In the Land of Armadil­los: Stories

By – December 9, 2015

When it comes to the lit­er­a­ture of the Holo­caust, there can some­times appear to be a glut of fic­tion writ­ten by those dis­tant from it, too often revis­it­ing the same bleak ter­rain of atroc­i­ty with the same tropes and sen­ti­ments. Helen Maryles Shankman’s book, by con­trast, stands out as one of the most orig­i­nal and con­sis­tent­ly cap­ti­vat­ing short sto­ry col­lec­tions to have appeared in recent years.

Set in the Pol­ish ham­let of Wlo­dawa — with the excep­tion of the volume’s brit­tle coda which takes place in the 1980s — each of the eight sto­ries com­pris­ing In the Land of Armadil­los proves too cap­ti­vat­ing and res­o­nant to sin­gle out one from the rest. Indeed, expe­ri­enced togeth­er, the col­lec­tion reads as a sophis­ti­cat­ed orches­tra­tion. So tight­ly inter­wo­ven are its themes, char­ac­ters, and grim events that it is hard to imag­ine any one apart from the oth­ers. These are strange sto­ries in which the mirac­u­lous per­se­veres amid the mon­strous as the mem­o­rable pro­tag­o­nists strug­gle to cope with hor­rif­ic real­i­ties. A col­lec­tion that depends on the reader’s accep­tance of his­tor­i­cal bru­tal­i­ties blend­ed with the para­nor­mal would seem an unlike­ly for­mu­la for suc­cess, yet In the Land of Armadil­los is an absolute­ly daz­zling triumph.

In the title sto­ry, Shankman riffs intel­li­gent­ly and haunt­ing­ly on the demise of the famous visu­al artist and writer Bruno Schulz, mur­dered at the hands of an S.S. offi­cer who sought revenge for the slay­ing of his own pet Jew.” Though oth­er writ­ers — most notably Rober­to Bolaño, David Gross­man, and Cyn­thia Ozick — have vis­it­ed Schulz’s art and trag­ic death before, Shankman holds her own in ren­der­ing a Jew­ish mural­ist whose art is brim­ming with lyri­cal­ly and moral­ly potent alle­gories whose mean­ing eludes the under­stand­ing of his brutish captor.

With each sub­se­quent nar­ra­tive, the moral and psy­cho­log­i­cal struc­ture of In the Land of Armadil­los deep­ens and evolves into greater intri­ca­cy. Though unspar­ing in its depic­tion of atroc­i­ty, the most gen­uine­ly shock­ing devel­op­ments are those that delve deep into the mys­ter­ies of betray­al, most con­spic­u­ous­ly of Jews by their Pol­ish friends and neigh­bors. Shankman imag­i­na­tive­ly turns char­ac­ters and events around and around, a mul­ti­far­i­ous real­i­ty encom­pass­ing the per­spec­tives of Jews, Poles, and even those of Ger­mans — most strik­ing­ly the per­cep­tions of the Nazi Kom­man­dant Rein­hart, a lover of the land and agrar­i­an life appoint­ed as the Reich Region­al Com­mis­sion­er of Agri­cul­tur­al Prod­ucts & Ser­vices. Immune to the non­sense of racist the­o­ry, he likes to imag­ine that he pre­sides over his own Shangri-La, insu­lat­ed from the insan­i­ty con­sum­ing the civ­i­lized world[…] except for the smell that float­ed in some­times from the camp at Sobibór, only six kilo­me­ters away, a smell that didn’t belong among the fields, the farm­ers, the forests, and the plowed earth.”

Shankman’s skill for descrip­tion paints the set­ting in bril­liant detail. Her capac­i­ty for deft­ly merg­ing hor­ror and nat­ur­al beau­ty through­out is con­cise­ly cap­tured in her depic­tion of the after­math of a mas­sacre: When the first chilly breath of night­time rif­fles through a young girl’s hair, even the sun shiv­ers, with­draws its warmth, and slinks away.” Many sto­ries reward with iron­ic twists and indeli­ble sur­pris­es — Golem’s true iden­ti­ty; a heat­ed argu­ment about the fate of the world between a twelve-year-old boy and the Mes­si­ah. Oth­ers are ren­dered in spare real­ism, exem­pli­fied by the chilly nar­ra­tive of a Nazi’s son scour­ing the coun­try­side of Wlo­dawa in search of atone­ment. Though each nar­ra­tive revis­its the same topos, Shankman con­stant­ly sur­pris­es us, out­wit­ting us by defa­mil­iar­iz­ing char­ac­ters and scenes we thought we had ful­ly grasped again and again. Every sto­ry presents its own myth­i­cal aura, lyri­cism, and hor­ror. Even ani­mals are giv­en their due, as with a remark­able tale about a hid­den child’s poignant and eerie friend­ship with a fer­al dog in The Jew Hater”.

A Decent Man”, the collection’s penul­ti­mate and per­haps most ambi­tious sto­ry, explores many of the pre­ced­ing events through the per­spec­tive of Rein­hart, who has the audac­i­ty to imag­ine that he has man­aged to pre­serve his human­i­ty and integri­ty through­out the war — at least until cer­tain events over­take him. In the story’s ruth­less denoue­ment, his self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tions are stripped bare, revealed as the dan­ger­ous illu­sions to which he, like so many oth­ers, pathet­i­cal­ly cleaved past all hope of sal­va­tion. In a book brim­ming with myths and fan­ta­sy, Reinhart’s fal­la­cy emerges as the biggest fairy-tale of them all.

For those inter­est­ed in the grow­ing cor­pus that has come to be known as Sec­ond-Gen­er­a­tion” Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture, it is worth not­ing that many of the sto­ries are based on the real events endured by Shankman’s par­ents, grand­par­ents, uncles and aunts who lived through the Holo­caust, whom she hon­ors by dis­till­ing their har­row­ing mem­o­ries into tru­ly trans­for­ma­tive lit­er­ary art. In the Land of Armadil­los is a sin­gu­lar­ly inven­tive col­lec­tion of chill­ing stark real­ism enhanced by the hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry ingre­di­ent of top-draw­er mag­i­cal real­ism, inter­ro­gat­ing the val­ue of art, sto­ry­telling, and dreams in a time of per­il and pre­sent­ing hard truths with wis­dom, mag­ic, and grace.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Scribner

  • The first pas­sage of the book is a love let­ter that a man writes to his wife. It is fol­lowed by an entry in his diary, where he phi­los­o­phizes about his for­mer job in the Ein­satz­grup­pen, shoot­ing women and chil­dren. What did it feel like when you first real­ized that a Nazi offi­cer was writ­ing the love letter?

  • Know­ing that Max is a for­mer mem­ber of the Ein­satz­grup­pen, a cold-blood­ed killing machine,” how does that com­pli­cate our feel­ings about him when he begins to care for Toby? How does it com­pli­cate our ideas of good and evil, of vil­lains and the righteous?

  • The first sto­ry, In the Land of Armadil­los,” con­tains short sum­maries of Toby Rey’s books. Max, his pro­tec­tor and admir­er, doesn’t under­stand that Toby’s illus­trat­ed fables are thin­ly veiled metaphors. What do you think Toby’s sto­ry about Bian­ca the blue cock­a­too and Aramis the armadil­lo means to say? What about the sto­ry Toby sum­ma­rizes for Max, The Thief of Yes­ter­day and Tomorrow?”

  • Some of the sto­ries fea­ture char­ac­ters typ­i­cal­ly despised for their acts in World War 2 – Nazi offi­cers, and Poles who col­lab­o­rat­ed with the ene­my. Read­ers expect Ger­man char­ac­ters to be evil, and Pol­ish char­ac­ters to turn their backs on their Jew­ish neigh­bors. In which sto­ries are our expec­ta­tions challenged?

  • Dis­cuss how the eight sto­ries are linked. Which char­ac­ters appear in more than one sto­ry? Can you name them — and in which oth­er sto­ries you find them? Which event– or events — is shown from dif­fer­ent points of view?

  • The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of peo­ple in Poland refused to help Jews dur­ing World War II. Why do you think that is?

  • At one point in the title sto­ry, They Were Like Fam­i­ly to Me,” Ste­fan, who is now an old man, calm­ly describes a mur­der he com­mit­ted dur­ing the war, while work­ing for a Ger­man killing squad. Erich reacts in hor­ror, and Ste­fan lash­es out at him. What else could I do?” he said rough­ly. You couldn’t just say no. I had to think about myself, my father’s posi­tion. What would you have done?” What do you think you might do under the same cir­cum­stances? Do you think peo­ple today would act differently?

  • Though many of the events in the sto­ries are based on events relat­ed by the author’s par­ents, the sto­ries fea­ture ele­ments of mag­i­cal real­ism — some­times less, as in They Were Like Fam­i­ly to Me,” and The Golem of Zukow,” and some­times more, as in The Par­ti­zans” and The Mes­si­ah.” Trans­lat­ed into art, mag­i­cal real­ism would be the paint­ings of Marc Cha­gall. Some oth­er Jew­ish writ­ers work­ing in this genre are Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Meir Shalev and David Gross­man. Do you enjoy mag­i­cal real­ism in lit­er­a­ture? Do you think mag­i­cal real­ism is appro­pri­ate when writ­ing about the Holocaust?

  • Shankman wrote that she was uncom­fort­able human­iz­ing Max, who has par­tic­i­pat­ed in some of the worst atroc­i­ties of the Holo­caust. She explains, Once we label some­one a mon­ster, we let him off the hook for the evil he com­mits. After all, mon­sters have no con­trol over them­selves. But if they’re human — if they have wives, chil­dren, jobs, hob­bies, indi­ges­tion, ordi­nary work­place gripes — then they are just like us.” In some of the sto­ries, Shankman explores human­i­ty in peo­ple whose actions brand them as evil. How does that make you feel when you read their stories?

  • Pavel Wal­czak, in The Jew Hater,” is the biggest anti-Semi­te in the dis­trict. He has giv­en the Nazis the names of neigh­bors who are hid­ing Jews, and tells them where to find Jews hid­ing in the for­est. Yet he risks his life for Reina, the lit­tle Jew­ish girl left with him by par­ti­zans. Do you think Pavel deserves to be redeemed? Is it pos­si­ble to for­give some­one who has com­mit­ted such ter­ri­ble crimes if they change their ways?

  • Know­ing that Pavel is The Jew Hater,” how does the title of the sto­ry com­pli­cate our ideas of good and bad, of vil­lains and the righteous?

  • At the begin­ning of the sto­ry, The Golem of Zukow,” Shay­na does­n’t believe rumors about Ger­man atroc­i­ties, and doesn’t believe in her broth­er Hersh’s ghost sto­ries, folk­tales and fables, either. Do you think she feels the same way by the end of the sto­ry? Was Yos­sel real­ly a Golem? And what does this tell us about the pow­er of stories?

  • The pro­tag­o­nist of A Decent Man,” Com­man­dant Willy Rein­hart, is seen by the Jews as A good Ger­man” and by his fel­low Ger­mans as a Jew lover.” Time and again, he smooth-talks Nazi offi­cers into leav­ing his Jew­ish work­ers alone, even as Jews are swift­ly being erad­i­cat­ed from neigh­bor­ing towns. At the same time, he’s enjoy­ing all the priv­i­leges and rich­es that come with being a Ger­man in Nazi-occu­pied Poland. How do you see Willy Rein­hart? Is he a hero or a mur­der­er? A failed Schindler, or a self­ish, greedy opportunist?

  • Hersh Mirsky, from The Golem of Zukow,” tells Com­man­dant Willy Rein­hart a folk tale about a mid­wife who deliv­ers a demon’s baby: One night, a mid­wife was called to deliv­er a demon’s baby. An incred­i­ble coin­ci­dence, the demon’s wife turned out to be a stray tab­by cat the mid­wife had been feed­ing. Though the demon’s cave sparkled with gold and jew­els, the cat advised the fright­ened woman not to accept any food or presents no mat­ter how hard she was pressed. Tak­ing the cat’s advice, she was led safe­ly home. Upon wak­ing the next morn­ing, she found piles of trea­sure heaped in every cor­ner.” How does this tale res­onate in A Decent Man?”

  • Willy Rein­hart, Com­man­dant of the Adampol forced labor camp, and Haskel Soro­ka, his sad­dle­mak­er, are friends. Do you think it would have been pos­si­ble for a Ger­man and a Jew to be friends in wartime Poland?

  • Ear­ly in A Decent Man,” Rein­hart wit­ness­es a mass shoot­ing. This is the first of many turn­ing points in the arc of his sto­ry. Can you think of some oth­er turn­ing points?many turn­ing points in the arc of his sto­ry. Can you think of some oth­er turn­ing points?

  • Soro­ka the Sad­dle­mak­er is forced to make a choice no par­ent should have to make. When sev­en-year- old Reina is lost in the for­est, he real­izes that the fam­i­ly can­not go back to search for her, and that they must con­tin­ue on to find a place to hide. Can you think of some oth­er char­ac­ters in the book who are forced to make dif­fi­cult choices?

  • There are many acts of resis­tance through­out the sto­ries, from small to mon­u­men­tal, by char­ac­ters who are Ger­man, Pol­ish and Jew­ish. Can you name some of them? What do you think the author wants us to take away from this?

  • Max and Hack­endahl and Toby in In the Land of Armadil­los,” Pavel and Hah­ne­meier and Mari­na in The Jew Hater,” the old man and the priest in They Were Like Fam­i­ly to Me,” Shua from The Mes­si­ah,” Zev Heller in The Par­ti­zans,” Yos­sel in The Golem of Zukow.” Dis­cuss what hap­pened to these char­ac­ters in the past, and how it affects their actions in the present.

  • In 1987,” the sto­ry which serves as an epi­logue, Julia, who is Amer­i­can, winces every time Lukas, who is Ger­man, attempts to make con­ver­sa­tion. She cringed. It didn’t mat­ter that he was dis­con­cert­ing­ly hand­some, with green eyes fringed just now with long damp black lash­es, or that he was pleas­ing­ly pro­por­tioned and dressed entire­ly in bohemi­an black. Every time he opened his mouth, he sound­ed like a Nazi.” Do you think this is a com­mon reac­tion? Have you ever met any­one from Germany?

  • Nine­ty per­cent of Pol­ish Jew­ry was mur­dered dur­ing World War 2. At the same time, there were more Right­eous Gen­tiles in Poland than in any oth­er coun­try, by a wide mar­gin. Why do you think that courage, com­pas­sion and respon­si­bil­i­ty were more present in Poland than in any oth­er Ger­man-occu­pied country?

  • In They Were Like Fam­i­ly to Me,” the priest tells Erich that he is search­ing for sites where mas­sacres were com­mit­ted because it is the only way he can think of to atone for his father. The chil­dren of Nazis divide into two groups; those who defend their fathers and say they were inno­cent, and those who despise their fathers’ mem­o­ry and expe­ri­ence crush­ing guilt. Often, Holo­caust sur­vivors didn’t tell their chil­dren about their war expe­ri­ences. Ger­man sol­diers who worked in con­cen­tra­tion camps or in the Ein­satz­grup­pen didn’t tell their fam­i­lies what they did dur­ing the war, either. It’s as if both sides want­ed to for­get, to just move on. What do you think? Is it impor­tant for vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors to remem­ber and dis­cuss their expe­ri­ences? Why?

  • How does Poland fig­ure as a char­ac­ter in the sto­ry? What ele­ments of the Pol­ish coun­try­side, and of Pol­ish folk­lore, appear through­out the book?

  • Shankman has said that she was con­cerned that peo­ple were expe­ri­enc­ing Holo­caust over­load,” that read­ers might feel that they already know every­thing there is to know about the sub­ject. As an author, that’s where my chal­lenge lay. I need­ed to make peo­ple feel it, for the first time, all over again.” Do you think she was successful?