A debut novel details a Jewish family’s escape from the Nazis, and the emotional tumult it suffered in the aftermath.
Sylvie Rosenberg grows up in the Netherlands, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent art dealer. Her father, Benjamin, is able to protect the family under the Nazi occupation because he can procure certain elusive pieces of art the Germans pine to own: “We have connections for the masterpieces that Hitler wants for his collection, which the Germans can only obtain through our survival. Do you understand? Through our survival.” But the Rosenbergs’ predicament becomes increasingly perilous, and Benjamin must come to grip with the fact that he can only protect his family for so long. He eventually strikes a deal with the Nazis to allow his family to leave—25 members of his clan—in exchange for a single Rembrandt. They are permitted to abscond to Spain and then, through France, to a British internment camp in Jamaica. Benjamin is tortured by the beautiful art he sacrifices to his oppressors, as well as by the relatives he proves incapable of saving. Berg, the daughter-in-law of the nonfictional Sylvie, poignantly dramatizes a largely true story. (The book includes an introduction written by the author’s husband, Bruce Berg, Sylvie’s son.) The narrative, mostly told from Sylvie’s perspective, tracks her troubles when she moves to Long Island. With her marriage a disaster, she struggles to accept the absence of her father, and the loss not only of the family business, but also its artistic legacy. She also lives in the shadow of the Shoah, desperately wanting to communicate her Jewish heritage to her son, Michael Beckman, but impotent to do so without burdening him with her pain. The tale quickly leaps from one geographic stage to another, and also from decade to decade and back; this nonlinear approach is sometimes confusing and halting. The subplot following the life of Michael’s wife, Angela, seems digressive and even distracting. Nonetheless, this remains a powerful, haunting story about love, sacrifice, and the rhapsodic draw of beauty, even for monsters.
A moving rendering of a true story about an art dealer, both thrilling and historically fascinating,