Love and War in the Jewish Quarter: A Novel by Dora Levy Mossanen

Love and War in the Jewish Quarter: A Novel by Dora Levy Mossanen

Set in Iran in the 1940s, Love and War in the Jewish Quarter captures Jewish life and culture as it existed in tense contest and precarious harmony with and within the majority, ruling Islamic community. On the fringes of World War II, but dangerously within the political reach of the Nazi regime and Soviet pressures, Iranian Jews must balance their interactions with Muslims even more carefully than they always had. The Allies are a distant factor; they are not a guarantee of safety as news of Hitler’s internment of Jews creeps ever closer.

[For those interested in the Jewish experience of WWII in this region of the world, One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and a search for a Lost World by Michael Frank is about Rhodes and its Jewish community before and during WWII.]

It is in this tension that Jewish dentist, Dr Soleiman Yaran, finds himself. He is trapped in the conflicting intersection between his Jewish community and roots, the powerful Iranian royal family and governors of the land, his family, and his personal desires. The novel revolves around his attempt to unravel and reconcile his responsibilities and his personal happiness. Embedded in these tensions are deeper, more global undercurrents: as a medical professional schooled in Paris, Yaran also finds himself — as an agent of a Westernized modernity — at odds with ethnic, religious traditions, Jewish and Muslim alike. The war is not the only conflict highlighted in this novel; friction also exists in culture between the traditional past and the modern present. There is a shedding of superstition and tradition in favor of new technologies and practices, beliefs about the roles of men and women in their communities. Gendered expectations, visible through the performances of wife, husband, child, lover, parent, elder, and filial piety, duty to one’s community, and duty to one’s self are strong themes throughout.

Mossanen delivers this internal and historical drama through a romantic storyline, but readers will be disappointed if they expect a historical romance, for a romance it is not. This is a love story about love in the real and brutal world, where individuals are buffeted by cultural and community expectations and traditions. Its realistic setting and story are the novel’s appeal; the unpredictability of life will keep you, Reader, on your toes throughout.

The characters too, are fascinating — multi-faceted and tangible — because they are reflections of real internal conflicts. They are flawed and spurred on to their actions by subjective logics, some which make little sense, except when viewed within the larger landscape of this history and cultural context. The villains in this novel are human in their cruelties. The heroes and heroines are human, unable to manifest impossible archetypes.

A worthy read for all fans of historical fiction of the 20th century.

The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel by Olivier Guez

The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel by Olivier Guez

Like many people I have a deep personal fascination with World War II (much influenced by my professional interests in this time period), but I was unsure if I wanted to read a book — fiction or otherwise — centered on so evil a person, a human being capable of having inflicted so much suffering on others. Indeed, the first third of the novel made me rather queasy: Should I be more detached from this historical material? Should I be reading this with a massive grain of salt? Should I be enjoying this read?

And that’s the thing: The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel is a captivating, enjoyable read. Guez’s prose is irrepressibly smooth, the plot is compelling and thrusts the reader forward, his characterization of Mengele is fascinating, successful, human. I did not want to like him — and here I think is Guez’s brilliance — I did not end up liking this horrendous human being, in fact, my distaste for him was confirmed, but Guez prevailed on me to acknowledge Mengele as a member of my own species. By the end of the book, I could not deny that Mengele and I shared a common sense of existence, a common biology, that he and I were human. And I therefore must confront the real horror of Nazi eugnenics and racism: humanity is cruelest to its own and any study of our inherent nature must accept our own cruelty.

Josef Mengele — in all his aliases (Pedro, Peter, Helmut, Wolfgang, so many others) — was not the only character in Guez’s meticulously researched historical novel who brought me to this uncomfortable realization. Mengele’s first wife, Irene; his second wife and ex-sister-in-law, Martha; his unwanted lover, Gitta; his father, Karl; and his mother, Walburga are those who inflict cruelties — justified or not, minor or abusive — on Mengele. This does not excuse Mengele, but in terms of a fictionalized view, Guez gives us a window into his psyche,

This novel is not about Mengele per se, it is a layered dissection of the interaction of individuals, their subjective desires, and their collective obligations as these factors intersect with history and its unavoidable tides. Guez writes without pretending any unique insight into Mengele’s interiority. That which Guez assumes and invents is well within the parameters of fiction; his characterization of Mengele is plausible, the world Guez constructs is recognizable as our own. I want to note that Guez’s deep research into the topic is visible, appreciated, exemplary. If only most writers of historical fiction did this. For historians, professional, hobby, and emergent, Guez’s brief but detailed note on sources is a fantastic bonus. But, I digress, the book isn’t about Mengele; it is about all that made the disappearance possible.

Therefore, added to the above cast is the vast network of enablers that made Mengele’s escape and assimilation possible. These friends, politicians, extended family members, and indeed all the clerks, secretaries, and supporting unnamed persons make the horror even more palpable — as tangible as the sense of the person sitting in the office next to me, the odor of my fellow-commuters on public transports, the sound of a door closing elsewhere in my apartment building. These people are not the cowardly or indifferent Germans who made the Third Reich and its genocide of Jews, Roma, and so many others possible, no, what Guez forces the reader to recognize is that there are people who are willingly complicit in promoting and preserving the genocidal, racist ideologies of the Nazis — and others like it. Juan and Evita Perón and their institutionalized obsession with Nazism and Fascism, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, officials in Germany from the highest levels of the state down to the municipality of Günzberg, where the Mengele family was headquartered and ran their multinational corporation from, and so many others were thrilled to be part of the Nazi machine, during and after WWII. Some were motivated by their own ambitions, others by a sense of loyalty, others by fanatical belief in Mengele’s work and Nazism. Guez brings this massive conspiracy to life, peoples it with individuals we recognize in our own lives.

There are also those individuals who were completely hoodwinked by Mengele, and therein lies the other side of this story. I hesitate to say this is the “redeeming” aspect of Guez’s novel; no, it is better described as a more recognizable payoff. Their stories are those which we expect to see in a novel like this; these are the characters whose snubs and betrayals serve as rewards for sitting through the horrors I have described above. When Mengele’s son, Rolf; his dog, Heinrich Lyons; his landlords, Geza and Gitta; and later, Elsa abandon Mengele, the reader is bound to exclaim, “Yes! Finally!” and feel a rush of tingly righteousness.

Still, mingled with this happier sensation is a sadness: it is not enough that Rolf Mengele refused his name, freezes out his father, it is bittersweet that Heinrich Lyons dies (no spoiler here, what dog outlives a man who lives into his late 60s?). I will not spoil what happens with Elsa, Geza, or Gitta. The reader cannot forget that an exhausted and geopolitically influenced Mossad had to redirect its efforts away from Mengele’s capture and lose the opportunity to deliver some closure and justice to the millions affected by the Shoah. The fact that Mengele’s story rolls on to the novels end is an unhappy reminder that the cruelties Mengele experienced were in no way comparable to that which he inflicted on others.

For all the nuance and complications woven into the characters interactions, the plot is straightforward: it is an account of how this sadistic individual got away with it and how he did not fully escape the consequences and punishment of a kind. There is a sense of satisfying comeuppance, though the degree to which any reader will feel vindicated will vary. I was glad that Mengele could not live in peace, but the measure of his penalties was small in comparison to the magnitude of his crimes. That too is Guez’s point: fate is not bound by any moral scale. There is no equilibrium in justice.

A note on audience: Because of the multiple meanings this novel could convey its merits could be misconstrued, its story could be twisted to serve neo-Nazi tendencies if read without some guidance or instruction for some readers. For that reason, I would not recommend this as a book for novice historians, undergraduate students, or for use in a classroom — except, perhaps, a graduate seminar. The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel requires dissection with historical guidance for readers who have less experience working with or knowledge of the histories this novel is built on.

One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and a search for a Lost World by Michael Frank

One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and a Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank

This non-fiction memoir deserves no less than 5 stars, or whatever maximum is possible in your systems of rating books. I read this as an educator, a professor of modern history who teaches a course focusing on tracing the origins of the world’s conflicts and oppressions.

The plot traces Stella’s life, from her earliest memories, growing up in the 1930s in the Juderia, a Jewish community on a tiny island in the Mediterranean, Rhodes. Each chapter is a few pages, capturing a vignette of her memory of a particular moment, woven with enough historical context to understand the relationship of this memory with world history at large.

A good third of Frank’s book focuses on Stella’s life in Rhodes during the 1930s and the early 1940s, before 1,650 Jews were rounded up, taken from the island, and sent to the concentration camps in Europe. At least 90% of them would not survive their internment.

This chronological focus is Stella’s explicit choice; the story of her life is not grounded in the Holocaust. The book seeks to excavate and exhibit the world of Rhodes that was destroyed by the Holocaust; it is not a novel of the Holocaust, though that is an ineluctable element in this conversation of Rhodes’ history. That said, the second half of the book is a raw account of Stella’s experience of the journey to and inside several camps, including Auschwitz. The final sections of the book focus on Stella’s — and others — lives afterwards: the struggle to come to terms with the loss of Rhodes, their physical and cultural home, the effects of the Holocaust on themselves and their families and children.

The book makes an ideal choice for an undergraduate history course: First, it is short as a whole, according to Good Reads, 240 pages (I read the galley e-version from NetGalley which did not have accurate page numbering). Second, being published for a non-academic audience, One Hundred Saturdays uses very accessible language. The tone, style, and format are conversational. Sometimes, the dialogue between Michael and Stella is transparent; sometimes it is Michael’s voice overlaid over Stella’s, providing the reader with necessary context; at other times, Stella’s voice is unmistakable. Third, the memories and chapters are neatly and discretely separated into digestible — assignable — chunks, making it easy for any instructor to parcel out readings and sections to fit their curriculum. (I have assigned holocaust readings, usually Elie Wiesel’s Night, but I may consider assigning One Hundred Saturdays instead, easily.)

The fourth reason is that Stella’s perspective as a woman gives us a way to understand the gendered experience more fully. This is not to say there is a dearth of female Holocaust survivors or stories by female survivors; but this one pays especial attention to women’s concerns and experiences. The final reason this is appropriate for use in the college level history classroom is the book’s focus on how the holocaust, anti-semitism, and racial laws unfolded outside of Europe proper. Students are rarely given a view of the Holocaust outside of Germany and Western Europe in general. But One Hundred Saturdays gives the reader a more holistic view of this history through its examination of Italy’s involvement and discussing the Turkish presence in the Mediterranean. I would say this is one of the most significant contributions of Levi’s story and Frank’s book.

This is a book worth reading, over and over. Like many books written of the Shoah, this book will remind you of your humanity.