Monday, October 17, 2011

Life With a Star by Jiri Weil published in Czech in 1949, published in English in 1989 (a novel); introduction written by Philip Roth

"[Josef Roubicek's] story stands as one of the most powerful works to emerge from the Holocaust; it is a fierce and necessary work of art." from a review in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani on 6/9/1989

Jiri Weil (1900-1959) was a Jewish Czech writer who lived in Prague, and, according to Philip Roth’s lauditory introduction to this novel, lived a life in some ways similar to his main character Josef Roubicek. When the Nazis came to deport Weil he disappeared with the help of the resistance.

In the novel, which takes place in Prague, Roubicek at the time of the Nazi occupation is a young man who had been a bank clerk, but because of the restrictions placed on employing Jews, he has lost his job and lives starving in a garret where he’s burned most of his furnishings to keep himself warm.

Weil recreates an absurd and cruel world which takes on a surreal quality governed by Roubicek’s terror. The prose is spare and matter-of-fact, which has the effect of highlighting the horror. Roubicek knows he has been condemned even though he is innocent,  and we watch with mounting tension as he obsesses about what will happen to him next. When will his destroyers finally close in? When will he be selected to be deported?

Weil is also very adept at recreating the "Community," the part of the nightmare version of everyday life when Jew turned against Jew.The group of Jews in Prague who the Nazis designated as a governing body to enforce Nazi rules and regulations  are a terrifying presence. Roubicek lives in dread of  a message from them or a knock on the door.

Weil convincingly plumbs the psyche of his main character, his alter-ego. He also recreates the streets and neighborhoods of Prague filled with officials, as well as Roubicek's friends, acquaintances and many fellow sufferers. All of these various threads contribute to the novel's texture of reality.

Jiri Weil - author

Prague. Czechoslovakia
Stresovice neighborhood of Prague

To read an article about the History of the Jews in Prague, click here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Shlemiel Crooks by Anna Olswanger, illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz 2005

"The best thing here ... is Olswanger's Yiddish storyteller's voice, particularly the hilarious curses she weaves into the story ... Great for reading aloud." Reviewed by Hazel Rochman in Booklist

 A recent very entertaining children’s book awarded the designation of Sydney Taylor Honor Book is Anna Olswanger’s Shlemiel Crooks, colorfully illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz. Olswanger’s story which takes place in the first decade of the 20th  century is about Jewish immigrants in St. Louis. Why St. Louis?  Anna Olswanger based her children’s story on real events; she is recreating and joyfully embellishing an incident in the life of her great-grandfather when his saloon was nearly robbed.

In a short postscript in her book she tells the reader  that she only learned of the names of her great-grandparents, Elias and Dora Olschwanger, when, in 1982, she “started to research her family tree” which took her to St. Louis where they had lived. Part of the results of that research are two documents from the St. Louis Jewish Record that she reproduces at the end of her book in their original Yiddish along with English translations.

The first document is an ad placed by Olswanger’s great grandfather in February of 1918: It reads in part: “Eliyahu Olschwanger wishes to make known to all his friends that he has a fine and large stock of full and half-bottles of Carmel wines and cognacs. He has also purchased a large stock of Manischewitz from Cincinnati,…slivovitz, and … pesach’dik mead… Come in and order in time before the rush…” His name, address and phone number follow.

The second article reproduced was published a year later in 1919 (in Yiddish) under the heading “Reb Eliyahu Olschwanger Almost Robbed.”

“Shlimazel crooks, their work was unsuccessful. Last Thursday at 3:00 a.m. in the middle of the night, several men drove to the saloon of Reb Eliyahu Olschwanger at the corner of 14th and Carr streets. They opened the saloon and removed several barrels of brandy and beer. Mr. Mankel who lives on the second floor, upon hearing what was going on in the saloon, opened the window and began shouting for help. Benjamin Resnik from 1329 Carr Street, hearing the shouting, shot his revolver from his window. The band of crooks got scared and left everything, including their own horse and wagon and ran away. Police immediately came and took everything to the police station.”

 Out of these details and her imagination Olswanger has created a vibrant children’s book. The narrator tells this story in an animated “Guess what happened - Reb Olschwanger was almost robbed” tone of voice which pulls us right in. The story is dotted with Yiddish words, for example, “Such a tummel they were making!” And enhancing the animated narration are the colorful drawings by Paula Goddman Koz, many of them full-page. We see tenements where the wash is strung out across buildings. Another is a re-creation of what the storefront of Reb Olschwanger’s saloon might have looked like with men, women, boys and girls in period clothing, and another is of men studying Talmud.

The documents would, of course, thrill a family researcher. They are “only” a business advertisement and a report of an “almost” robbery but there is significant information to be gleaned. Reading these documents Anna Olswanger would have learned what her great-grandfather did for a living, that he was an enterprising business man serving his community and that he most probably spoke Yiddish. She would have found out his home address and his business address and phone number and of course she would have noticed that he spelled his name differently from the way she spells hers. She also would have learned the names and addresses of several of his neighbors which seems to indicate that he lived in a Jewish neighborhood.

Anna Olswanger has honored her great-grandfather by writing a children’s book based on an incident from his life which helps us to experience aspects of early immigrant life in America. Paula Goodman Koz's illustrations contribute a great deal to our experience.

To learn more about the genesis of this book and more about the Olschwanger family, click here.

Elias (Eliyahu)and Dora Olschwanger - author's paternal great-grandparents
          Anna Olswanger - author
Benjamin Resnik - neighbor   
Paula Good Koz - illustrator

St. Louis, Missouri