Unex­pect­ed Pas­sages, 1940 – 41 

  • Review
By – May 7, 2024

Rachel Scheer’s graph­ic mem­oir is com­pact, under­stat­ed, and care­ful­ly com­posed. Using her grandfather’s let­ters — and the sto­ry of how she had them trans­lat­ed from Yid­dish — as a start­ing point, Scheer has cre­at­ed an ele­gant med­i­ta­tion on Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and its con­nec­tion to the past. Black-and-white draw­ings depict copies of the orig­i­nal let­ters, car­toon pan­els, and blocks of text, all of which are accom­pa­nied by sim­ple yet expres­sive ren­der­ings of her­self and mem­bers of her fam­i­ly. Clear­ly pre­sent­ed his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion is com­bined with hon­est reflec­tion to pro­duce an unusu­al book about one Euro­pean Jew­ish refugee and the lega­cy he left for his Amer­i­can descendants.

Read­ers first learn what Yid­dish is and how it was near­ly total­ly anni­hi­lat­ed along with its speak­ers. Scheer’s grand­fa­ther, Irv­ing, had left behind a box of let­ters, which grad­u­al­ly impelled her to explore his past. Irving’s name alone rep­re­sents the flu­id­i­ty of the lan­guage: in var­i­ous doc­u­ments, he is iden­ti­fied as Isaak Gverts­man,” Iza­ak Gwirc­man,” and Irv­ing Gwertz­man,” evi­dence of the lin­guis­tic and cul­tur­al vari­ety that char­ac­ter­ized the lives of Jew­ish immi­grants. When the young Scheer first encoun­tered the let­ters, she asked her moth­er, What’s Yid­dish?” Her moth­er had attend­ed Yid­dish lan­guage school as a child but remem­bered too lit­tle to deci­pher her father’s cor­re­spon­dence. The book rep­re­sents Scheer’s attempt to close all these gen­er­a­tional gaps.

The Scheer family’s sur­vival was enabled by Japan­ese diplo­mat Chi­une Sug­i­hara, who issued visas to thou­sands of Lithuan­ian Jews. These for­tu­nate peo­ple fled to Rus­sia, Japan, and even­tu­al­ly Shang­hai, Chi­na. Rather than empha­siz­ing the hero­ic or fate­ful aspects of this sto­ry, Scheer traces the details of her grandfather’s life. She’s care­ful not to let world events sub­sume per­son­al ones. On one page, enti­tled Shtetl Romance,” Scheer intro­duces a cast of char­ac­ters who appear in the let­ters, indi­vid­u­als ren­dered enig­mat­ic by the miss­ing pieces of their inter­twin­ing nar­ra­tives. A young woman named Mira writes to Irv­ing, I don’t have any­thing impor­tant to tell you and some triv­i­al­i­ties about me might not inter­est you. Who knows? It is not pos­si­ble to creep into another’s heart.” Lat­er, Mira writes, I had a very nice coat made. I will send you a pic­ture. It isn’t fin­ished yet.” Our knowl­edge of the impend­ing tragedy hov­ers over every anec­dote. Scheer is illu­mi­nat­ing not only her grandfather’s life, but also the lives of those who did not survive.

Scheer sit­u­ates her own artis­tic goals and fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships with­in the con­text of her grandfather’s sto­ry, with­out sim­plis­ti­cal­ly equat­ing their respec­tive chal­lenges. She com­pares her­self to Idith, Lot’s wife, who is unnamed in the bib­li­cal sto­ry but iden­ti­fied in a midrash. When she can­not refrain from look­ing back at her home, she is turned into a pil­lar of salt. See­ing the inher­ent ten­sion in two con­flict­ing Jew­ish val­ues — don’t look back” and nev­er for­get” — Scheer acknowl­edges that such admo­ni­tions have marked both her own his­to­ry and that of the Jew­ish peo­ple. Her con­sid­er­a­tion of this para­dox is earnest, sup­port­ed by sharply exe­cut­ed images of past and present

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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