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A Holocaust Novel without a Silver Lining

Feb. 22 2018

In The Tree of Life, a Yiddish-language trilogy of the Holocaust set in the Polish city of Lodz, Chava Rosenfarb explores the lives of ten richly drawn characters before the war, and the fate that befell them once it began. (The trilogy was published in English translation in 2004.) While Rosenfarb herself was a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen, Dara Horn explains that the book is no memoir but an “immersive, engrossing, [and] exquisite” work of literary fiction, albeit one that confounds the expectations of American readers:

Even educated readers who appreciate tragedy still secretly expect a “redemptive” ending, an epiphany, a moment of grace. Yet notice how Christian these terms are, with their assumption that suffering—especially that of others—is ennobling or generates beauty and meaning. . . .

[This] idea of [the need for redemption] is truly obscene when applied to fiction about the Holocaust, yet it is the main type of Holocaust literature English readers encounter: stories about brave fighters, altruistic rescuers, and sweet girls who insist that people are good at heart—or worse, easy bromides about the absence of God instead of accusatory truths about the evils of man. . . . Does that mean imagination ought to have no place in writing about atrocity? Not at all. But a work about the Holocaust should necessarily be painful, not inspiring, and should honor the fullness of the loss, not only of individuals but of entire communities. [The Tree of Life] . . . accomplishes all of this. . . .

Prewar Lodz was one-third Jewish, and Rosenfarb brilliantly unfolds a panorama of the city in all its diversity by intertwining her complex characters’ lives. . . . Rosenfarb’s characters are not reducible to representatives of a type or class. They are each embedded, as real people are, in networks of families, lovers, friends, and enemies; . . . inspired by their own commitments and also plagued by private doubts. The integrity of these characters depends, as it does for all of us, on their inherent adulthood, their agency in their own choices.

In the ghetto, none of that disappears; each character remains exactly who he or she was before, just in inhuman circumstances. The Holocaust was not a morality play, except perhaps for its perpetrators. And that’s exactly what makes the ghetto’s horrors real.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Holocaust, Holocaust fiction, Yiddish literature

Germany’s Bid to Keep Israel off the UN Security Council

March 21 2018

The Jewish state has never held a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. For the first 50 years of its existence, it was denied membership in any of the UN’s regional groups, which control candidacies for these rotating seats. Then it was finally admitted to the Western European and Others Group, which promptly agreed to wait another twenty years before approving Jerusalem for a Security Council candidacy. Now, Benny Avni notes, Germany is poised to block action:

As a good-faith gesture, the Western European and Others Group promised Israel that it and Belgium would run uncontested for the two open 2019-20 [Security Council] seats. Then, in 2016, Germany announced it would also run—even though it already served as a council member [multiple times, including] as recently as 2011-12. . . . [U]nless Belgium yields, Israel’s hopes for UN respect seem doomed for now—and maybe for the foreseeable future.

Why? Diplomats have been telling me Israel violates too many Security Council resolutions to be a member—as in the one passed during the last weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency, which marked Jewish holy sites as occupied Palestinian territory. But is building a porch in [the West Bank town of] Ma’ale Adumim really such a huge threat to world peace?

How about, then, a report released last week by UN experts on the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions? It found Germany violated a council ban on sparkling wines, exporting $151,840 worth of bubbly and other luxury goods to Kim Jong Un’s cronies. Or how about, as the Jerusalem Post’s Benjamin Weinthal reports, German companies exporting to Iran banned materials that were later used in chemical attacks in Syria?

Never mind. Germany (and Belgium) will surely benefit from the UN’s habit of magnifying Israel’s violations beyond all proportion. Thus, Israel’s petition to join the most prestigious UN club will likely be rejected, thanks to a late entry by a shameless [and] cynical German power play against the Jewish state.

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More about: Germany, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-German relations, United Nations