Deceptively simple in style, Schwarz’s narrative discloses depths of tragedy, of suffering, and occasionally of hope.
This debut novel covers the period from 1945 to 2000 and ranges geographically from the Polish-German border to New York City. In May of 1945 we meet several Holocaust survivors, including Pavel, who escaped from a camp three weeks before the liberation; Fela, a woman whose husband disappeared and who was presumably killed; and Chaim, a bright 14-year-old who serves as a teaching assistant at a postwar refugee camp. For the next 55 years we learn of the intertwined fates of these characters as well as of those who orbit them, including Fishl, who escaped along with Pavel; Hinda, Pavel’s strong-willed sister; and Sima, a teacher at the refugee camp who married Chaim. In the beginning Schwarz takes us from the physical difficulties of survival to the logistical difficulties of getting out of postwar Germany. Most of the survivors want to emigrate either to Britain or to the United States, but this desire involves complicated issues of negotiation and influence. Pavel and Fela first meet when they’re rooming in a widow’s house, and they fall into an affair, complicated by their lack of certainty about what happened to Fela’s husband. Pavel’s sister wants to marry a Jewish man in a Jewish ceremony, but an American rabbi insists on documentation that has literally gone up in smoke. Despite such impediments, Pavel and Fela marry and move to the United States, where Pavel has a tailoring business in New York. The characters raise families, face difficult business decisions and have an occasional affair, but despite renewing their lives they remain haunted by their past. As the title suggests, they remain displaced and, if not homeless, at least estranged. In one of the final scenes Pavel becomes enraged when a well-meaning American Jew suggests Pavel get the tattoo removed from his arm, implying that he should be ashamed of his past.
Stark, unadorned fiction, well worth reading.