Polish-born journalist Krall (Shielding the Flame, 1986, etc.) writes true stories about real people, but does so using fiction’s methods. All of her people were in or were touched by the Holocaust.
In the title story, featured in The New Yorker’s “fiction” issues (Dec. 20 and 27, 2004), a woman, using increasingly larger pillows, pretends to be pregnant and give birth—so she can raise the baby of the pregnant Jewess she and her husband are closeting from the Nazis. “Phantom Pain” is the riveting family history of a young German baron (Axel von dem Busche) who ends up in the fighting on the eastern front—and becomes part of the assassination plot against Hitler. The rich vibrancy of Jewish life in Polish villages and towns—and the horror of its extermination—are made real all over again in the story of a man who, having survived, is drawn compulsively back to the now-empty places (“Portrait with a Bullet in the Jaw”). A man in “Only a Joke” is obsessed with the seven years of his childhood—a childhood that ended with the Warsaw Uprising. “The Back of the Eye” brings events up to the 1970s and the years of Cohn-Bendit, while in “The Dybbuk,” an American professor and survivor knows that his doomed six-year-old brother still lives inside him. “The Chair” is the pitiable tale of a group in hiding who kill the old man whose cough is going to give them away, and in “A Fox,” an aging pair of survivors live in a prewar past that has been utterly annihilated. And the utterly extraordinary “Hamlet” is the life story of the fiercely talented and troubled musician Andrzej Czajkowski, who, born in 1935, was a “hidden child,” left behind by his mother as she successfully went over to “the Aryan side.”
From Krall, herself born in 1937, conscience-driven reconstructions of lives that lie forever in ruins. Invaluable.