Triggered by an overheard snippet at a dinner, “So I jumped out of a tree, and I killed him with my knife,” Helen Shankman’s collection of eight connected stories set in Poland during the German occupation is a masterpiece of narrative structure and psychological exploration. It is also a book of fairytales, and it is through the weaving of historical fact and rich Jewish and European folklore that Shankman empowers the millions of Poles and Polish Jews who were murdered by the Nazis, and buried in mass graves. It also gives voice to the Nazis who were tasked with performing the Aktzia (mass killings), humanizing rather than demonizing them.
Shooting women and children is not what I signed up for; I’m a soldier, I miss the smoke and strategy of the battlefield. Still, a soldier must do what he is told, or all discipline disappears, and the war is lost.
The book consists of eight connected stories set in the administrative district of Włodawa, and the castle of Adampol. Over 70% of the town was Jewish before the war, but no Jews are known to live in the town today. The first story focuses on the Max Haas, known as the General of the Jews, who was in charge of assigning skilled Jews to work details. As he hires a painter to create a mural for his son’s bedroom, he becomes more and more emotionally attached to “his Jew”. The second story is more fantastical, as shape-shifters emerge from the woods to fight the German soldiers. In “The Messiah”, the titular prophet absconds his heavenly responsibilities. “They were like family to me” jumps forward to an old man reminiscing about some mysterious events during the war, while in “The Jew Hater” a collaborating anti-Semite agrees to hide a Jewish child. “The Golem of Żuków” tells the tale of a mysterious giant who is called upon to defend the Jews from danger, and “A Decent Man” circles back to the point of view of a Nazi officer who, appalled by the atrocities of war, tries to defend “his” Jews. Finally, “New York City, 1989” provides closure as the descendants of a Nazi and a Jewish survivor of the Aktzia meet. With shape-shifters, golems, the Messiah, talking animals and even the land itself rising up to defend the Jews, the fairytale elements make this a unique portrayal of this difficult period in history.
It wasn’t as if there hadn’t been signs. Strange lights in the sky, unusual weather. An actual golem saving the lives of two hundred and fifty people being led off to slaughter. A whole battalion of Deutschen wiped out by mysterious forest creatures. The news was on everyone’s lips. We were in the throes of an epic showdown between good and evil, for sure.
The weaving together of the tales is masterful; enough to make me want to re-read the book to see which connections I may have missed. It is very cleverly done and provides a kaleidoscopic view of a snapshot moment; telling the same story from multiple perspectives until the whole image becomes clear. Furthermore, within the eight stories of the book, the characters themselves tell little stories that give significance to the events that they are experiencing. Perhaps by using narrative to create a framework for their interpretation of their own experiences, they are able to give a sense of order (and thus the illusion of control) to atrocities that play out as systematic, methodical and barbaric insanity.
As he totted up their totals, Hersh told the farmers tall tales of forbidden feasts presided over by demons, many-headed dragons destroyed by their own teeth, sly foxes outwitting greedy wolves. Slapping heavy bags of flour on the backs of their wagons, they shook their heads, regarded him with lined faces burned by the sun, hard flinty eyes. Life was brief and brutal and pitiless, they told him. Fairy tales were a waste of God’s own time.
Shankman uses the symbolism of Jewish and European folklore to express the things that they would be shot for saying directly: criticizing the German war machine, or speaking up for those who are weak and oppressed. Carl Jung believed that the symbols, archetypes and tropes that were common to fairytales revealed the collective unconscious. In Shankman’s book they give a sense of unity to people who are divided by their physical and religious differences; a sense of common humanity. More recently, Bettelheim argues that fairytales give children the ability to navigate reality and survive in a world ruled by adults. Similarly, the fairytales in this book, with their more analogous symbolism, give the powerless the tools to navigate a world ruled by Nazi bigotry and senseless violence. Finally, Maria Tatar suggests that fairytales demonstrate the triumph of the small and weak over the tall and powerful; in this case, the triumph of the Jewish spirit, as well as the desire to do good, over the blind obedience, madness and callous hatred of Nazism.
“Some of us have invented little tricks to help us get through it. Like my friend Diederich, for instance. He only shoots mothers. You can understand that – it would be worse for them to see their children killed before their eyes. And me, I just do children. They wouldn’t be able to live without their mothers, so the way I see it, it’s an act of mercy.”
By filling the Polish woods with fantastic beasts that leap to the rescue of the Jews who are to be killed, Shankman provides her characters, who are based on real people and inspired by the stories told to her by her relatives, with heroes. This gives sense to the senseless violence and power to the powerless, and allows them to pursue a narrative that helps them to cope with the horror of the times. Even the land itself rises up to defend them. The natural world plays an important role in the stories; animals talk, seasons govern the actions of the farming community, and the environment responds to the emotions and atmosphere. The people are connected to each other, and they are connected to the land; there is a strong sense of unity that highlights the senselessness of the violence.
The sun is beginning to sink over the trees. The day ends early in November, but today the golden light lingers, slanting a vibrant pink glow on the softness of a cheek, an outstretched arm, a shapely thigh, the arc of a throat, the inside of an open palm. When the first chilly breath of nighttime riffles through a young girl’s hair, even the sun shivers, withdraws its warmth, and slinks away.
Weaving fact and fantasy together with dazzling artistry and moving sensitivity, Shankman uses magical realism to explore the psyche of human beings tasked with destroying each other, and the heroism within ordinary people that leads them to rise up in their defense. Perhaps the real events did not occur exactly as depicted in this book; however, by weaving the rich folklore of Judaism and Europe together with the senseless violence of the German occupation, Shankman provides a narrative framework through which we are able to understand the complex choices they were forced to make, and through which the lost voices of those who were murdered are given agency, power and closure.