Book review: Refugees before and after the war

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Innocent Americans: that’s what Jewish refugees called their U.S. brethren, at least according to two recent novels. However, while “The Houseguest” by Kim Brooks (Counterpoint) is set before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, “Among the Living” by Jonathan Rabb (Other Press) opens two years after the fighting stops. The former novel focuses on U.S. Jews’ attempts to save those still in Europe, while the latter portrays a refugee’s adjustment to life in the American South.
“The Houseguest,” which begins in the spring of 1941, focuses on three outsiders living in Utica, NY: Abe Auer, who emigrated from Europe years earlier and is a successful businessman; Ana Breidler, the title character and a refugee from Europe who is housed by Abe and his American-born wife, Irene; and Rabbi Max Hoffman, who doesn’t fit into the community for reasons revealed late in the novel. Abe is currently having difficulty focusing because of the news coming from Europe: “Just today he’d read about thousands of Jews from the town of Jassy, Rumania – men, women and children – shot in front of a ditch. Then he’s carrying these details around with him all day, sealed off from the rest of him. It was like a bag of gravel he lugged on his back, grinding him lower, slowing him down. It was important to be informed, everyone agreed, but what was one to do with the information – that was another question.” Abe’s reaction is to disconnect from family life, including his daughter’s upcoming wedding.
Although Max once worked for refugee organizations, he left that work to protect himself: he sometimes thinks of those years, of “the exhaustion and frustration and loneliness and uselessness that he felt, that took him over as he walked out of the city and into the hinterlands, an act of cowardice and self-preservation and one he was ashamed to say he never doubted. There was good to be done in Utica. It was modest and small. He thought that if he couldn’t save Jewish lives, then maybe he could change them, help make sense of them despite the indecipherable heap of his own.” Yet, when once again asked to help, Max can’t stop himself from working to save the Jews of Europe, even as he realizes all action may be too late.
Ana’s story, which is not that of a typical refugee, is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. In addition to being an actress with a flair for the dramatic, Ana doesn’t conform to what her hosts and others in the community think is her appropriate role. Abe recognizes this, noting that this “was the problem with good intentions. People expect things for their generosity: a future favor, a pat on the back, a grateful refugee who knows how to take a quick shower” when a group of synagogue members gather to welcome her. Yet, Ana has no interest in being a model guest.
Abe, Max and Ana hold secrets that explain parts of their behavior, although some of what they do surprises themselves and others. “The Houseguest” contains powerful and difficult scenes, including one between Abe and Irene that is stark and moving. However, the most difficult sections focus on what Jewish groups did and didn’t do to help Jewish refugees escape Europe. At least one section is based on reality: the inability of American Jews to help the passengers on the real-life German ocean liner, the St. Louis, that was sent back to Europe after Cuba, the U.S. and other countries refused to let its Jewish refugees land on their soil.
While “The Houseguest” focuses on the Jewish situation in the North, “Among the Living” offers a look at the American South. When Holocaust survivor Yitzhak Golden arrives in Savannah, GA, in 1947, he discovers that adjusting to American life might not be quite as simple as he expected. His first inkling occurs upon meeting his cousin Abe Jesler and his wife, Pearl, who suggest he change his name to Ike – a good American name – rather than keep his more Jewish sounding one. Ike then discovers there are two Jewish communities in the area – one Reform and the other Orthodox – who not only don’t attend the same synagogue, but occupy different social worlds. Since Ike has long abandoned religion, this seems irrelevant – that is until he meets Eva, whose family doesn’t mix socially with the Jeslers. To further complicate matters, Ike is expected to work in Abe’s store, even though he was a journalist in Europe. When someone expresses interest in his writing, Ike must consider whether or not he will seem ungracious if he returns to his previous career. He also discovers that Abe is involved in shady behavior that could affect the entire family.
Another unexpected aspect of life in the American South becomes clear to Ike after he offers his hand to Raymond, a black man who works for Abe. Raymond tells him “it’s awful kind of you giving me your hand... Mr. Ike, but maybe you shouldn’t be doing that no more.” When a black man is injured due to Abe’s actions, Ike sits with another black character and learns the hard truth about southern life: “They had never spoken about the war, about anything before Savannah. [Ike] had told himself that there had been no need. They knew each other, knew the shared silences to their core. Now [Ike] saw how naive that had been. There was a ranking, even to victims, and severity had no cause against time.” Ike must now consider his role in that oppression.
To complicate matters, someone Ike knew in Europe unexpectedly re-enters his life. This forces him to confront how much he owes the past. Should he be allowed to find the happiness that comes from a new beginning, or must he pay homage to his early life – a life he wants to leave behind? Ike recognizes that his decisions are not only based on what occurred during the Holocaust. Ike knows “how easy life would be... to blame [the problems] on his past.... How much more of a shock to admit that this reticence, his numbness, had been his long before the camp and that, perhaps, his survival was simply proof that such detachment had its own worth.” Yet, once detachment disappears, the resulting emotions can be painful, joyous or a confusing mix of both.
“Among the Living” is an absorbing, moving work that will make readers care deeply about its characters. What it shares with “The Houseguest” is a European’s thoughts about the innocence of American life. Ike can’t help but believe that life was easy for the Jews of Savannah during the war: Did they suffer any deprivation? If not, how can they understand him? His cousin’s friends always have questions for him, although what they want to know is not the same as what they ask: “How could [the Germans] be so inhuman? But that wasn’t the question they were really asking. What they really wanted to know was: How could you have let this happen to yourself? Surely you would have seen something early on, understood. We would have seen it, wouldn’t we?” This lack of understanding is painful in its totally unrealistic view of the world, but that doesn’t stop Ike from seeking a new life among his more innocent brethren.