God's Horse and The Atheist's School
Northwestern University Press
Neither Holocaust narrative in the style of Elie Wiesel's Night nor Jewish Bildungsroman (Chaim Potok's The Chosen comes quickly to mind), Wilhelm Dichter's two-part novelistic memoir God's Horse and The Atheist's School bridges the two tropes with a highly detailed and occasionally tender account of the author's harrowing escape from Nazi persecution and subsequent upbringing under Soviet rule in postwar Warsaw.
An inveterate doodler as a boy, the adult Dichter traces for us a series of curlicues through his young life in the tradition of James Joyce's Stephen Daedalus and Potok's Reuven Malter, from comfortable beginnings as an only child in a Jewish enclave in rural Poland, through a lonely, peripatetic childhood, and into a searching young adulthood in which the merits of Communism and Judaism often clash.
Despite, and in a way, perhaps because of, the trauma of war, Dichter recalls all the minutiae of his youth—meals, conversations, and furniture, to name a few—with a remarkable facility, recounting precise portions served, Soviet leaders alternately praised and excoriated, and beds slept both on and under, with a photographer's precision. Not that all of these photographs endure equally; in Dichter's experience, and because of his fertile imagination, memories and dreams can't help but bleed into and commingle with everyday life. A trip to the butcher shop becomes a terrifying retreat from German soldiers on horseback, tenses change unpredictably between past and present, and persons living and dead engage one another in dialogue. Even the prose itself has a photographic quality, where scenes, rendered and translated faithfully by Madeline G. Levine in spare, delicate prose, are separated with double-spacing. It's as if each memory, like the young, friend-less, sibling-less narrator who frequently finds himself a passenger on someone else's train, would prefer to stand alone, if only there weren't so many other memories infringing on its space.