The experiences of Galician Holocaust survivor Wander, who died in 2006, are starkly fictionalized in this lyrical novel originally published in East Germany in 1970.
The episodic narrative chronicles hardship and an endangered culture’s communal will to survive. It is presented by an unnamed narrator who honors his comrades in suffering by describing their ordeals and retelling their stories. Wander’s resonant title, taken from a 16th-century poem by Rabbi Loew of Prague, offers an image of unshakeable faith—as do the prisoners whom we encounter at Auschwitz, during an arduous mountain crossing in flight from the Nazis’ enemies, and at Buchenwald—where the first things the arriving prisoners see are “stacks” of dead bodies. The details may be (alas) familiar, but their cumulative power is considerable. Comparisons to both classic concentration-camp memoirs and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are as justly earned as they are inevitable. Among the most memorable of the narrator’s companions: “storyteller” Mendel Teichmann, an ironical atheist who nevertheless confirms his hearers’ stubborn hopefulness indomitable; “Parisian laborer and resistance fighter” Jacques; rich farmer Meir Bernstein, who stoically refuses to believe that everything will be taken from him; and teenaged Tadeusz Moll, who eventually runs out of the astonishing good luck that had magically attached to him. A slight tendency toward sentimental oversimplification is effectively balanced by Wander’s gift for understatement (wonderfully rendered by Hofmann’s beautiful translation). And no reader will be unmoved by lucid homespun metaphors (e.g., “Mornings when a sun comes up bloody as out of a battle”) or such scenes as a “demonstration against barbarism” accomplished by “educated” prisoners discussing favorite literary works.
A story we cannot hear too many times is grippingly retold in this blistering report from hell on earth. Wander’s legacy thus becomes a gift bequeathed to all of us.