Living With the Presence of Absence

By Gerald Sorin

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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The German Money

By Lev Raphael

Leapfrog Press, 200 pages, $14.95.

* * *

Lev Raphael, a child of Holocaust survivors, widely admired for mystery novels centered around the hypocrisies and inanities of academic life, is even better represented by his short stories. His debut collection, “Dancing on Tisha B’Av” (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), which included tightly written gems like “The Tante” and “The Witness,” dealt with questions of Jewish identity, gay sensibility and Holocaust memory. It has become a minor classic. Now, in his new novel, “The German Money,” Raphael has brought the intriguing themes of his short fiction together with his penchant for genre-bending mystery.

By the time we meet Paul Menkus, the 40-something Michigan librarian has fled from New York City, the study of literature, his Holocaust-survivor mother, his aging and increasingly demented father and a delectably intelligent and attractive woman with whom he had an enviable relationship. After a heart attack claims the life of his mother, Rose, he travels back home to New York, where he is shocked to discover that he is sole heir to the money paid by the German government as reparation to his mother for the loss of her family. He is bewildered by this inheritance — now grown through investment to $1 million — because, unlike his brother Simon (who gets only the apartment) and his sister Dina (who gets only the insurance), he hasn’t spoken to his mother in years.

The estranged siblings, in shifting alliances, set upon one another with sarcasm and bombast, digging up old resentments and causing new ones. The family dynamics are sometimes more irritating than interesting, but Raphael almost always makes them real. Paul, troubled by his windfall, nonetheless argues against sharing it — even though he and his sister had agreed years before (along with their mother, and against their father) that the idea of taking money from the Germans was repulsive, that it was buying into the “idiotic” idea that Wiedergutmachung, as the Germans called it, could “make good again” something as evil as the Holocaust. But now Paul is more interested in asking: Why did she leave the money to me, the least-loved child? “Was it a test?… a message?”

These questions are never really answered — for Paul, or for us. Indeed, it is difficult to discern Rose’s motivation because, despite her centrality to the story, she is not fully developed as a character. In the climax of this work, however, we do learn the root cause of Rose’s silence about her Holocaust past. Her reason for muteness is radically unlike the reasons of other complex and difficult survivor-parents in the literature of the “second generation.” But the revelation of her dark secret and the true circumstances of her death depend too much on motivations that seem contrived and implausible.

Raphael does better when he is dealing with the impact of the Holocaust on the children of survivors. Part of a growing cohort of second-generation writers including Melvin Jules Bukiet, Thane Rosenbaum and Elizabeth Rosner, Raphael has been fascinated by the silence of his parents’ generation and, like the character in Virginia Woolf’s “The Voyage Out,” he has said that he wanted to “write a novel about the things people don’t say.” In this he has succeeded brilliantly. He starts by having Paul tell us that “if family stories are a meeting place like the atrium of an ancient Roman home where all can gather, then what our home was built around was a darker emptiness: the utter lack of stories, at least from my mother.”

We know that when his mother Rose occasionally emerged from her deep and prolonged silences, she marked Paul’s childhood with inexplicable outbursts and furious rejections. We can only guess, since the book is written entirely from Paul’s point of view, that Dina and Simon were also children caught in the minefield of their mother’s emotional extremes — sandbagged between her white-hot temper and her icy withdrawals. Dina, beautiful and daring, gets what she thinks she wants materially, but fails in relationships and remains driven and combustible. Simon, bisexually promiscuous, is in and out of jobs, marriage and a variety of addictions. Paul, running from everything, is “a saboteur, methodically destroying [his] own happiness.”

Dysfunctional families existed before the Holocaust, of course, and many children of survivors lead the lives of “ordinary people.” But there is in “The German Money” — as in Bukiet’s “Stories of An Imaginary Childhood,” Rosner’s “The Speed of Light” and Rosenbaum’s “Elijah Visible” — a palpable connection between the suffering of survivors and the damage to their children, especially the damage done by silence. Paul’s former girlfriend, Valerie, the most stable of the protagonists, is also the child of survivors, but her parents somehow found the language to articulate their experience and share something of their core humanity.

In “Children of Job,” a comprehensive study of second-generation literature, Alan Berger calls the writing of survivors’ children an attempt to cope with “the presence of absence.” Raphael does some of that kind of coping in “The German Money.” After all, “there’s always a story,” Paul says, “if you think you can see around corners.” This writer sees around corners. And with the nascent reconciliation of Paul and Simon, the welcome reconnection with Valerie and the growing self-awareness — even reconstruction — of Paul himself, Raphael gives us a special story, one that, in addition to conveying an idea of damage done, provides some basis of hope.

Gerald Sorin is director of Jewish studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz and the author of “Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent” (New York University Press, 2003), which won the 2003 National Jewish Book Award in History.

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