Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hans Eichner's Kahn and Engelmann

One of the reasons I read enjoy reading so much, I think, is because of the freedom I allow myself in moving forward from book to book and author to author without sticking to a preconceived plan. In other words, I always have something in mind to read next—there are times when my night table could use its own night table to cover the overflow—but I try not to feel imprisoned by my own intentions and, as I hear about interesting books for the first time, I sometimes just move off in that direction and promise myself that I’ll get back some other time to whatever it was I had previously been planning to read next. Sometimes I even do get back to Plan A. Sometimes not. What can you do? My life is regimented enough in every other way!

So far this summer, I’ve read Junot Diaz’ book, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and liked it very much. And I read Zev Jabotinsky’s novel, The Five, which was a huge surprise to me—the author not as fiery, Betar-style Zionist, but as serious Russian novelist far more in the style of Turgenev or even Chekhov than anyone else who came to mind. It’s an exceptional book too, and this one you can feel free to tell people your rabbi recommended! But then, almost as soon as I had embarked on my self-imposed regimen of summer reading, I departed from it to read President Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father. That’s not the book I want to write to you about today, but I can’t recommend the president’s book to you highly enough. Your personal view of politics won’t matter here—the man is the president of the United States and this book is a true window into his soul, into the way he views the world. The whole story is there (or at least the whole story up until the mid-1990s) including long episodes in Indonesia, Hawaii, Chicago, and Kenya and it is not just fascinating, but at least in parts truly riveting. It’s a wonderful book—frank, insightful, reflective without being even remotely solipsistic—and one I think all citizens of our country should be very interested in reading. The author, our president, would have probably chosen to soft-pedal certain aspects of his story had he known when he was at work on the book that he was going to end up in the White House (and he would probably have chosen to express himself differently in at least some passages), but that too is part of the book’s charm. As I said, I really can’t recommend it strongly enough.

But the book I want to write about to you today—Hans Eichner’s semi-autobiographical novel, Kahn and Engelmann—is not one you’re likely to have heard of. Eichner, who was a professor at the University of Toronto for many years before his death earlier this year, was born in Vienna in 1921 and his book is one of the richest, most interesting, and most moving accounts of Jewish life in Hungary and Austria I’ve ever read. (The family starts out in a tiny village in Hungary called Tapolca but moves early on to Vienna, arriving just at the turn of the century and settling in the Leopoldstadt section of the city, Vienna’s most Jewish neighborhood. So the book is about the narrator’s family, but also about Vienna itself and the lives of the Jews who lived and flourished there during the first decades of the twentieth century.) Along the way, we read about the narrator’s father’s suicide, about his brothers’ and sisters’ successes and failures both in business and in love, and about the author/narrator’s own life. We read about his escape from Vienna first to Belgium and then to England, his interment in England during the war as a foreign national (the English appear in this book to have been incapable of distinguishing German-speaking Jews from German-speaking Nazis or Nazi sympathizers), his “relocation” to Australia, and then his subsequent re-relocation back to England. At this point in the narrative, the author and the narrator part company: the “real” author moved to Canada at that point and established himself as a professor of German literature first at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and then at the University of Toronto, while the narrator in the book elects instead to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine and then, moving to Israel, ends up in Haifa. And, of course, we also see the beginning of the end for the Jews of Vienna, as the harrowing story of their fate in the years leading up to and following the Anschluss of 1938 that made Austria part of Greater Germany is told in a series of vignettes that recount the stories of individuals whose entire social and commercial structure crumbled almost overnight. Fittingly, the book ends at Auschwitz.

Eichner waited until he retired from teaching to write his thinly-disguised autobiographical novel, but he waited just a bit too long. The book came out in Austria in 2000 in a very small edition, then subsequently was picked up by the large German publisher Rowohlt and was a huge success both in Austria and in Germany. Interest developed in an English-language edition and one was prepared—and, I should say, excellently well done—by a woman named Jean Snook, then published…but Eichner himself died just three days before the book finally came out. So he told his story in German and lived to know that it would be published in English as well, but he never held the bound book now offered for sale by Biblioasis, a small Canadian literary press. There’s a certain poignancy in that thought, I think, but also a certain challenge in it: the man himself is gone from the world, but his story remains…if people take the time to buy his book and read all about it.

As we approach the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War this September 1, we need, all of us, to consider what we are doing to preserve these first-person accounts of Jewish survival. The survivors among us need to ask how exactly they are going to go about bequeathing their personal stories to future generations. The children of survivors in our midst need to ask themselves what they are doing to make sure that their parents’ stories outlive their years on earth…and to remember that the sacred slogan “Never Again!” is predicated on the supposition that the people hearing it know what it is that we are imploring them to prevent from happening again, a supposition that in turn rests on the availability of first-person narratives that can serve as eye-witness testimony to events that the naysayers and deniers of the world feel free to insist never actually happened. Those of us, like myself, who are neither survivors nor direct descendants of survivors need to ask what it is we ourselves are doing to guarantee that the survivors’ stories—and, by extension, the stories of so many millions who did not survive—are available permanently to all who wish to know the truth about the Shoah. What we can do—what I myself do—is to exert ourselves maximally to make sure a market exists for these books, to buy them automatically when they come out, thus encouraging the publication of more of them by publishers concerned more with the bottom line than with the legacy of the Jewish people. We need to talk about these books too, and encourage others to buy them and to talk about them. Together, we can create a commercial climate in which the success of these projects fosters more such undertakings in the future. And, of course, we need to encourage the survivors in our midst to strike while the iron is still hot by finding an appropriate avenue of self-expression and then devoting the time necessary to committing their memories to paper.

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