The Humanity of Evil: Amir Gutfreund’s “Our Holocaust”

Haim Watzman

The title Amir Gutfreund chose for his novel Our Holocaust has a quadruple meaning. “Our Holocaust” is the Holocaust of the survivors who populate his story; it’s the Holocaust of Hans Underman, the German scholar who intrudes on the story; it’s the Holocaust of the narrator and his childhood friend, Efi, who appropriate the Holocaust of their parents’ generation for themselves; and it’s the Holocaust that human beings can suffer, or perpetrate, under circumstances beyond, and within, their control.

It’s an appropriate book to write about on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples. The Jewish prophets and sages understood that each of these awful catastrophes, which were accompanied by the slaughter and enslavement of their people, had a double meaning. These previous Holocausts were crimes committed against the Jewish people by other nations, but they were also evidence of the depravity of God’s chosen people, of their failure to adhere to the moral code of God’s law.

In today’s Holocaust discourse, that synthesis is often absent. Some see the Holocaust as an unparalleled crime committed by the Germans, a nation with a culture uniquely degenerate. Therefore, the Jews, as the particular victims of this crime, derive a special status from it. Others see the Holocaust as just another instance of man’s inhumanity to man. From that they deduce that the experience of the Holocaust ought not to have changed the Jewish nation’s perception of itself. But both these propositions are true. The Jews learn from the Holocaust that they can trust to the protection of no other nation but themselves; humanity—including the Jews—learns that no matter what cultural failings led the Germans into the hell they created, the crimes they committed were human crimes. Thus every human being, Jews included, have a duty to guard themselves, and their nations, against the possibility that they will sink into moral dissolution (one need not sink to the level of the Nazis to commit horrible deeds).

(I read the novel in the original Hebrew, but has been published in English in a translation by Jessica Cohen.)

Gutfreund’s novel brings this synthesis home. It begins with the narrator, who bears the author’s name, as a young boy. He and Efi, a girl from his extended family, play Holocaust games and try to squeeze stories of the camps out of their older relatives and out of the residents of Kiryat Hayyim, the quarter of Haifa where some of them live alongside other survivors. Theirs is an amalgamated family of numerous grandfathers, aunts and uncles; the genocide has left so many people alone and so many families broken that families like Amir’s have adopted new members. Amir has no real grandfather, but he has several grandfathers in quotation marks. There’s Grandpa Lulek, a brawny, irreverent man who drives an ancient Vauxhaul sedan and who fought the Nazis in the Polish army of General Anders; there is Mr. Perl, attorney-at-law, who runs a hardware store and keeps careful files on the fate of former Nazis; and there is Grandpa Yosef, a kindhearted man, learned in both traditional Jewish wisdom and in fields ranging from astronomy to geography to history.

Guttfreund’s story moves slowly at first (too slowly—the first section, about Amir and Efi’s childhood, would be better were it 50 pages shorter), but picks up steam when Unterman the German makes his first visit, and then when Grandpa Yosef embarks on a tour of the Caribbean islands after the death of his invalid wife, his autistic son, and his dog. Amir and Efi, who were for so long told that they were not old enough to hear their elders’ stories, grow up and into “the age.” Amir begins to chronicle the stories of his father, his various grandfathers, and of other residents in Kiryat Hayyim; it is this section of the book that packs the most powerful punch.

Amir’s conclusion, when he has finished telling the stories he has collected, is that while the victims of the Holocaust included many saints and no fewer sinners, most were simply ordinary people. Likewise, some of the perpetrators were sadists and monsters, others tried to do some good, but most were simply ordinary people. In the end, this is the horror, and the warning—the Holocaust was committed against, and by, human beings like ourselves.

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Our Holocause was a finalist for the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this book; my book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award. More Sami Rohr books I’ve written about on South Jerusalem:

Jewish Literature As It Ought To Be: Naomi Alderman’s “Disobedience”

Tel Aviv Ennui: Yael Hedaya’s Accidents

Black and White and Jew All Over: Eric L. Goldstein’s “The Price of Whiteness”

The Family as Text: Tamar Yellin’s “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”

Standing Between: Ilana M. Blumberg’s “Houses of Study”

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