The Muselmann at the Water Cooler
Academic Studies Press, 215 pages, $59.95
Since the passage of time plays tricks with memory, memoirs written in proximity to the Holocaust ordinarily are given greater credence than later works. One would imagine that a survivor’s account written more than 65 years after the Holocaust could not find a place in the canon of Holocaust literature, yet Eli Pfefferkorn’s “The Muselmann at the Water Cooler” is indeed a significant addition.
The word “Muselmann” was how prisoners described the walking dead, who had given into despair and for whom selection to the gas chamber seemed inevitable. Yoking that image to the workaday water cooler gives some idea of the disjunction of experience that Pfefferkorn portrays.
Now in his eighties, Pfefferkorn was a child when his life was interrupted by the war. In the book, his pre-war years are dispensed of rather quickly. His Holocaust experience included ghettoization, hiding and, ultimately, deportation to Majdanek, whose former inmates have written few memoirs. His post-Holocaust story is fascinating. Rather than go to Palestine after the war, he went to England. His depiction of English society and of his host family is insightful and charming. Still a very young man, with a long future seemingly ahead of him, Eli’s restlessness attracted him to the sea. He sought training as a merchant marine.
His training attracted the attention of the Zionists, who were preparing for the inevitable War of Independence and sought his seamanship to defend the coastline. Drawn to Palestine by a sense of duty to the past rather than any Zionist aspirations for the future, Eli found himself fighting far from the sea, in the sands of the Negev. A member of Machal (a brigade of overseas volunteers), he nevertheless refused an IDF order to disarm the Stern Gang and ended up in prison. Yet his depiction of the brigade is cheerful — this is no jailhouse memoir.
Pfefferkorn slowly made his way into Israeli society from the extreme left — Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin left a void in his soul — gradually undergoing a self-described process of embourgeoisement. Lord help us, he buys a Vespa!
Still an outsider, a Jew among the Canaanites (a small group of pre-Israeli intellectual ideologues in the 1930s and early ’40s) Pfefferkorn’s insight into Israeli society of the 1950s and ’60s reminds us of a bygone era, of its aspirations and pretentions, intellectual and otherwise. Writing in literary journals and in the Friday newspaper literary supplements, he defended a fellow survivor ridiculed by the Canaanites. Elie Wiesel, though perceived outside Israel as a spokesman for the country, was reviled by earlier Israeli generations for remaining in France and America rather than making aliyah.
While Wiesel contended that he only criticizes Israel in Israel, his critics argued that it was easy to defend Israel from abroad; much more difficult from within. Pfefferkorn, who worked closely with Wiesel during the early 1980s, when the latter was chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, recounts some of the controversies relating to Wiesel’s chairmanship and his resignation en route to accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Suddenly, Wiesel’s defender becomes the accuser.