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Schlepics: The Fiction of Angel Wagenstein | The Nation

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Schlepics: The Fiction of Angel Wagenstein

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Our raconteur begins life as a modest tailor in Kolodetz, a village near Lvov. Over the course of a half-century and two world wars, ownership of Kolodetz will be passed among the Poles, the Soviets, the Nazis and seemingly any other occupying force willing to take an interest. If this relentless global struggle is being waged with the force of coherent ideologies, Isaac is none the wiser. As with I.B. Singer's elders of Chelm, displays of common sense by Wagenstein's fools illuminate the follies of ideological conflict. Isaac's spiritual guide, closest friend and brother-in-law is the Marxist rabbi Shmuel Ben-David, who runs both the Kolodetz shul and its Atheists' Club. In an early sermon, he works up a righteous fury:

About the Author

Akiva Gottlieb
Akiva Gottlieb is a writer in Los Angeles.

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It's all stupidity.... Why am I here, I'm asking you? To guide you and take care of your souls, so that when you die, you'll go all clean to our God Yahweh, eternal be His glory. The same is supposed to be done by my colleagues--Catholics, Adventists, Protestants, Orthodox, Sabbatarians, and Muslims--to honor the emperor and for the glory of their own God. And what's the point, I'm asking you? When I know that on the other side of the front line there's a fellow rabbi who's guiding our boys--who can tell me now if they're ours or not ours?--to fight against you, to kill you for the honor of their own emperor and for God, eternal be His glory. And then the war will end, and when the plows begin plowing all through Europe, and your bones come up shining white in the fields, ours and not-ours, all intertwined, then nobody will know for what God and which emperor you died.

That the rabbi appears to be reading a chapter of the Pentateuch from an open prayer book is, to Wagenstein, an important detail.

If this jaunty, sentimental novel can be called a work of historical revisionism, it's only because Wagenstein focuses exclusively on the outliers of World War II. When depicting would-be heroes and supposed villains, he's only interested in the exceptions that prove the rule. While history continues its inexorable sweep somewhere in the background, enacting the tragic saga that casual readers should already know by heart, Isaac consorts with indifferent Nazis, sensitive Russians and likable Poles. Everyone receives the benefit of the doubt. In his labor camp's Nazi lieutenant, Isaac can "detect distant notes of good intentions." Another gentleman is described as "a decent and noble anti-communist, with a barely perceptible Polish streak of anti-Semitism--something like a good aged wine with a bitter aftertaste."

To call Isaac's Torah unserious would be to fundamentally misunderstand Wagenstein's designs. Even as survivors bear the weight of their history, it's still incredibly difficult to remember sensations of pain. Looking back on the recent past, Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld has decided that all men are brothers, all enemies temporary and easily replaced. And official history should be left to official historians. Every time Isaac begins to dispassionately recount the steps toward the Final Solution, he stops himself: "We were politely informed that during a three-day period all communist functionaries, Jews, and Soviet officers in hiding were supposed to register at command headquarters, or else, according to wartime rules, they were going to be.... Well, shall I tell you, or can you guess yourself?" When Isaac's wife, family and friends perish--the book is unsparing, as it must be, in this respect--we feel the weight of their disappearance, a sense memory even more tactile than hatred for the evil forces responsible for their murders.

Wagenstein's third novel, Farewell, Shanghai, was published in English in 2007, and it's easy to see why it preceded Isaac's Torah on these shores. Drawing on his experience as a screenwriter, Wagenstein fashioned a sweeping cinematic melodrama that depicts an exotic and little-known chapter of Jewish history--the story of the Shanghai ghetto. (A 2002 documentary film by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann remains the best primer on the subject.) As an "open city" at the beginning of World War II, Japanese-occupied Shanghai became a safe haven for European émigrés and Jewish refugees. A modern-day Babylon, wartime Shanghai was a polyglot, destitute, filth-ridden city where the escaped Jews, who numbered 19,000 by 1941, lived mainly in dilapidated shacks. In the early years of the war, the refugees were assisted by a community of anticommunist Russian and wealthy Baghdadi Jews--the latter of whom arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, establishing a new outpost of a burgeoning Sephardic import/export empire. The refugees arrived before the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the Americans into the war, and Nazi influence to Shanghai, and... well, shall I tell you, or...?

Narrated by an omniscient spectator who slips into third person after a brief introduction, the panoramic story of Farewell, Shanghai alights upon all of the city's wartime social strata, with vivid characters whose activities--including epic gestures of romance, espionage and betrayal--necessarily sidestep the good/evil dichotomy. In a book that bears almost no stylistic resemblance to Isaac's Torah, Wagenstein retains his focus on historical outliers. The Japanese leadership is pitiful rather than malicious, and one of our heroines is a beautiful blond Jew who idolizes Leni Riefenstahl and ends up employed by the Nazis. And naturally, the Shanghai ghetto features a heretic rabbi of its own, who leads Sabbath services in a Buddhist temple. When asked about the oneness of the Jewish God, he responds, "To tell the truth, I don't know anymore.... How are the Chinese worse than us? Or, let's say the Hindus, or the Polynesians? Why should their gods be false, untrue, and our own the real one and the only one?... People feel the need to believe. Let's leave them to do it as they wish."

Part of what makes this otherwise conventional historical epic unusually compelling is that its characters are shielded from the truth of their situation. Scraping by in claustrophobic and unsanitary ghetto conditions while laboring for minimal rations, the surviving Jews of Shanghai would only later discover that, relatively speaking, they were actually citizens of paradise. Wagenstein's late-life historical-fiction project is built upon this very paradox: to survive is to endure along with unshakable images of horror, but it's also the greatest gift imaginable.

In the end, most of the principal characters in Farewell, Shanghai are killed--many during an American bombing campaign. Even in a sanctuary city, the hand of fate acts with arbitrary mercilessness, aided by the banality of evil. Referring to the Japanese and, perhaps by extension, the majority of Nazis, Wagenstein sees wartime atrocities as "millions of small faults--composed of silence, indifference, obedience, myths of military honor."

One can esteem the impossible orthodoxy of Untitled by Anonymous and still find merit in Wagenstein's radical humanist agenda. Like the skeptic but soulful rabbis who lend his stories a spiritual current, the author recognizes that apostasy leads to unfamiliar but equally relevant truths. "In this inhuman battle, was it only a question of the evildoers and the righteous?" the narrator of Farewell, Shanghai asks. "Futile questions without an answer. Or with a thousand different answers." Or, in a just world, with 6 million.

It would be a shame to leave those pages blank.

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