurd little Jew,” but not by Herschel himself. Once in Germany custody, utterly alone in a Gestapo cell, he saw a single way to frustrate Hitler’s plan for a show trial. If put on trial, he courageously told his interrogators, he would testify that he murdered the Nazi diplomat as an act of revenge against a homosexual predator who had ruined and betrayed him.
Here was Herschel’s single greatest act of courage and vision. He understood that the Nazis hated homosexuals as much as they hated Jews, and he recognized that they would not stage a show trial if he were to sully the honor of the Third Reich by characterizing his victim as a gay man. The decision was made by Hitler himself after he had been warned of Herschel’s intentions by the trial planners, and the elaborate script that had been prepared for the Grynszpan trial was shelved. Herschel had sabotaged the Nazi plans for a propaganda coup, but he also managed to cast a shadow over his own motives. “I guarantee you, if everything about Grynszpan’s case was the same, except that he slept with Anne Frank,” wrote journalist Jonathan Marks in the New York Jewish Week in 2010, “there’d be floats in his honor at the Salute to Israel Parade.”
No hard historical evidence supports the allegation that he had been seduced and abandoned by the man he assassinated. Indeed, we do not know with certainty whether or not Herschel was gay at all. But it is beyond serious debate that the explosive issue of sexual orientation that he injected into the case while in German custody cast a pall over his exploits. The Nazis were hardly the only homophobes, then or now, and his avowed sexual orientation may help us understand why he is treated so coolly even in Jewish circles.
Jonathan Kirsch is author of 13 books, book editor of The Jewish Journal, and an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.
by Alan Cooper
With the 2013 publication of its final (eighth and ninth) volumes of Philip Roth’s collected works, The Library of America (LoA) has reprinted every word of Roth’s thirty-one books, twenty-eight of them works of fiction. There will be no more Roth books. These hand-holdable volumes “printed on light-weight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age” have preserved Roth for the ages. It remains to be seen what, if anything, can guarantee a Roth readership.
This completion of the LoA project coincides with Roth’s eightieth birthday and with his growing conviction that the fiction-reading public is dwindling in the face of electronic quick fixes, perhaps consigning the traditional novel to a footnote in literary history. Roth has announced his retirement from the writing of fiction, echoing yet again what has been for him a triggering precept, Rilke’s “You must change your life.” Roth’s public and his readership (not always the same thing) have responded with due celebration and wishful disbelief.
Critical revaluations and predictions are popping up in print. Which are the great novels, which the merely good—or wonderfully good—and do the shortened works of his last five productive years match up to his standards? After fifty-four years of pounding it out, is he now tired? lonely? losing it? entitled to a life away from the keyboard? or to some celebration? He has authorized a biography and chosen the biographer. He has attended the naming of a street after him in his native Newark, NJ and the plaquing of his childhood home as a city landmark. Hundreds of people have taken bus tours of his Weequahic neighborhood to see, and hear rehearsed, the places and events of his novels. Two documentary films have been made about his life and works. Speculations are abuzz—perhaps there will be another full-length novel, about a man who un-retires; perhaps a Nobel Prize will top the dozen or so major awards already bestowed upon him; perhaps the Swedes will drop their anti-Semitism!
But at an eightieth birthday celebration at the Newark Museum, where an overflow audience heard praises of his astonishing talent by world- renowned authors and scholars and a moving response by Roth on the importance, especially to a writer, of mining life’s small moments and of accepting the finality of death, it became clear that his shutting down owes to the convergences of time. Other speakers stood, Roth sat. He walked with a bit of a shuffle, but his handshake was firm and his eye engaging.
In recent interviews Roth has acknowledged he gets tired, he has a medical history, he has sometimes felt lonely; yet he has a personal life about which he remains silent (it’s none of our business), and an irrepressible sense of humor. During his years as a writer he sometimes felt the panic of being between books, of not knowing what his next subject would be, of awaiting some thought or memory that could raise a question that writing might explore. He let the fiction come from the imagination at work during the writing, concentrating on the passage at hand and trusting that somehow it would suggest itself into plot, setting, character. Sometimes it did not. Any success might have had to await the rewriting. Authorship took time. Other claimants on that time might have been easily resented. His books were his children; his childhood got relived in his books.
It was a Jewish childhood; it has been a secular Jewish life. Alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman’s statement, “Jews are to history as Eskimos are to snow[.]” or Nathan’s discomfort in a church, where every symbol posited destruction of Jews, or the fictive Roth’s calling his fictive alter-ego “Moshe Pipick” (not to be expected from a John Updike) reflect a sensibility that has chronicled the Jewish experience in America from a humanist point of view. In his Newark Museum response, Roth read a seven-page reminiscence by his Mickey Sabbath: the gravestone messages of Jews—the “beloved” fathers, husbands, sons, friends. “The beloved are comfortably dead,’ he quipped warmly and softly, and then quoted Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it stops.” In an older Jewish context “…man lieth down and rises not;/Till the heavens be no more, they shall not wake,/ or be roused out of their sleep” (Job, 14:12). Good company for a Jewish humanist. Readers owe it to themselves to reread Philip Roth.
Alan Cooper teaches English at York College, CUNY. Notable among his numerous contributions to periodicals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His latest book is the young-adult novel Prince Paskudnyak and the Giant Bats.
My new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright), is the biography of a 17-year-old boy who sought to write himself into history but, ironically, has been almost wholly ignored in the scholarship of World War II and the Holocaust.
Herschel achieved a brief moment of fame in 1938, when he entered the German embassy in Paris and shot a Nazi diplomat. Indeed, his deed was the focus of a media frenzy, and one famous American journalist, columnist and broadcast Dorothy Thompson organized a defense committee that hired a famous French attorney to represent him in the courts. No less a world-historical figure than Leon Trotsky wrote about the case for the newspapers, and English composer Michael Tippett was inspired to write an oratorio about Herschel Grynszpan, A Child of Our Time.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, however, the world press moved on from coverage of the Grynszpan case, and he disappeared into a Gestapo prison cell after the German invasion of France. Significantly, “the Jew Grynszpan,” as the Nazis invariably called him, was well known to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, and Hitler was eager to mount a show trial that would justify the mass murder of the Jews by focusing on the armed resistance of one Jew. For Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis, the Grynszpan case was not less than an obsession.
But Herschel himself, no longer represented by famous lawyers or championed by celebrated columnists, was forced to find his own to foil Hitler and his henchmen. As I explore in my book, and will revisit in my next blog, the scandalous sexual secret that he revealed to his German interrogators — Adolf Eichmann among them — succeeded in convincing Hitler to postpone the show trial, but it also explains why Herschel Grynszpan is not embraced as the Jewish hero he sought to be.
Today, the world is divided into a large number of people who have never heard of Herschel Grynszpan, and a much smaller number who recall his name and deed, although even these people rarely know the whole story or the real story. My mission in writing The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan has been to restore the 17-year-old boy to the pages of history. Ironically, that’s exactly where he aspired to put himself when he took up arms against Nazi Germany in a symbolic act of violence in Paris in 1938.
Hitler knew Grynszpan by name. So did Goebbels and Eichmann. And so should we.
Jonathan Kirsch is author of 13 books, book editor of The Jewish Journal, and an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.
Helène Aylon is an Activist Artist whose work has been shown in MoMA, the Whitney and the Warhol museums. Her memoir, published by the Feminist Press, is called Whatever is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist. She will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
Remember the bedtime story about the sly wolf propped up in Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s bed? Little boys must have cringed in fear then, but for some in adolescent years, the big bad wolf became the persona of the big bad guy who is tickled "pink" scaring females and making them uneasy. In the fifties, it was a common practice for street guys to give their jocular "wolf calls" at the sight of a pretty girl walking by; the girl would pretend not to hear the obscene “wolf call” hastening away, as the guys chuckled
At how they were put at their “dis-ease” - the late Mary Daly's term for the disease of machismo.)
Then there’s the bull, forced to provide the cruelest theater, the bullfight. Picasso's self-portraits as a bull are lusting – he’s the stud goading the bull to fight; he is half bull charging crazily within the spotlight.
The cockfight is a spectator sport that sets up two cocks to fight each other viciously. The cock is regarded by the macho mindset as the aggressive fowl amid the flurry of mother hens and ducklings. But in reality, the cock is merely a rooster that heralds a new morning much as the Robin Red Breast heralds the spring. The poor cock - not only because of the cockfights; it is the cock’s misfortune to be bestowed with the perverse honor of having male genitals linked to its name.
In juxtaposition to the identification with animals that the macho male perceives as savage beasts, his projections onto domestic animals reveal his misogyny. If a macho male does not like a woman's face, he calls her a dog. If she can answer back, she's a bitch. If he can't handle her pregnant body, she's a cow. If she's an elder, she's an old crow. If she's young, she's a chick. And for his pleasure, she may become a Playboy Bunny or land in a cathouse.
Yes, the sick fantasies of machismo – the conniving, plundering, killing and ruling are projected onto the mystical animals and birds in the natural world. After all, male entitlement is a given, prescribed in the bible: “Let man have dominion of his skies with its inhabitants, the earth with its inhabitants.” There is no other recourse for humanity except to leap over the decaying abyss of machismo to land on new terrain – a newborn feminized universe like the first Paradise – that is, until Cain killed Abel. And let’s bring back the 80s slogan when we called for a nuclear freeze, chanting, “take the toys away from the boys.”
Read more about Helène Aylon here.
So: there's this story of that emperor who wanted a picture of a rooster, and of the master artist he hired to paint it. And of how that master just spent a whole year in the court, rejoicing and dining and taking long walks and whatever it is you do in courts (at least when you're the emperor's guest and not part of the help). Eventually the emperor got sick and tired of it all, which is completely understandable, and walked straight up to the artist's quarters (one might guess the whole court was terrified by his frightful, angry stride), knocked on the door and demanded, "Where's my rooster, damn it!"
At which the artist just nodded, grabbed a quilt and a piece of paper that lay nearby, and in one fell swoop drew the most wonderful rooster anyone had ever seen (the most wonderful painting of a rooster, at least. For it was a kingdom known for its attractive roosters). And the emperor was understandably surprised, and he said, "What the hell? This only took like three seconds! What were you doing here for a whole year?!"
The artist went over to the inner room's door, and he opened it, and inside were hundreds and hundreds of paintings of hundreds and hundreds of roosters.
And that's how I wanted to write this book. Aiming at this one clean stroke. Or rather, aiming at becoming that specific person who could paint that specific rooster. Writing a book that you can love the same way you love a person (as my editor, Oded Wolkstein, said. What he meant was, loving the defects just as much. Loving it like one loves one's child, especially in these moments when you catch a glimpse of these parts of yourself you're ashamed of or impatient with, but seen in him or her are both unbearable and endearing).
So I wanted to paint a rooster that's beautiful and damaged, partial but all there. I wanted to make an object. Complete and distinct, almost spatial in nature, like a physical work of art (and probably just as pretentious).
But I can't paint worth a damn. So I wrote me a rooster feather by feather, and kept at it until it spread its wings. Naturally, it can't actually fly. It can't even lay an egg. All it does is wake you up at odd hours. But that's literature for you.
Asaf Schurr was born in Jerusalem in 1976 and has a BA in philosophy and theater from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At present he is a translator and writes literary reviews for the Hebrew press. Schurr has received the Bernstein Prize (2007), the Minister of Culture Prize (2007) for Amram, and the Prime Minister's Prize for Motti (2008).
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, contributes book reviews to the print and online editions and blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/
Last month, shortly before the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, my wife, Ann, and I took a tour of Terezín, the fortress near Prague where more than 100,000 Jewish men, women and children were briefly held by the Germans and their accomplices in a transit camp before being sent on to the death factories and the killing fields.
Our local guide felt it appropriate to tell us that the Jews in their tens of thousands were guarded only by 22 SS men.
The guide was dead wrong. “[B]y the end of 1941, [Terezín] housed some 7,000 German soldiers and Czech civilians,” writes Saul Friedländer in The Years of Extermination, the second volume of his masterwork, Nazi Germany and the Jews. But the subtext of the guide’s remark is not different from the question that Israeli prosecutor Gideon Hausner asked the survivors who appeared as witnesses at the Eichmann trial: Why did you not fight back?
A good deal of Holocaust scholarship, in fact, has been devoted to showing that the Jews did fight back in greater numbers and more various ways than our guide at Terezín was willing to admit. Yehuda Bauer has adopted the word Amidah, a reference to the “standing prayer” that is the centerpiece of the synagogue service, to honor the Jews who “stood up” against the Germans and their collaborators, some with “cold” weapons like sticks and stones, some with “hot” weapons like guns and bombs, some by smuggling food and medicine, and some by teaching a few words of Hebrew to the children before their lives were taken from them.
The question of Jewish resistance is sore point for me, too. When I set out to tell the story of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old boy who was among the earliest Jews to engage in an act of armed protest against Nazi Germany, I was both saddened and puzzled at the way he had been wholly written out of history, and as much by the Jewish community as by the rest of the world. At a time when the Jewish world was terrorized by the Nazis, Herschel sought to call the world’s attention to their plight, but he was shunned at the time and forgotten afterwards.
Why, then, is Herschel Grynszpan not celebrated as the hero he fully intended to be? “To bring the attention of the world to what was being done to the Jews was an act of resistance,” Prof. Friedländer told me in an interview. “Why Herschel Grynszpan has been overlooked, even if his act had unfortunate consequences, is strange and baffling.”
That’s precisely the question I sought to answer in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright). And it’s a question I will explore in my subsequent postings as a guest blogger for the Jewish Book Council.
As it turns out, I found a few clues to the mystery in Herschel’s scandalous life story, and I look forward to sharing them with you.