Our Holo­caust

Amir Gut­fre­und; Jes­si­ca Cohen, trans.

  • Review
By – October 24, 2011

Beau­ti­ful­ly trans­lat­ed from Hebrew, Our Holo­caust is a nov­el nar­rat­ed by a name­less child of Holo­caust sur­vivors. A prizewin­ner in Israel, it tells the sto­ry of rel­a­tives who are col­lect­ed” by virtue of the fact that they them­selves have no one to call their own fam­i­ly since many of their par­ents, chil­dren, broth­ers and sib­lings were mur­dered dur­ing the Holo­caust. The rel­a­tives oper­at­ed under the Law of Com­pres­sion,” where­in fel­low neigh­bors were turned into uncles, cousins and even grand­par­ents. The col­or­ful char­ac­ters range from the eccen­tric, inward­ly fear­ful Grand­pa Lolek to Uncle Mendel and the can­tan­ker­ous but lov­ing Feiga. Although these Holo­caust sur­vivors make an effort to con­duct sane lives, the hor­rors they expe­ri­enced con­tin­ue to haunt them, from pan­ic and fear over a knock at the door, to inner demons plagu­ing the minds and souls of those who expe­ri­enced the bru­tal­i­ties of the Nazis. Soon, the nar­ra­tor also takes on the fears of his rel­a­tives, and begins to ques­tion those who walk down the street, or fre­quent his home, won­der­ing if they were them­selves Nazis, loy­al sol­diers or even worse, mur­der­ers themselves.

Our Holo­caust is titled so appro­pri­ate­ly: It makes the read­er see that those who sur­vived the Holo­caust are not alone, that the hor­rors, the bru­tal­i­ty, the pain and suf­fer­ing are emo­tions that each of us share col­lec­tive­ly as Jews. This book is impres­sive, and would be trea­sured by any­one inter­est­ed in his­tor­i­cal fic­tion as it relates to Jews who sur­vived the bru­tal­i­ty of the Nazis.

From the Rohr Judges

Gutfreund’s work is, as he takes pains to stress, not an auto­bi­og­ra­phy. But it isn’t pre­cise­ly not an auto­bi­og­ra­phy either, and there­in lies some of its com­plex­i­ty. In focus­ing on the sto­ry of how the Holo­caust res­onat­ed among Israelis in the decades after the war, Gut­fre­und is fol­low­ing the imag­i­na­tive ground of oth­er writ­ers, most notably David Gross­man; but he does so in a way that is entire­ly his own. Gut­fre­und has stressed the remark­able research at Yad Vashem that went into the book, and the results are evi­dent: even if this is, in part, a fam­i­ly sto­ry, it feels like more than that: a chron­i­cle of the kind of sto­ries that could have tak­en place, even if they didn’t. 

The sur­vivors them­selves, with their tics and their idio­syn­crasies, are instant­ly and per­ma­nent­ly mem­o­rable; the chil­dren who grow into adult­hood, want­i­ng sim­ply to know more, are equal­ly so. By the time that the sto­ry begins to move in the less firm­ly real­is­tic ground, into the land of Over There” — what might have been rather than what we know to have been — it hard­ly mat­ters to the read­er of the nov­el what was true and what Gut­fre­und has invent­ed; what we are wit­ness to is the devel­op­ment of an impor­tant work, not only of the genre often called Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture,” but of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture more generally.


Our imme­di­ate sur­round­ings were occu­pied by Mom and Dad and Effie’s mom and dad. They were younger char­ac­ters, who would hand down their sto­ries to us every year when we were Old Enough. 
Except for my Mom, who kept quiet.
What did we know of my Mom’s past?
In a vil­lage among Chris­tians, a five-year-old Jew­ish girl fear­ful­ly recites Hail Marys, a prayer dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing life from death. Lat­er, with her moth­er and father, in the woods with the par­ti­sans. And years lat­er, when we were Old Enough: an ambush in the for­est, shots fired, every­one escapes, leav­ing her behind. Her moth­er, alone, comes back for her. More shots. Mom wakes up hours lat­er in the arms of her dead moth­er, hid­den beneath her body. Her moth­er is cov­ered with blood. And ants.
How could she not hate ants?
And what else hap­pened to you, Mom?
You mustn’t know.
By the time she passed away, only a few tiny episodes of her sto­ry had come to light. A detail here, a detail there, in between the gaps. But Mom’s sto­ry was like Braille— it was the gaps that pro­duced the content.

Amir Gut­fre­und on…

How He Writes

I write main­ly when I don’t actu­al­ly write. I mean, since I was an offi­cer in the Israeli army, I I got used to the fact that sit­ting and typ­ing could hap­pen for me only once in a while. I adopt­ed the habit to be always writ­ing” – think­ing and imag­in­ing while doing every­thing else, lis­ten­ing to con­ver­sa­tions around me, fish­ing” inter­est­ing sen­tences, track­ing the way peo­ple actu­al­ly talk, observ­ing sights, inci­dents, and peo­ple. I learned to mem­o­rize sec­tions by heart, but my helpers were lit­tle note­books and tiny pen­cils in every pock­et in every piece of cloth­ing, always ready to cap­ture a phrase, an idea, a descrip­tion of some­thing. Nowa­days, when I am more free to write I still write main­ly when I don’t. I can sit for two hours in a cof­fee shop, not writ­ing even one word, and then say hon­est­ly: I did a good day’s work today”.

Bar­bara S. Cohen is a tri­al attor­ney in Los Ange­les who spe­cial­izes in child abuse cas­es. She is a mem­ber of NAMI and a sup­port­er of NARSAD, and is an advo­cate for those who suf­fer from men­tal illness.

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