HOUSE OF CHILDHOOD

The quest for a sense of belonging motivates a first-generation Jewish American exploring his roots in post-WWII Austria.

Max Berman emigrates from the Austrian village of H in 1928 when he is almost five. His mother, Mira, who never adjusts to America, keeps alive his memory of the gracious home and European bourgeois lifestyle they left behind. As a young soldier in Europe in 1945, Max briefly visits the house in H now occupied by strangers (the Austrian relatives who lived there all died in the Holocaust). A successful, free-wheeling bachelor, Max puts off visiting H again until Mira’s death. Now 50 years old, he returns to Austria to reclaim the house. After months of legal maneuvers, he gains ownership, then returns to New York since he can’t take occupancy until the rent-control tenants die. While in H, Max becomes involved in the small Jewish community of returned survivors. Their leader, Spitzer, is a private, almost saintly man who accepts the local Austrians’ arrogance and defensiveness. Through Spitzer, Max has met Nadja, a young woman who wants to be Jewish. He brings her to America to be educated. She falls in love with him but he breaks off their affair and she must find her way in America alone. Eighteen years pass before the last tenants in H die. Max, almost 70, returns to renovate the house. He rekindles his friendship with Spitzer and begins to write a chronicle of the Jews of H, an indictment of their mistreatment by Christian Austrians through the centuries. Upon Spitzer’s death, Nadja visits H. Max realizes he does love her—but it’s too late. He returns to New York, where he can be himself without the weight of history. Austrian-born Mitgutsch (Lover, Traitor, 1997) writes with a passionate anger that can be discomforting, but her characters’ complex humanity is riveting.

Dense and deeply moving.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2006

ISBN: 1-59051-188-3

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2006

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS

These letters from some important executive Down Below, to one of the junior devils here on earth, whose job is to corrupt mortals, are witty and written in a breezy style seldom found in religious literature. The author quotes Luther, who said: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." This the author does most successfully, for by presenting some of our modern and not-so-modern beliefs as emanating from the devil's headquarters, he succeeds in making his reader feel like an ass for ever having believed in such ideas. This kind of presentation gives the author a tremendous advantage over the reader, however, for the more timid reader may feel a sense of guilt after putting down this book. It is a clever book, and for the clever reader, rather than the too-earnest soul.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1942

ISBN: 0060652934

Page Count: 53

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1943

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