To write a review about a book full of short stories is always more difficult for me, as it is to write one for a novel. There is the shortness that you get, to get used to the characters and the plot, there is also the problem that it contains a lot of stories, and it is rarely that one is as good as the other.
This book as one problem more, and therefore it might be not as much of a review of the book, but a little bit of navel gazing into the mind of the reader, namely me.
For days now, I hold back to write this review and try to find some passable thoughts, that I can tell you about it. But every idea coming up, is quite personal, and is quite good described using the title of the book and Nathan Englander's first story: "What We Talk About, When We Talk About Anne Frank."
He is talking from a Jewish perspective, two couples, one liberal, one Hassidic and they aks a question, quite simple, but hard to answer. 'Would a man hide his women and his friends from the Nazis?"
Would you? Would I?
The answer gets harder the longer you think about it.
And now I want to digress and talk about when we talk about Anne Frank and when not.
The Game those couples are playing, I played myself all on my own.
I'm German, born in '76, I was a schoolgirl in the 80th, and the school was the place to talk about everything holocaust and WW II. In my childish ways I tried to comprehend what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945. So I read every book I could get my hands on and saw every documentary about this time. I was fascinated and disgusted, but it was part of my history and I wanted to know about it. My Grandparents were children and young adults in this time, but they never talked about it. There were questions to ask, but I couldn't bring myself to ask them. I loved them dearly... but there is something that I didn't want to hear. The eerie question, what they had known and what they did throughout this atrocity will stay unanswered now that they are all dead.
The only day, when the war was ever mentioned was an Christmas Eve, when my Grandad was drunk, he always said something like: "Not everything was bad back then." One little sentence and always one of my uncles took it upon himself to protest and a yearly ritual broke lose, both of them arguing about it.
As a child, I listened most of the time, and munched on some Christmas treats. I never said anything because, like most of my family thought, there was not a real argument to have. It ran in circles...
This was because it was not really about Hitler and the Nazis, killing Jews or anything, it just was about the perspective.
My Grandfather got lost in a feeling to have to defend himself, his youth and all the memories he had, apart from Hitler, Nazis, Holocaust and War, he had a life back than, a whole childhood. And yes, it must have had all the indoctrination and brainwashing, we now know about.
My Uncle was, like me, trying to come to grips with what happened and why. We all felt guilty, we still do. You can't explain it easily how a whole nation could do something like the Germans did. You can't even be sure that you would do anything other than my ancestors did. Just imagine to be a child or young adult back than...
My Grandfather was a soldier and ended up as a prisoner of war, my Grandmother lost her family and home country. They both stayed poor till their dead, but they raised 6 children and a hell of lot more of grandchildren, non of them is a Nazi, so they might have done something right.
What the Nazis did remains in the memories of everyone, for me it is mostly a memory of awkward silence, a dark hole in the personal past of my family. All that was and is left for me are books and documentations, and the mind-games you can play with them.
What would you do?
I took the books to my room and used my imagination to time-travel back then. And I got me some answers. The best thing to do, is to remember and feel what it might have been back than, and hopefully you come to the same conclusion as I. Don't let it happen again. Be aware of those who want to brainwash you, fight against those who try to silence you and don't buy into systems that offer a scapegoat. There is no them and us, there is only us... and a lot of difference in perspective. To hinder it in it's beginning is the best way out. If you are stuck in a totalitarian system, there might be not much left that you can do, and it is not in everyone to risk his life or that of his family.
Lastly, coming back to the book I read and tried to review. I appreciate the freedom to read books like this one, which offer me perspectives, that are not my own. Nathan Englander's Jews in this stories are most of the time far from being nice, but what ever else they are, they are still human. Like most of the Germans back than. There is still beauty in humans, even if they all, Jewish, American or German, or what ever else, sometimes behave like monsters. Being a monster might just be human... but it is also human, to appreciate the freedom of speech, tolerance and kindness, we just have to look that there are always more of the latter. And while a lot of Germans are tired of the past and questions about it, I'm not a child anymore and I try to speak about it, maybe because of the silence of my own childhood.