A Shoah Story, From Israel


By Jerome A. Chanes

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Toby Press, 407 pages, $24.95.

‘Tain’t what a man sez, but wot he means that the traducer has got to bring over.” Thus Ezra Pound to W.H.D. Rouse, on literature. What a difference a definite article makes. In its Hebrew original, the title of Amir Gutfreund’s first novel is “Sho’ah Shelanu”: “Our Holocaust,” no “The,” a title suggesting that the book is about not historical memory of the European destruction but something — a “Holocaust” — that is ongoing for the book’s protagonists, and that emerges in the narrative. One would think that “Our Holocaust” ought be firmly positioned in the corpus of serious Israeli literature about the Holocaust, from KaTzetnik to David Grossman. It ain’t.

“Our Holocaust” was first published in 2001 in Israel, where it became a best-seller. It now appears in a workmanlike translation by Jessica Cohen. It is a sometimes very funny, sometimes very serious and occasionally tragic novel — in truth a tale, in which Gutfreund lulls us into dropping our objections of realism. The story revolves around Amir and Effi, Haifa children with Holocaust-survivor parents, who are not quite “old enough” to learn about the Holocaust. Their passion is collecting “relatives” who substitute for their real relatives, who were killed, and through whom they learn about what happened in Europe. Amir grows up, and the many stories he has been told surface in a mild surprise at book’s end. It is a work that is funny, kitschy and ultimately engaging, but not especially good.

And yet, the reception in Israel has been extraordinary. How did “Our Holocaust” — not exactly one of the stellar products in recent Israeli fiction — become a truly popular book? How are we to position “Our Holocaust” in the context of serious literature of and on the Holocaust? Israelis have long been serious consumers of literary fiction. But unlike the heavy work put out by the Palmach generation and continued with David Grossman, Yoram Kaniuk and Nava Semel — who taught Israelis how the Holocaust was embedded in Jewish and Israeli psyches — Gutfreund writes in an accessible, witty, almost cute voice. And it is a voice that the Israeli public seems to have longed for. Grossman’s “See Under: Love” (originally published in English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1989) was rightly received as a richly layered, serious book on the Holocaust, one of the first that made an effort to understand how the Holocaust was embedded in Jewish and Israeli psyches. And yet, according to press reports, many readers could not finish it, not because it was a “difficult” book but because it was an impossible book — impossible for a public in the 1980s. Semel, Kaniuk and Grossman showed Israelis that they had not only a present but also a difficult past. This was especially tough for many Israelis to take.

At bottom, there is a weariness in Israeli literary life that led to this kind of book, and the flaws in “Our Holocaust” are reflective of the “kitschiness” that has become characteristic of much of Israeli letters; Etgar Keret is a good example of this pattern.

But if the thesis of “Our Holocaust” is that the Holocaust is “with us,” then there is something missing. The novel is a grab-bag full of goodies that clearly have something to do with the Holocaust, that derive from the Holocaust, but that have little association or relevance to any significant issue in Israeli life. More troubling is that “Our Holocaust” returns us to the time when the image of the survivor was that of someone who is somewhat bizarre, and who can be mocked. There is indeed something faintly patronizing in the “cuteness” of Gutfreund’s prose — and he, as a member of the “Second Generation” of survivors, should know better. Amir Gutfreund, as “traducer” of “Second-Generation” life, ultimately falls short in providing us with answers, or even with questions.

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism Through the Ages” and a co-author of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger Publishers, 1998), among other books. He is faculty scholar at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, and he is an editor and author of the forthcoming second edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.