Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher*****

“There’s nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.”

SadnessisaJonathan grew up in the United States, but now his family is in Israel, the land of his mother’s birth. He’s visited Auschwitz where much of his family died, and he can’t wait to turn eighteen so that he can train to be an Israeli paratrooper. Enough with being ‘people of word’, he figures; he wants to be a Jewish warrior, the ‘people of the sword,’ and exact some payback.  A friendship with two Palestinian teenagers complicates his life in ways he didn’t expect. I received an advance review copy of this exquisitely rendered story free, courtesy of Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review.

Twin siblings Laith and Nimreen are Palestinians, but long days at the beach and twilit evenings spent with Jonathan, getting high and telling ridiculous jokes, blur the social boundaries observed by most Jews, and by most Palestinians. With the absurd idealism peculiar to young people that haven’t run up hard against life’s limitations, Jonathan thinks that he can have both, that he can become an Israeli soldier and keep his friendships separate from his new career. His friends know better, but still they love him.

There’s only one way to tell a story like this one, and that’s as a tragedy; that’s exactly what Rothman-Zecher does, but he does it better than anyone else I can imagine.  This doomed friendship becomes more deeply intimate the closer the day comes when Jonathan must report for duty. Ultimately it becomes a bizarre love triangle in which our young protagonist has a sexual relationship with both of them—though fortunately not simultaneously.  For a good long while this lodges in my craw, and as the story continues, I am too revolted to focus. As brilliantly written as this story is, I was headed in the direction of a four star review in protest; that was true, anyway, until I recognized the allegory. Then I was over it.

Nimreen is a teenager too, but she lives with the partitioned state every damn day of her life. She knows that Jonathan can’t have it both ways, but she hopes against hope that he’ll change his mind, that he won’t go into the service. And as Jonathan and his friends try to do anything, go anywhere where there are other people, we see exactly how polarized this place has become. They can’t hitchhike together; there are so many places where either Jonathan isn’t safe, or Laith and Nimreen are not permitted. He goes through a checkpoint where, without his suspicious-looking friends, he would simply have been waved through, and he finds out what it’s like to have one’s homeland invaded.

Rothman-Zecher does a splendid job of depicting exactly how difficult this question is. If I ask myself, have Jews been systematically robbed of their possessions, their homes, and sometimes their lives across not just hundreds of years, but across centuries? I know the answer is yes. I knew it before, but this story drives it home in a way that is visceral. And do Jews deserve to have a home that nobody can ever, ever take from them again? Again, the answer is absolutely yes.

But then we look at the Palestinians, indigenous people living in the Third World at a bare subsistence level. Their homes are almost all they possess, and does anyone have the right to march in, evict them from this place and chase them away from their homes, their families, their livelihoods? Oh hell no, of course not.

In this epic story, Rothman-Zecher bridges the scholarly with the deeply personal, fulfilling a task that can only be achieved by excellent fiction. This searing debut has put this writer on the map definitively and marked him as a new voice in literature.

Highly recommended.

The Nazi Hunters, by Andrew Nagorski*****

thenazihuntersI had promised myself not to read any more Holocaust memoirs. What is to be gained? But when I saw this title available as a review copy on Net Galley, I thought that there is actually something to cheer the spirit in recounting how some of these monsters were tracked down and brought to justice. To date this is the most comprehensive telling of that achievement that I have read. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and also to Net Galley for the DRC. This book is available for purchase May 17.

Were it not for the efforts of Jewish survivors and the state of Israel, very few of the top-ranking Nazi officers would ever have gone to trial. Following World War II, Allied forces divided small, relatively helpless nations of Europe like a pack of robbers piecing out the spoils after a bank job. Once that was done, there was little energy or funding put into hunting down Nazis. To be sure, there was no logistical way to try and punish everyone in Germany or its neighboring states that had belonged to the Nazi party or its offshoots. There were millions. Some of them joined because it was easier to join than to not join; some did it for job security; and a surprising number did it because they loved Hitler and the Third Reich. No matter how terribly they have behaved, you can’t jail millions of people that did the wrong thing, even when their participation and complicity have resulted in the deaths of innocent millions. And so an agreement was reached that just the top guys would be hunted down and tried in an international court.

By the time the war ended, however, the USA had begun the Cold War with Russia and its satellite states, incorporated at the time as the USSR. Congress was much more interested in funding ways to combat Stalin’s version of Communism than it was in locating war criminals. And this is where Israel became such an important player.

There are passages within this meaty tome that necessarily detail the kinds of horrors visited by one or another Nazi officer in order to illustrate the level of evil the individual in question represented. It is not good bedtime material. But there is far more of the courage, cleverness, and above all teamwork involved in finding these people, documenting their crimes, and bringing them to justice, and that’s what I wanted to see.

Philosophical questions that were examined when I was a kid in school are raised once more. At what point can a person no longer defend himself by saying he was just following orders? At what point does trying to follow the law of the land—even Fascist law—no longer let a person off the hook? Many of those that stood trial were people that had initiated one or another terrible innovation in the torture or murder of other human beings. Others went to trial for their monstrous brutality. Concentration camp survivors bore witness against them. I loved reading about those that had been stripped of everything, horribly tortured and humiliated right down to the nubs of their souls in a position of some power against their oppressors. It felt right.

Addressed here also is the tremendously controversial kidnapping of the butcher Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann lived in a Latin American nation that did not extradite war criminals; Israeli forces ferreted him out, forced him onto an airplane and took him to stand trial in Israel. Those that objected to this illegal behavior ultimately had little recourse. I felt like it was one of those times when a rule is rightfully broken. (See Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolph Eichmann, also reviewed on this blog.)

For researchers and students of history, as well as those with a strong interest in this area, this book is highly recommended.