Tuesday, December 30, 2008

74. Isaac's Torah

by Angel Wagenstein

Wagenstein, who spent time in a concentration camp, originally wrote this book in Bulgarian in 2000, and it was translated into English by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova and published in 2008. Subtitled, “Concerning the Life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld Through Two World Wars, Three Concentration Camps, and Five Motherlands,” that’s exactly what it is. Isaac is born in 1900 and grows up in Kolodetz by Drogobych, which was originally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but later belongs to Poland, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and then the Soviets again (and is now part of the Ukraine). Each of the five “books” in Isaac’s “Torah” correspond to one of these “motherlands.”

Isaac is drafted into military service by each of the first three countries. When the Nazis invade at the end of the third book, Isaac pretends to be Polish and is sent to a Nazi labor camp, where he serves as a translator and is treated fairly well. Inadvertently revealing himself as a Jew (which saves him from a death as a Polish hostage), he winds up in a Nazi concentration camp. He is liberated by the Americans and moves to Vienna. The Soviets later exile him to Siberia for supposedly being a Nazi collaborator while pretending to be Polish! Throughout it all, Isaac manages to survive, partly by being the underestimated dupe. Isaac’s best friend and brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmeul Ben-David, winds up in most (but not all) of the places Isaac does, imparting wisdom.

The narrative is interlaced with Jewish jokes, and I think if I were Jewish I would appreciate them more. Wagenstein thanks in his Acknowledgements, “…creators, collectors, collators, and publishers of Jewish jokes and anecdotes, through which my people have turned laughter into a defensive shield, and a source of courage and self-esteem through the most tragic moments of their existence!” (p. 301) There is also humor in metaphors, such as this from the Third Book: “This pale professor-ophthalmologist turned out to be to an equal degree a decent and noble anti-communist, with a barely perceptible Polish streak of anti-Semitism – something like a good aged wine with a bitter aftertaste.” (p. 161)

I had expected a harrowing Holocaust novel, but as Isaac says about midway through the Fourth Book:
And now, please, save me from the memory . . . and allow me not to describe to you the hell in which we ended up! Many people before me have done it, and truly much better, too, than I would do it. . . . In short, save me, please, because of the requirement for the completeness of plot . . . from repeating to you things that are already painfully familiar to you . . ..(p. 204-5).

Nevertheless, there is tragedy in the book, but the humor uplifts it, making the story a tribute to the strength and courage of Eastern European Jews and all those who suffered through two World Wars and their repercussions. Not to mention, this is once again a book that makes me want to learn more about the historical period(s) it is set in. Highly recommended.

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