Jacob’s Oath

  • Review
By – May 13, 2013

Jacob’s Oath explores the after­math of the Holo­caust in Ger­many by exam­in­ing broad themes of love, revenge, loss, and home, as well as how, for sur­vivors, the present can be con­stant­ly overshad­owed by the past.

Mar­tin Fletch­er struc­tures Jacob’s Oath around the lives of two char­ac­ters, Jacob Klein and Sarah Kauf­ma. The read­er is intro­duced to Jacob in Bergen-Belsen in April, 1945 when he rec­og­nizes Hans Seel­er, the SS guard who was respon­si­ble for his broth­er Maxie’s death. In turn, the read­er is intro­duced to Sarah one week lat­er in Berlin, where she has been liv­ing in hid­ing, short­ly before she is bru­tal­ly raped by a Russ­ian sol­dier. From these cru­el begin­nings, Fletch­er traces Jacob and Sarah’s jour­neys back to Hei­del­berg. Jacob returns to Hei­del­berg in an attempt to keep his promise to avenge his brother’s death, while Sarah returns in an attempt to keep a promise to meet her hus­band Josef Far­ber there if they were to both sur­vive the war. By jux­ta­pos­ing the char­ac­ters of Jacob and Sarah, Fletch­er exam­ines the expe­ri­ence of being in a con­cen­tra­tion camp ver­sus the expe­ri­ence of liv­ing in hid­ing, the wartime fears and expe­ri­ences of a man ver­sus those of a woman, and the moti­va­tion to return to one’s home in attempt to seek revenge or because of love.

In Hiedel­berg, Jacob and Sarah become lovers, how­ev­er their life togeth­er is shaped by the weight of Jacob’s promise and the secrets 

in Sarah’s past. Notably, Jacob’s and Sarah’s expe­ri­ences of return­ing to the hous­es that their fam­i­lies lived in to find them both occu­pied by non-Jew­ish res­i­dents high­lights the impos­si­bil­i­ty for Jew­ish sur­vivors to tru­ly return home, phys­i­cal­ly, but also in terms of the fab­ric of the com­mu­ni­ty and famil­ial struc­tures that were irrev­o­ca­bly torn apart. Fletcher’s descrip­tion of Jacob hold­ing the ledger of his father, who was a promi­nent tai­lor in the com­mu­ni­ty, in which the names of all of his clients are list­ed is particu­larly affect­ing. Inter­twined with Jacob and Sarah’s sto­ry is the sto­ry of a group of Jew­ish Avengers who seek out and kill Nazis.

By lay­er­ing the expe­ri­ences and moti­va­tions of mul­ti­ple char­acters, Fletch­er asks impor­tant and painful ques­tions in Jacob’s Oath about the nature of post-war vengeance, the impos­si­bil­i­ty of return­ing to pre­war life, the cru­el­ties of war, the lega­cies of trau­ma, and the com­plex­i­ties of sur­vivors’ attempts to rebuild their lives and start again.


by Sarah Shew­chuk

Mar­tin Fletch­er is the author of four books, most recent­ly Jacob’s Oath. A five-time Emmy-win­ning tele­vi­sion news cor­re­spon­dent who has worked for decades as the NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv, he is cur­rently a Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent for NBC News.

Sarah Shew­chuk: Mar­tin, your first two books are works of non-fic­tion that exam­ine con­tem­po­rary events in your own life, name­ly your career as a tele­vi­sion news cor­re­spon­dent in Break­ing News and a walk­ing trip that you took down the length of Israel’s coast­line in Walk­ing Israel: A Per­son­al Search for the Soul of a Nation. In turn, your two most recent books, The List and Jacob’s Oath, are works of fic­tion that explore the Holo­caust and its after­math. Why did you choose to use fic­tion as the lens through which to exam­ine the past? 

Mar­tin Fletch­er: I did so much research for the two nov­els that I could prob­a­bly have writ­ten them as non-fic­tion. But in these nov­els I want­ed to reach some­thing you can rarely tap into in non-fic­tion, name­ly, what was it like to be that per­son? To expe­ri­ence those dilem­mas? To meet those chal­lenges? I want­ed to enter the hearts and minds of the char­acters, not just to tell their sto­ries, which is what I do as a jour­nal­ist. As a nov­el­ist I hoped to take the read­er not only on the exter­nal jour­ney, but the inter­nal jour­ney. It’s actu­al­ly a very hard thing to do and I can only hope I man­aged it. When I start­ed out I thought it would be eas­i­er: I can just make it up! But it doesn’t work that way, every nuance and devel­op­ment and action must have its own relent­less log­ic or it won’t work, and that takes the writer into unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry. Each char­ac­ter takes over his own sto­ry. I loved the process. 

SS: How have your expe­ri­ences as a tele­vi­sion news cor­re­spon­dent impact­ed your choic­es as a writer? 

MF: They have guid­ed me toward want­i­ng to be very truth­ful in my sto­ries and char­ac­ters. I want to cre­ate a sense of authen­tic­i­ty, not through peri­od details but through the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tions and the char­ac­ters’ reac­tions. My work in all kinds of dis­as­ter zones has helped me to visu­al­ize ter­ri­ble scenes from the past. For instance, wit­ness­ing the geno­cides in Rwan­da and Cam­bo­dia helped me imag­ine the reac­tions of peo­ple in the Nazi Holo­caust. And above all, it does make me like hap­py endings. 

SS: Jacob’s Oath is struc­tured around the inter­lock­ing expe­ri­ences of Jacob Klein and Sarah Kauf­man as they return to Hei­del­berg, Ger­many, at the end of World War II. Sarah’s jour­ney to Hei­del­berg is moti­vat­ed by love (the planned reunion with her hus­band Josef), while Jacob’s jour­ney is moti­vat­ed by revenge (for his broth­er Maxie’s death). In terms of both the form and con­tent of the book, will you please dis­cuss why you chose to jux­ta­pose these two polarities? 

MF: Love and revenge: the two great themes of life and lit­er­a­ture. So noth­ing very orig­i­nal there. But in my sto­ry, each person’s jour­ney changes and they each end up seek­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent, and in doing so, find each oth­er. It moved me when I thought of it and it still does. The oth­er great theme is rebirth. Mak­ing a new life out of the ash­es. What brav­ery that requires, what deter­mi­na­tion, and yet, what choice does any sur­vivor have but to start again? What’s the alterna­tive? Yet many nev­er real­ly suc­ceed. They just live a des­o­late life. I want­ed my char­ac­ters to find love and to give up on revenge. Yet at the end, they sur­prised me by get­ting it all, and good luck to them! 

SS: Both Jacob and Sarah return to the hous­es that their fam­i­lies lived in before the war, in Hei­del­berg and out­side of Leimers­dorf respec­tive­ly, and their expe­ri­ences reveal the irrev­o­ca­ble rup­ture that took place as a result of the Holo­caust. What drove you to choose to explore the idea of return­ing home? 

MF: I am the son of refugees, and my jour­nal­ism has tak­en me to dozens of wars and rev­o­lu­tions and famines where peo­ple lose every­thing yet strive to go home. So it comes nat­u­ral­ly to me: the sense of root­less­ness, tur­bu­lence, not belong­ing, it’s who I am and con­sti­tutes my great­est wish: to go home. But home no longer exists. That is the tragedy of a refugee. Even if you do go home, it is no longer there. And so the chal­lenge is: now what? That’s what I write about: the next step, rebuild­ing a life.

SS: What kinds of his­tor­i­cal research did you under­take in order to write Jacob’s Oath?

MF: I went to Hei­del­berg to find Jews who returned in 1945 and found only one, who refused to talk to me. But the book is not real­ly about Hei­del­berg, it could be set any­where in Ger­many. I read through reams of con­tem­po­rary news­pa­pers (luck­i­ly I speak Ger­man), inter­viewed elder­ly sur­vivors, Ger­mans — in brief, as a jour­nal­ist, I love to meet and talk to peo­ple and that’s what I did. Lots of inter­net research, too — a god­send. For instance, the book opens in the human laun­dry’ in Bergen-Belsen, a place about which I had read a brief ref­er­ence but had no idea what it looked like. Then I came across thir­teen pho­tographs in the online archive of London’s Impe­r­i­al War Muse­um. The book’s descrip­tion of British doc­tors and Ger­man nurs­es clean­ing sur­vivors is tak­en straight from those photos.

SS: The idea of place is cen­tral to your fic­tion and non-fic­tion, both in terms of the plot and the rich­ness of you descrip­tions. Can you describe for us where you write? 

MF: I wasn’t inac­cu­rate when I said ear­li­er that I am root­less. Each book was writ­ten in a dif­fer­ent place in Lon­don, New York, and Tel Aviv. All I need is a table and a chair and I can tune out every­thing around me. It needs to be com­fort­able, though, because I nor­mal­ly write from about 4am until midday.

SS: Where do you think your writ­ing will take you next? 

MF: If I had a choice I’d go for Tahi­ti or the Sey­chelles, but actu­al­ly, I’m just fin­ish­ing the next nov­el and it’s set in New York, Sara­je­vo, and Bel­grade. And I want to write anoth­er book, prob­a­bly a nov­el, set in my home coun­try, Israel.

SS: Thank you so much!

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