boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
BOOK REVIEW

Spare voices recountimmeasurable sorrow

The Woman From Hamburg and Other True Stories, By Hanna Krall, Translation by Madeline G. Levine, Other Press LLC, 260 pp., $19

''The Woman From Hamburg and Other True Stories" is a collection of stark portraits of people who lived and died during the Holocaust. Originally written in Polish by journalist Hanna Krall and translated into English by Madeline G. Levine, the book is filled with powerful, unadorned prose.

Each of the 12 stories is divided into subsections, some just a few paragraphs long. The characters are vivid: a Polish-born pianist who survives the war hidden in a wardrobe; a man who believes he's living with the spirit of his older half-brother, killed as a child in a Warsaw ghetto; a German officer who, after witnessing a mass execution, decides to assassinate Hitler. Some of the stories are nothing more than a string of vignettes; others are chatty family histories. Most are filled with the names of people who were slaughtered by the Nazis or, if their names were not known, their nicknames. The stories weave together as Krall makes connections among the people she interviewed.

Krall makes no attempt to explain the unexplainable. ''My work as a reporter has taught me that logical stories, without riddles and holes in them, in which everything is obvious, tend to be untrue," she writes in ''Salvation." ''And things that cannot be explained in any fashion really do happen. In the end, life on earth is also true, but it cannot be logically explained."

And so Krall simply presents glimpses of the lives of people who lived through the Holocaust and, in some cases, the lives of their descendents. She illustrates what people are willing to do to survive. In the title story, Krall describes a Jewish woman who is hidden by an infertile married couple, bears the husband's child, and gives it to the wife before disappearing. Years later, the child discovers who her birth mother is and travels to Hamburg to ask why she was given away. Turns out, it wasn't to save her. The woman says: ''I had to. I had to agree to everything. I wanted to live."

Some of the pieces are painful to read. ''I know what that cry is," one Holocaust survivor says in ''The Dybbuk." ''When they threw him out of the hiding place he stood in the street and cried loudly. That was the cry -- the cry of my child who was thrown out into the street." One can't help but imagine the child's terror and his parent's horror as several adults, desperate to save their own lives, take a crying 6-year-old boy from his mother and leave him to die.

It is important to remember that these stories are not fiction, or even fictionalized. They are profiles, interviews, and biographies. The man with the bullet in his jaw? He's real. Krall's conversation with a Buddhist monk who used to be a Jew? It happened. Every person described in this book existed, and deserves to be counted. ''There are no graves. Why are there no Jewish graves?" Thomas Blatt asks as he and Krall visit his old village. ''Why is no one sad?"

In this book of remembrances, a few simple words create thousands of indelible images.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives