A richly crafted ode to the past, this 1979 classic, now in a first English translation, was chosen by the National Yiddish...


Israeli Be’er (The Pure Element of Time, 2002, etc.) evokes a Jerusalem neighborhood as magical and surreal as a Chagall painting. Meanwhile, a young soldier recalls growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s.

Framed by the Yom Kippur War, the soldier, whose job is to collect the dead from the battlefield, dreams he meets the long-dead Reb Dovid Leder. He never knew Leder, but he did know his son Mordecai. Waking, he finds himself remembering how he first met Mordecai, a memory that sets off others as he looks back at his boyhood and adolescence in a time of peaceful innocence. On his way home after school, he met Mordecai, whose alleged job was to collect alms for the blind, standing outside the Russian Bookstore. When Mordecai saw him, he declared that the Communists would never last, and then asked if he had heard of Popper-Lynkeus, a 19th-century Utopian. Mordecai wants to create a Nutrition Army that will establish a vegetarian state honoring Lynkeun precepts. The soldier is enlisted as the only follower, and, as Mordecai recalls prewar Vienna, his father’s illustrious political connections, and his attempts to further the cause, the soldier introduces other colorful characters in his Orthodox neighborhood—characters like his father, who searches for proof that the Eucalyptus, not the willow, is the tree referred to in the Bible; or Riklin, the undertaker who is rumored to have once stopped the sun in its path; and the Ringels, who venerate the last Austrian Emperor in an apartment filled with imperial memorabilia. As the narrator grows up, Mordecai’s behavior becomes more eccentric: he’s hospitalized after trying to rob a bank with a wooden gun, and, when released, sets on fire a cloth cow festooned with cheeses and sausages, which he calls the “calf-idol of food” worshipped by his fellow Israelis. Then, as the narrator continues his burial detail, he encounters an unexpected legacy from Mordecai.

A richly crafted ode to the past, this 1979 classic, now in a first English translation, was chosen by the National Yiddish Book Center as “one of the 100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature.”

Pub Date: April 30, 2004

ISBN: 1-58465-371-X

Page Count: 272

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2004

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.


In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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