In the Land of Armadillos: Stories

Scribner  2016


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.

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Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Scribner

  1. 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?

  2. 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?

  3. 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?”

  4. 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?

  5. 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?

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

  7. 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?

  8. 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?

  9. 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?

  10. 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?

  11. 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?

  12. 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?

  13. 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?

  14. 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?”

  15. 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?

  16. 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?

  17. 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?

  18. 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?

  19. 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.

  20. 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?

  21. 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?

  22. 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?

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

  24. 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?

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