This book review originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of The New Hampshire Jewish Reporter.
People Love Dead Jews, by Dara Horn (W.W. Norton & Co., 2021)
In the final paragraph of this profound collection of essays, Dara Horn dedicates the book to her four children, with the “fervent hope that they will never feel the need to read it.” Why a writer whose children appear frequently over the span of 232 pages would say such a thing can be found on in the book’s subtitle—“Reports from a Haunted Present.”
Ms. Horn, a scholar of Jewish history and literature, seems to have reached a point in her intellectual and emotional life where she could no longer deny what her perceptions revealed—that “happy endings” pervade Christian literature and life much more than they do Jewish. Instead of ignoring or sugar-coating what she calls “this haunted house world,” she has written a compelling, unblinking account of what it means to her to be an American and a Jew and, not incidentally, a parent.
The first sentence of chapter one states the theme for much of the book: “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.” Unsurprisingly, that chapter is about Anne Frank, whose most memorable words are, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Anne, Ms. Horn points out, wrote this “before meeting people who weren’t” (good at heart).
Ms. Horn has nothing against Anne Frank, but she sees more relevance and truth in the words of others, including a first-hand account by a man named Zalmen Gradowski, whose manuscript describing the atrocities of Auschwitz was found after the world’s Jewish population was reduced by six million. The few lines that she quotes from his book, describing the horrors he observed, makes one eager to leave the page. But the essential truth of the book is that truth must be told, and we—Jews and non-Jews alike—may not turn the page until we have read it. According to Maimonides, if we “draw a veil over our perception, we return to a darkness almost as dense as before.” Like Maimonides, Horn believes that untruth must be exposed, however challenging and often painful that may be.”
Over 20,000 Jews lived in, Harbin, China, during the early part of the twentieth century, occupying a central role in the cultural and business life of the city. “Like almost everyplace Jews have ever lived … it was great for the Jews until it wasn’t.” Some of Harbin’s Jews left of their own accord, but most did not. Ms. Horn visited the city, population now around ten million, where Harbin’s one remaining Jew showed her the “Jewish Heritage Sites.”
Horn is the author of several novels, and fiction is not immune from her uncompromising magnifying glass. “Happy endings” and “epiphany,” or at least a “moment of grace” can be found in much of the literature by non-Jews, whereas authors in Jewish languages mostly avoid such outcomes, or indeed any outcomes at all. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, she tells us, wrote influential “homiletic tales” with no endings, a pattern found in Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories as well.
For those of us more familiar with the musical play Fiddler on the Roof than with the original, it comes as a revelation that the stage version leaves out Golde’s and Motl’s deaths and other mournful events. As for Tevye, “he never has an epiphany or moment of grace”—he simply endures. “His great power is that he remains exactly who he always was.”
Another exposed myth, one that strikes close to home, is the common belief that our grandparents’ (or great-grandparents’) names were changed at Ellis Island. According to Ms. Horn, that is pure fiction; the authorities took immigrants’ names from ships’ manifests which, in turn, were based on passports or travel documents. She may be correct, but my grandfather’s name in the Old Country was Pollack, and it became Steinfield when he got here in 1890. Since Ellis Island did not open as an immigration station until 1892, my personal history, as related to me by my father, and Horn’s unmasking can co-exist.
Yes, she adds, a lot of name-changing did take place among immigrants, but not when they got off the boat. The majority of such name-changers were those with Jewish-sounding names. I know of that too: My late wife’s father, born Rosenblatt in New York City around 1912, became Ross.
No book review should try to summarize the entire work, but this one would be incomplete if I did not discuss the chapter about Varian Fry, a name most people do not know. In 1997, thirty years after his death, Fry was the first of five Americans named by the State of Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations.” (I checked online and found that thirty-two countries produced more “Righteous” gentiles than did the United States).
Fry went to Vichy France at age 32 and ran an operation in Marseille that rescued thousands of Jews, including such cultural icons as Hannah Arendt, Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Franz Werfel. He personally escorted Werfel and his wife, the former Alma Mahler, over the Pyrenees.
Horn turned to a filmmaker named Pierre Sauvage, who has spent much of his life preserving Fry’s legacy. He has interviewed many of Fry’s co-workers, one of whom described their group as “misfits” and Fry as “an ornery cuss.” From what Horn tells us, Fry was a deeply troubled man, but a visionary, nonetheless.
Many years ago, at my Cousin Chaim Feldman’s funeral in New York, the rabbi said that at some point in life everyone is called on to do something important. In my cousin’s case, it was saving his wife and two sons hiding in the Poland forest for two years. For Fry, it was rescuing writers and artists whose work he had encountered at Harvard and to whom he felt indebted. For the most part, alas, they did not return the gratitude. Marc Chagall, for one, did not return his phone calls.
Varian Fry’s happiest years were those he devoted to saving Jews. Streets are named for him in his hometown of Ridgewood, New Jersey, and in Berlin. Those street names can be changed, but he will remain for all eternity one of the Righteous whose name is inscribed in the Wall of Honor at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Dara Horn is a writer, but above all she is a teacher. As I read and reread the pages, I found myself agreeing some of the time, but not always. She hopes that her children will not feel the “need” to read the book, but of course they should, and likely will, appreciate its lessons. When I reached the end of this satisfying and informative book, a lesson we all know came to mind. Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.
She concludes by taking comfort in the study of Talmud, to which she and her mother, a grandmother of fourteen, are devoting seven years. Haunted though the present seems to her, Ms. Horn’s determination to become “seven years wiser” and take what she calls “this journey” does not sound like someone who believes we are doomed to a haunted future.