read: 6 January 2003
This book was one of the slowest books I’ve read in a long time. Not because the book itself was in any way hard, or even uninteresting, but because the subject matter is so thick and laden with emotion and packed tightly fact pressed against fact. The book has a straightforward thesis: we know a lot about what happened to Jews during World War II, but we know very little about what happened to them afterwards, this is an exploration into the lives of European Jews, decade by decade. Kurlansky follows some characters through the times and anecdotally notes others. He avoids going too much into the lives of Jews in Israel, or Jews who moved to the United States. He tells a few concentration camp stories, or his characters do, but not many.
Kurlansky is himself Jewish [which I learned by reading the semi-annoying reader’s guide at the back of the book afterwards] and this informs his writing which is always sympathetic to though not always in agreement with,the characters he discusses. The upshot was: things were tough for the Jews before, during, and after the war. In some cities, people were so embarassed by the returning gaunt hollow-eyed Jews that they basically ignored them. Some countries decided that reparations would be made to “all victims of the war” which meant that Jews who had been sent to concentration camps by Germans in cahoots with local authorities had no more rights to get back their stuff and reclaim theirlives than someone who had had a bomb fall ontheir house. Jews rebuilt their communities, moved on with their lives and fell into two very different camps: those who would not talk about the Holocaust and those who could not stop. This book talks about both kinds and particularly explores the changes in attitudes towards Jewishness and Judaism over generations of European Jews.
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