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Rosebud story due out soon. Link to follow.


I am marketing Two Sisters, a novel described below.

Two Sisters


My new novel deals with the Holocaust in Lithuania, as well as issues of assimilation. I chose to set the Holocaust material in the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania because my great grandmother was from there, and so I have reason to believe some members of that branch of the family were in Kovno at the time of the Holocaust. The assimilation material is based more on my own background growing up in Brooklyn. I intend for this novel to bring together the tragedy of the Holocaust and the issues of a Jew growing up in the supposed melting pot of the United States.

 

It is far and away the most challenging and difficult one I’ve ever attempted. I’m usually a rather linear writer, getting a plot going and following it to its end. But this book is quite different. It features three main voices: one of an older man holding a one way conversation with a visitor through a long night dealing with the central issue of his life, namely his suspicion that his father might have been a Nazi;the second voice belongs to his subconscious, who I imagine to be an anthropomorphic, imp like character, who delights in feeding this suspicion; and the third is the epistolary presence of the title's two sister. Trying to work within this structure to provide the necessary back story has proved to be an interesting problem.


The book begins with a prologue in the voice of Igor, the imp character.


Igor, the Subterranean Gnome

 

          I am not exactly memory, nor am I idle speculation untethered from fact. I am, rather, a blend, part fact, part speculation, in a solution whose precipitate would be, could be, truth.

          I have troubled Isaac Kravitz since his mother's funeral when he was a young man bouncing from college to college in search of something to which he could not give a name. That I am a bother to him, however, is not my fault. Had he been content to ignore certain highly ambiguous clues, he would have been beyond my reach. But he didn't, or couldn't, or wouldn't. He must know, and because of this compulsion, he opens a door to the pathway reaching me, and I am only too happy to accommodate him.

          Of course you, dear reader, want to know what it is that Isaac must know, what question brings him within my grasp. The answer is this: he wants to know who he is. First, in a biological sense, from which, as you will see, flows everything else. He has been, from the time of the funeral of Miriam Kravitz, unsure as to whether the woman he witnessed being interred was, in fact, his biological mother. He had reasons for this suspicion, and they coalesced around the formality of the funeral. From that point until now in his senior years, that doubt has plagued him, denied him countless nights of untroubled sleep when I am most active.

          I am sure you will agree that everyone feels the need for certainty about such a basic issue as his or her parentage. That is why adopted children often seek information about their biological parents. Yes, they say they need to obtain necessary medical information, but we all know the question runs much deeper. And in Isaac's case, it is even much more profound.

          Miriam Kravitz was a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.

          If she were not his biological mother, if she had adopted him, then he can no longer be certain of who his father was.

          Who might that sperm donor be? Could he have blond hair and blue eyes? Think of it! What marvelous grist for my mill!

          From time to time, he has been able to drive these disturbing doubts into a corner, and in so doing, deny me a certain level of access. But then he will hear something that opens him to me again. Recently, for example, he read of an adult man that sensed that he never fit in the family that raised him and became convinced that he had been kidnapped as a toddler. The man went so far as to contact the sister of the kidnapped child and to seek the man he thought must be his biological father, who seemed to bear a striking physical resemblance to him. Sadly, he was disappointed by DNA tests.

          I cared not for the results. It was the very question that brought Isaac back to my embrace.

           It is not that I am malicious, or that I enjoy the torment I inflict.

          No, I just am what I am. I cannot change my nature any more than he can change his.

          I guess you could say we have a co-dependent relationship.

          I live in a cell buried deep beneath his consciousness. He is my keeper, only he does not know it. The door to my cell swings open only when he wills it, but he believes I push it ajar and crawl out to trouble his dreams, and sometimes even his waking moments. It is the other way around.

          However, my cell door has bars, as most prison doors do, and through it seeps bits and pieces from the upper reaches of his mind, flotsam and jetsam, if you will, random bits of sensory perceptions, some unfiltered by his conscious mind, thoughts, fragments of dislodged memories that drift down to the lower depths where I can reach through my bars to seize them. I cherish these tidbits, mix them in with my usual diet of half digested material from books, conversations, tv shows, media of all kinds and, of course, speculations, the yeast that causes all of this to rise, and at the opportune moment I squeeze them through the bars of my door and float them up into his consciousness with the most interesting results.

          Of course, I am describing myself in an anthropomorphic metaphor. What would you expect, you literalists? Metaphors come naturally to me, for Isaac, mine host and unknowing master, is both a professor of literature and a novelist himself, so I have received the effluvia of those activities, the yin and yang of the written word. I think of one metaphor from Isaac's favorite author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote a lovely bit about moonbeams and the glow of an anthracite fire. Hawthorne said the moonbeams were the product of his fancy, a quaint nineteenth century term for the imagination, what I am calling speculations. On the other hand, our author declared, there is coal in the fireplace representing actual life as it is lived. When you combine the two, when you sit, as he did, with the moonbeams flowing through his window on a winter night, then landing on, and mixing with, the red glow, you see how out of this union could be born what he called a romance, a certain kind of fiction that marries the what is to the what could be to create a new reality.

          How charming a metaphor.

          How apt to describe the mixed messages I send up to mine poor hostМs troubled consciousness. For in his case the new reality he seeks is one that will tell him, finally, who he is. And then might he not shudder each morning when he sees the face staring back at him in the mirror?

            I am anxious that you do not misunderstand what I am about. Perhaps you are hard headed, and do not want to clutter your thoughts with the airy imaginings of a creative writer, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, for after all what did books such as his ever do to contribute to knowledge of the facts of life? Let us look instead to science, specifically the exalted study of quantum physics where we find Herr Werner Heisenberg.

          Heisenberg postulated the uncertainty principle. Oh, don't be scared. I don't understand the physics of it any more than you do. We are not classmates of Einstein after all. I, for one, can know no more than my host. And remember he studied literature and not physics. But he, too, heard of the uncertainty principle as it filtered down from the lofty reaches of theoretical physics into mainstream culture, and there it means, whether Herr Heisenberg would agree or not, that the more you look at something the less you understand it. The very act of closely observing something changes what is being observed.

          Isaac digs toward me, seeking the truth. But the more he digs, the more he looks, that which he is looking at, the story of his life, dances away from him, now doing a fancy two step, another time a fox trot, or the watusi, never quite the same from time to time.

           I freely offer what I can. But I do not possess what he seeks. If I did, I would give it to him, even though in so doing, I would perish.

          You see, I am not at all selfish.

          Nor am I altruistic.

          For I can say what I would do because I cannot do it.

          I do have a fondness for the man whose mind is my home. I recognize that he is choosing between two narratives. One of them can save him. One of them might destroy him. My job, which I have volunteered to undertake, is to have him switch back and forth between the two, driving him just short of the edge of madness.

          Why, then, should I want him to discover that which he seeks, when obtaining it might mean his destruction? And mine?


          One night every year, he turns inward, shines a light down the shaft that leads to where I lie waiting to be released.

          And from deep down I lift up a story, starting with the anthracite and later adding the moonbeams.

          Do you want to know which is which? That is the question that bedevils poor Isaac.

          I confess I no longer know.

 

          But let us begin with those pieces of coal, glowing their red heat in Slobodka, a poor area dominated by the Yeshiva adjacent to the city of Kovno in Lithuania where there lived the Lazarus family, headed by patriarch Moishe and his wife Rose. Two daughters, Miriam and Judith, about whom more later, and two sons, Benzion and Samuel, who studied in the Yeshiva.

          On a cold, autumn afternoon in 1941, after most of the Jews had been penned into a barbed wire enclosed ghetto in which each person was allotted ten square feet, a group of pale boys and men shivered inside the walls of a fort into which they had been herded at gunpoint by Einsatzgruppen under the command of a German SS officer. The fort was one of nine built by Russian czars to ring the city and protect it from invasion. Although the forts failed in that purpose, they proved handy as prisons.

          Our lens narrows its focus to this shivering group, their heads freshly shaved with dull razors leaving coagulated blood atop gashes, their side curls and beards hacked off with scissors. Among them are Benzion and Samuel. They, and the others, only a day or two ago were sitting at tables poring over ancient texts, seeking to ascertain deeper truths than we are capable of establishing, the eternal verities of a divinity who speaks in metaphors that amount to riddles, a tangle of threads these men spend their lives separating, then hold up to the light of their intelligence, declaring, aha, this is what the divinity must mean, although his colleague holding up yet another thread has come to an entirely different conclusion. These men, in short, were studying Talmud, the ancient rabbinical commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures in a Yeshiva, which we will say was in Slobodka, in Kaunas, sometimes called Kovno, in Lithuania, when that city had fallen under the heel of the Third Reich.

          The Third Reich, as we know, had little patience for, or interest in, the studies of these students. In fact, it had little enthusiasm for their continued existence beyond their usefulness as slave labor working for the good of the Reich, and that is why these scholars found themselves on this afternoon, within the brick walls of the fort, looking up into the cloud laden sky, behind which, no doubt, they imagined sat, or perhaps stood, that same divinity whose back was, or maybe was not, turned away from them, as they, at the command of the officer in charge, held out their pale hands to receive the shovels with which they were to lift a fresh layer of dirt to cover the bodies already in the ditch before their own joined those moldering in the inhospitable soil.  

          Perhaps one of these young men looked past the smirking soldier beneath his steel helmet to the browning grass trampled flat by hundreds or thousands of feet toward one of those brick walls on the northwest corner, where if his eyes were good enough and the sun not peeking through the clouds to obscure his sight, he would have seen the bricks riddled with holes, and he would have known his fate even more surely than he did as the rough handle of the shovel, gripped by dozens or hundreds before him, was pressed into the soft flesh of his palms, and as he wrapped his fingers around the shaft, fingers used to turning with great care pages of ancient books, or holding a pen over an inkwell before inscribing a thought, perhaps even a new thought, onto the paper on his desk, those fingers now pressed against the unyielding wood while he tried to force the shovel into the ground beginning to harden beneath the freezing air.

          This student could have been Samuel the younger of two Lazarus brothers, let us say fourteen or fifteen years old, looking now up the row of thin, shaking chests, and skinny arms and hands equipped only to hold pens and papers but not to grasp heavy digging implements and force them into the hard soil, past three or four such figures to his brother Benzion, several years past his bar mitzvah, and unlike the others deep chested and broad shouldered, determined to be a rabbi, while Samuel studied at his parentsМ bidding, his eyes fixed on the larger world beyond the walls not only of the fort but of the Yeshiva, even to the other side of the barbed wire fence separating the ghetto from the non-Jewish community beyond, which gave way to the city, past the river that held the city in its arms, and then, eventually, to the woods, thinking, imagining whatever he might find there, not permitting himself to believe the clear evidence of the ditch they were digging and the holes in the wall not many feet away.

          The soldier, let's call him Hans, a good, solid German name, a stereotype no doubt, but why not since this whole episode was based on the stereotypes of Jews, this soldier, Hans, jabs Samuel in the ribs with his rifle. Then, he makes a digging motion with his weapon.

          "Dig Ihr neues Zuhouse hier," Hans says. Dig your new house here .

          Samuel nods and puts all his weight, all of his eighty or ninety pounds, on the shovel and manages to insert its blade four or five inches into the dirt. He rocks the blade and lifts it. He thinks about dumping the dirt on the soldierМs boots.

          "Nein," the soldier says.

          Samuel swings the shovel away from the soldier and drops the dirt where it lands on the wrinkled face of a man who might have lived down the block from him and who had committed the capital offense of having grown too old to work.

          Hans is about to jab him again, for speed is of the essence, his officer has said, these useless Jews must be exterminated to make room for the next batch. But just as he starts to thrust his rifle toward the boy, he is distracted by a heated argument, high-pitched voices jangling against each other in the cold air, rising above the clanking of shovel blades against rocks and the heavy breathing of the prisoners.

          Samuel continues his digging motion so as not to provoke Hans into another poke into his bruised ribs. But, in fact, Hans has lit a cigarette and is staring at the source of the noise. Samuel follows his gaze to where it lands on the skinny frames of the two rabbis, Schmearer père et fils, Isaac studied a little French in high school and likes to show off even in his subconscious, who jointly run the Yeshiva. Even in this most dire situation, Samuel can not stop the grin that forms on his lips, looking at how their crudely amputated beards, gray on the father, black on the son no longer reach their scrawny chests, how their genitals swing as they gesticulate at each other, and how they have managed to replace their skull caps on their shaven skulls.

          Samuel knows that these two teachers rarely, if ever, agree with each other, and now they raise their voices and gesticulate toward each other, while standing a few feet away, the officer in charge of this detail, looks on with a bemused smile on his face. After a moment, the officer grabs Benzion, who has positioned himself near his beloved teachers, and now gazes at them as absorbed as though listening to the two argue an arcane point of Talmud in a hushed classroom. Benzion at first resists the pull, until he notices the officer's hand reaching for the pistol in its holster. The officer motions toward the battling rabbis, and Benzion, a gifted linguist who has quickly absorbed some German from his new masters, translates the rapid Yiddish of the rabbis.

          The father laments the fate that surely awaits them, for he too has seen the bullet scarred wall, and even if he had not, why would these German swine have them pour dirt on top of the dead in a ditch, is it not a communal grave opening its gaping arms for them, and why the indignity of having their facial hair cut in contradiction to the Torah, and their clothes stripped from them so they stand as naked as the day they were born, unable, like Adam hiding behind a bush in the garden, to cover their private parts? What had they done to deserve such a fate? Why was God permitting this palpable injustice?

          Injustice? the son replies, placing his face inches from his fatherМs so that his breath, foul from hunger, assaults the older man's nostrils, injustice, he fairly screams, no, not at all, God was, is, will be, just, always just, His nature is immutable. We are being punished for the way our people have fallen away from the holy Torah, how we have not kept His laws as we should, so we will reap what we have sown, and what we have sown is a justifiable death. He throws down his shovel, gets down on his knees, and claws the dirt with his slender fingers, breaking as he does his fingernails against the stones they encounter. Looking up at his father, he says, we do not deserve shovels.

          His father bends down to scream into his ear, justice you say, God is justice? What about Job? Did he deserve the punishments that Yahweh showered down on him? It is true we cannot understand such justice, if that is what it is. Now get up off your knees, and join me in the Sh'ma.

          "They disagree?" the officer asks Benzion.

          "Yes," Benzion replies."Rabbi Schmearer says what is about to happen to them is not just. His son says it is just punishment for our sins."

           "Interesting"; the officer says, for he has studied philosophy at the university in Heidelberg.

          He unsnaps the flap on his holster, withdraws his pistol, and with a metallic clank that pierces the late afternoon air over which a profound silence has fallen as soon as his hand moved toward his weapon, even the rabbis halted in their argument, in that silence he racks a shell into the chamber. Pointing first at one, then the other, as though undecided whether first to shoot the advocate of a just punishment, which by the way in his heart he believes to be the case, for surely everyone knows that the Jews have caused the decline of his country after the last war, the bankers sucking the life blood out of his countryМs economy, or maybe it was the Jewish communists, one or the other, or maybe he should first dispatch the old man demanding an explanation for the injustice. For several moments, the three stand motionless, a tableau against the darkening sky, two scrawny, naked rabbis, the younger one now on his feet standing next to his father, and the German officer, his arm extended, at the end of which glints his Walther P38, which, in truth, he has never before fired in anger or even intent.

          The two rabbis open their mouths. Sh'ma, they chant, Yisrael, Hear O Israel, their voices gaining strength and then joined by the others who throw down their shovels.

         "Sie sind beide richtig," the officer says, as he points his Walther at one, then the other, They are both right.

          The rabbis lift their voices louder, their eyes fixed on the clouds, seeking the deity they know must reside beyond them.

          "Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad," The Lord our God is one.

          "Oder beide sind falsch," the officer says, as his thumb pushes the safety off. Or they are both wrong.

          The first shot hits the forehead of the senior Schmearer, the second his son. Benzion reaches for them as they tumble into the ditch, but can only watch as their frail bodies land on the fresh layer of dirt from beneath which a stray hand or foot protrudes.

          As if the shots were a command, the soldiers lift their rifles to their shoulders, and without taking particularly careful aim, begin shooting . The students, whose eyes have followed the falling bodies of their teachers, do not, for a moment, realize they are being shot, and even when they do, where can they run? In front of them the barking rifles, behind them the ditch they have filled, beyond the scarred wall receiving new bullets from poorly aimed shots.

          And so they fall one on top of the other.

          Benzion rushes to his brother, throws his arms around him and offers his back to the nearest rifle, which accommodates him with pleasure.


          This is the story I urge into the consciousness of Isaac Kravitz, the direct descendant, through the maternal line, of that Lazarus family whose two sons were shot that day in Lithuania. He does not know how much of it is fact. That Benzion and Samuel are his uncles he is fairly certain. What happened to them that fateful day, however, is less clear, for they disappear from the family narrative passed down to him as if they died that day. However, I have managed to get him to think that a more appropriate designation for them, borrowing from military terminology, is M.I.A. Moreover, the shooting incident itself, as you will see later if you are patient, is documented from a source, which may or may not be impeachable. Isaac cannot decide, so he has consigned that part of the family narrative to my depths where I happily chew on it, expand it, transform it into its most troubling form, and send it back up to him when the mood moves me or the opportunity is ripe.

          As it most certainly is tonight.

          For I am not memory exactly, nor am I speculation untethered from fact. I am a blend that bubbles to the surface of Isaac Kravitsz's consciousness from time to time, most on a particular night when he sits alone at his table staring at two yahrzeit candles until a knock at his door rouses him and he rises to greet his visitor.

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