|BOHJALIAN (VICTORIA BLEWER)|
Skeletons At The Feast
By Chris Bohjalian
Shaye Areheart, 372 pp., $25
In this, his 11th novel, Chris Bohjalian is drawn to the atrocities of World War II and has written a poignant account of the conflict's last year, when not only Jews, but also Germans, were fleeing west to escape the oncoming Russian Army. Inspired by a diary kept by the German grandmother of a Vermont neighbor, Bohjalian imagines a prosperous farming family forced to leave its estate in January 1945.
Presented as somewhat ignorant of what has transpired in their still-beloved Germany (Mutti, the matriarch, has a portrait of the fuehrer in the parlor), these Emmerichs, whose oldest son is already fighting for the Reich, are about to lose everything if they do not move quickly.
So they begin their journey: Mutti and her husband, Rolf, the 19-year-old twins, Anna and Helmut, and 10-year-old Theo - with carriages, food, supplies, even their beloved horses. With them is Callum Finella, a Scottish prisoner of war who has been helping them on the farm. Finella thinks of himself as "yet one more pet in the Emmerichs' extensive menagerie. And their anticipated goodwill offering when they reached the British or American lines. And though neither Mutti nor Rolf . . . nor their sons had a clue, Anna Emmerich's lover."
The book begins with their harrowing crossing of the frozen Vistula River before it is shelled and becomes a churning cauldron of death. Unlike others who come right after them, the family gets across, but just as we take a breath of relief, we discover that Rolf has persuaded himself that he and Helmut must return to help the Reich fight the Russians, although their chances of staying alive are minuscule. Thus Bohjalian establishes one of his main themes, self-deception: how people who have done nothing more than live their own, cushioned lives can continually deceive themselves to survive, and how their amazing capacity for denial is often confused, especially in hindsight, with heroism.
Juxtaposed with the Emmerichs is a young Jew who escapes from a cattle car taking him to a concentration camp - the brutally honest Uri Singer who has learned to kill when he must and has exchanged his yellow Star of David for the bronze eagle of Nuremberg pinned to the uniform of the Nazi corporal who was his first victim. And as a kind of coda, there is the story of a group of Jewish women on a forced march from their internment camp to work in a munitions factory. In flashbacks beginning in the fall of 1944 Bohjalian weaves the stories of these very different people whose fates will coalesce at the end.
Many of the details of Uri's journey and the women's suffering will be familiar to those who have read William Shirer or Raul Hilberg or any of the many novels about this period. In recent years discerning readers of history have been bombarded by them, and I must admit a certain weariness when reading those passages. But in creating the Emmerichs and their relationship to Uri, Bohjalian has given us something new and disturbing. He has also created a wonderful character in the protected child, Theo, whose gradual understanding of what is happening to them is moving and real. And when Uri and the Emmerichs meet up and we see Theo's deepening adoration of the young courageous "Nazi," we realize how easy it is to be deluded, and wrong.
As the book unfolds in ironic and tragic ways, as we are introduced to pathetic and pathologically patriotic relatives and friends of the Emmerichs, even sweet, loopy Mutti and idealistic Anna must confront the truth. Gradually they become commanding presences whose strength comes from that primary lesson of survival, the ability to endure.
At the end when so much has been lost and Uri and the Emmerichs are reunited, Uri thinks of what might happen afterward. When America is suggested, he wonders about the members of his own family, all of whom are surely dead:
"He didn't know the details . . . of how they had perished, and on some level he was relieved. But there was still a part of him that craved the specifics: where and when and who was responsible. Who held the angry, barking dogs on their leashes? Who raised high the truncheons, who marched them into the pits? Who fired the machine guns? Or, perhaps, switched on the gas? These were Germans and Poles and Ukrainians with faces and names, men and women who before the war had had families and ran streetcars and bars and butcher shops - people he and his sister and his parents might have seen on any sidewalk and hardly given a second look. . . .
"But then there were these few survivors of what had once been a family named Emmerich. There was this Scot. The reality was, these people were the closest thing he had to a family now. They were all that he had in the world."
What Bohjalian seems to be telling us is that even as his characters grow and learn, we, too, must understand that our notions of good and bad are filled with complex and tragic nuances, and that our collective idea of what is "human" must be questioned and re-examined and perhaps altered as we read. By creating a novel that centers on this Christian German family, Bohjalian has given us an important addition to the story of World War II, and, not at all incidentally, may expand the vision of those who may have avoided "Holocaust literature" in the past.
Roberta Silman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.