The fifth novel on TJ’s #12germansin2016 list is one I would never have read, if left to my own devices. There are too many reasons not to read holocaust novels to list them here. And yet, somehow this modern classic was waiting in the TBR for its moment to come, and so ….
In a previous review I was bemoaning a lack of sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm. Becker put that to rights and didn’t take many pages to do it. 15 pages in and I knew I was reading a masterpiece. At this point I wondered how many awards it had won: Heinrich Mann Prize (1971), Charles Veillon Prize (1971) and this 1990 translation by Leila Vennewitz won the Helen and Kurt Wolf Translator’s Prize.
Jacob Heym is wandering around the Jewish Ghetto shortly before curfew, when he gets caught in the spotlight. The guard, pretending that Jacob has violated curfew, sends him to the police station for punishment. Now two miraculous things happen. 1) Jacob overhears a radio report concerning the Russian advance and 2) he gets to leave the police station alive. The new report gives Jacob hope. The following day he blurts out the news to his friend Mischa in order to prevent him from doing something stupid. How do you know that? queries Mischa. Unable to tell the truth, because no-one would believe he had come out of the police station alive (unless he were there to denounce someone), Jacob tells Mischa that he has a radio. And this lie fuels the rest of the novel.
Radios are, of course, verboten, and to possess one is a capital offence. This, however, is the least of Jacob’s problems. As news of his radio spreads, so too does the need of the persecuted for updated bulletins. Jacob finds himself having to take risks to get snippets of information from the outside. But it’s too dangerous and so Jacob Heym gets creative.
What he’s doing is a good thing, isn’t it? Bringing hope to the thousands of Jews, whose only way out of the Ghetto is a transport to the death camps. If only it were as simple as that. Not everyone welcomes the news of the radio – if the Germans hear of it, there could be a mass deportation to the camps as punishment. And hope, in these twisted circumstances, also leads directly to the death of one who passes it on to a wagon-load of Jewish prisoners couped up in the sidings.
That one little lie turns into a real burden for Jacob, who is no hero. He’s a curmudgeon, a loner, not a social creature at all. Nor does his want his new role, but he recognises that the suicides have stopped and so he continues to make up his stories to keep his fellow Jews from falling into despair. The Russians really aren’t that far away. Deliverance is at hand. We just need to survive a little while longer.
Easier said than done in a place where walking the streets without the identifying yellow star results in a one-way ticket for the offender and his family to the death camps. Where whole streets are cleared on a whim. Taking us deep into the heart of the ghetto, Becker details practical realities and individual histories across the social classes without any sentimentality. The struggle, the despair and the arbitrariness of survival, but also the continuing humanity and dignity of an oppressed people, which cannot be vanquished even in the face of the grossest cruelty.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the telling is the narrator. It took a while for me to identify him and to work out how he got his insider knowledge. The realisation is heart-breaking. For no matter how much the narrator (and the reader) wants this to end well and to believe in the first fictitious ending, the second one reflects the tragic truth of the matter. When the Russians finally liberated the Lodz ghetto, they found only 877 Jews alive. The rest had been transported to the camps – among them a young lad named Jurek Becker. Fortunately he survived. Years later he penned this astonishing novel, and I suspect I’ve just read my book of the year.
Thank you, TJ.