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
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
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
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.