For no very obvious reason, I have spent a lot of time lately reading about the politics of the mid-20th century—the nexus being perhaps 1948, when I would have been 12. For even less obvious reasons, I’ve been pursuing a subset of what you might call “Jewish survival” literature, and I take it for granted that the theme of Jewish survival is a central theme of the period.
The keystone was surely Primo Levi’s
But then I moved on to two more which can be discussed somewhat as a matched set: Five Germanys I Have Known (link),and Amos Oz’ Tale of Love and Darkness (link). Each is the first person account of a boy who became a man amidst the turbulent politics of the time. And although neither experienced much directly in the way of political violence [Hah!--What was I thinking? Seen Afterthought II below], still each one found his life defined by it.
And that is the virtue they share: Stern and Oz both have a remarkable knack for uniting the personal and the political: of telling their own story, the stories of their dear ones, and to an extent the stories of their ancestors known and unknown, as part of the fabric of the times.
For Stern, it comes naturally: he’s an historian by trade. It is therefore not surprising that the best of his “
Ironically, perhaps the happiest part of Stern’s book comes at its darkest hour. We’re talking about World War II, when the Stern family, emigrants at last, tries to scratch as place for itself in wartime
Sadly but perhaps inevitably, Stern’s book loses some of its force as he gains in eminence. It still has its merits, but more and more and more it becomes an essay in “and-so-I-told-the-Pope” (literally: see pp 339-42) which necessarily impels the reader into a snooze.
Oz’s life (and book) is the same only different. He’s about 12 years younger than Stern. He was born in
Afterthought I: If you like the literature of survivorship, then for a total change of pace, read the biography of Judah P. Benjamin (link), the Confederate Secretary of War, who, after Apomattox, succeeded in reinventing himself as a lawyer and leading law scholar in London.
Afterthought II: Political violence? What was I thinking? I guess I was thinking of the Hitler wars in Europe. They missed that, alright, but Oz as a nine-year-old child underwent the Arab onslaught against Jerusalem after the partition in 1948. No day at the beach, let me tell you.