I don’t often write negative reviews. I try to avoid doing it . But as a second generation holocaust survivor with a polish grandfather, the background against which this novel is written is something I know a bit about. This is my history too. And whatever I was looking for in these pages, I didn’t find it.
Review : Surviving the War by Adiva Geffen. Arrow Books. Translated from Hebrew.
Set in the late 1930s and 40s against a backdrop of increasing pogroms, this story concerns the flight of a Jewish family from their village in the Lublin area of Poland, first to the ghetto of Ostrow Lubelski and then to the forest of Parczew to join the Jewish partisans fighting there.
According to the website of the US Holocaust Museum around 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fought in partisan groups based in the forests of Eastern Europe. Few survived. Although in this story we see nothing true of their struggle – a missed opportunity in my view.
It is one thing to research historical background accurately on the holocaust and quite another to write a convincing story of based on the suffering of those who lived and died in that time. Perhaps because for most of us, thankfully, such hardship is almost impossible to imagine.
So to the plot. The chief character in Surviving is Shurka. She grows up in a village not far from the Parczew forest against which – Peter style – she is sternly warned about wolves. Shurka is of course beautiful and when she grows up she does what every well behaved and dutiful Jewish daughter does and marries handsome Avraham. They have a chubby cheeked – equally dutiful daughter ‘little Irena – who chases chickens round the yard of their perfect home in Glebokie while the grandparents beam with delight. An excruciating scene takes half a page in which Shurka tries to tell her beloved Avraham that she’s expecting a baby but doesn’t like to use the word ‘pregnant’ so there is a lot of discussion about storks which he seems remarkably slow to catch on to. Sentimental or what?
Surviving the War? No. What war? The war is off screen, manifesting only as sounds of gunshots heard through a window, or rumours of shootings reported by a neighbour who heard about it from another neighbour and occasional shouts. The characters have no interior lives of their own.
The omniscient narrator is constantly telling us what is going to happen and what the reader should think about it. And in case we still don’t get it, there’s the exposition! Don’t even get me started. Every piece of dialogue is there to inform the reader of things they can’t possibly be expected to glean for themselves or understand from a wider context.
Everytime a child is referred to they are ‘little’ as if the reader might suddenly imagine a newborn to be huge. ‘Little Irena’ is followed by ‘Little Yitzhak’. Various well meaning family members and neighbours warn the family that the war is coming closer and that ethnic cleansing of Jews has started and that the Germans are using Polish collaborators to identify the Jewish families.
The family is forced to flee – because they are Jews living in Poland and this is the 1930s and 1940s and anti-semitism in Poland is a grisly historical fact. Eventually, more than half way through the book, we get to the whole point of the story. Polish collaboration. Displacement.
The Orlitzky family goes to Ostrow Lubelski, the ghetto, where they find an apartment. Numerous new family members appear – many that the reader has not been introduced to including an (adult) younger sister of Shurka, called Devorah, who is in love with somebody else we haven’t met. Apparently Shurka has brothers too somewhere – they are like film extras, you never see their faces, not even while she is growing up. Although we do see the chickens. And a doll called Alinka who gets referred so often it becomes irritating. A crude effort to ramp up the pathos of a scene involving a child. But to me the pathos of the plight of Polish Jews in history is a given. It doesn’t need such artifice.
While the family is debating whether to move from the ghetto to the dreaded forest of Parczew, Shurka’s mother says:
“And what choice do we have?
To go like sheep to the slaughter?”
How could they know – the narrator asks/tells/instructs us – that in no more than a month the whole ghetto would be cleared and the inmates taken to Sobibor.
Well they couldn’t. That’s the point. But at last we do have a point.
German Philosopher Hannah Arendt (14 October 1906 – 4 December 1975)
asks in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem:
“How could the Jews through their own leaders co-operate in their own destruction?”… “Why did they go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?”
A question for which Arendt received little gratitude, but which nevertheless remains unanswered.
I downloaded Surviving the War onto my kindle. The publisher does not state the name of the translator. The ‘Acknowledgements’ page mentions one Arlyn Roffman and ‘Zoe’ but fails to mention whether either or both of them were responsible for translating the book into English.
Thank you to Meytal at Biblibio for hosting the Women in Translation project.