The Pawn­bro­ker

Edward Lewis Wallant
  • Review
By – July 25, 2014

Once an instruc­tor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cra­cow, the Pawn­bro­ker was plucked from his posi­tion with the Unit­ed Jew­ish Appeal in Paris fol­low­ing his lib­er­a­tion from Bergen-Belsen to learn Shylock’s trade in Amer­i­ca, and con­script­ed into the ser­vice of a face­less Harlem over­lord. Oper­at­ing the pawn­shop as a front for he cares not what, Sol Naz­er­man regards his urban clien­tele — the des­ti­tute, the des­per­ate, the dis­hon­est — and asso­ciates with­out pity or inter­est. His sole assis­tant, Jesus Ortiz, scrab­bles to learn the busi­ness over Nazerman’s unyield­ing shoul­der, learn­ing only the Pawnbroker’s bit­ter his­to­ry lessons of Jews and mon­ey, pawn­ing back to Baby­lon, trust­ing only cold, hard cash, rolling up their sleeves in the city heat to reveal the crude num­bers on their arms they wave as cre­den­tials to one anoth­er in the thick of their dark­est disputes. 

Arguably one of the great­est fic­tion treat­ments of Holo­caust sur­vivors ever writ­ten, The Pawn­bro­ker was the sec­ond of Edward Lewis Wallant’s two nov­els pub­lished in his life­time. Orig­i­nal­ly issued in 1961, the book was quick­ly adapt­ed into the first stub­born­ly Jew­ish’ film about the Holo­caust” star­ring Rod Steiger, Brock Peters, and Mor­gan Free­man — though Wal­lant did not live to see its release or wide acclaim. The nov­el and its adap­ta­tion stand alone in their shared shrewd accu­ra­cy in the por­tray­al of post­trau­mat­ic stress of Holo­caust sur­vivors ensconced in the sub­ur­ban house­holds of patch­work fam­i­lies, inter­race rela­tions and rela­tion­ships in Harlem of the late 1950s, and the inescapable stain of evil in which each and every antag­o­nist, hero, vic­tim, and deter­mined­ly dis­pas­sion­ate bystander are all complicit. 

Yes, you are about to read a mas­ter­piece,” Dara Horn her­alds in her intro­duc­tion to this reis­sue of The Pawn­bro­ker. One only wish­es that a more com­pelling book cov­er had been designed for this reis­sue of a work so deserv­ing of a strong revival. 

Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, Edward Lewis Wallant’s writ­ing can stand on its own — as indeli­ble as the blue ink on its pro­tag­o­nist’s arm.

Relat­ed Content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

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