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They Were Like Family to Me: Stories Paperback – October 4, 2016
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“What might otherwise have been an unbearable recounting of inhuman atrocities Shankman transforms through a prism that is by turns forthright and tender, oblique and intimate, brutal and ethereal…Though each story stands beautifully on its own, it is the completed tapestry of interwoven details that finally reveals the entire picture and provides the full emotional depth of the collected stories; the sum is unquestionably greater than the parts…The author’s greatest accomplishment is in leaving the horror to speak for itself, and instead giving voice to the enchantment.” (Historical Novel Society)
About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman’s stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Story Contest and earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers competition. Her stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Gargoyle, Cream City Review, 2 Bridges Review, Grift, Jewishfiction.net, and other publications. She is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Color of Light and the story collection They Were Like Family to Me. She lives in New Jersey, with her husband and four children.
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Just a hint; this is not an extended fantasy in the manner of Joseph Skibell's A BLESSING ON THE MOON. The degradation and deaths are real, but every story but one contains a gleam of light: the one act of selflessness from a ruthless exterminator, the one Jewish child saved from death. Some of the shorter ones are brilliant: the Messiah who arrives in the nick of time but then refuses to help, or the Golem whose immortal powers prove all too mortal. Shankman treads a fine line between fancy and reality. Several stories, for instance, make reference to a cataclysmic event in the Parczew Forest in 1942, but Shankman leaves it ambiguous whether this is a miracle, the result of something like a meteorite strike, and/or a concerted action by a band of Jewish partisans who operate on a guerilla basis from the forest depths. All the same, my initial five-star impression of the book gradually declined as, despite the variety of the author's invention, the strange mixture of atrocity and uplift became a little too predictable.
The partisans, though, were real. So is the setting, which I had first assumed was imaginary: the small town of Wlodawa in southeastern Poland, near the Russian border. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, and the small estate of Adampol nearby, I even found the names of some of the survivors, and lo and behold the surnames are the same as some of the characters that recur throughout the stories. So, for all the apparent fantasy, this collection is based on truth. As it became clear that, so far from being separate, these stories were in effect the component parts of a novel, my rating rose again. The two other long stories in the book, "The Jew Hater" and "A Decent Man," are effectively paired: the one the story of the most rabid Polish anti-Semite in the region, the other that of a Nazi official who, as in SCHINDLER'S ARK, tried to protect the Jewish craftsmen he had working for him. Neither story turns out quite as expected, but there is goodness in both of them. More than that, they turn out both to be chapters in a very moving family history. As the author says in her acknowledgements, "My dad […] told me narratives of blinding courage and incomprehensible horror. I pass them on in the only way I am able, through the filter of fiction."
Oddly enough, though set in the same place, the story that I think I will treasure the longest, "They Were Like Family to Me," has no element of folklore and its connection to the family history is far from obvious at first. Many decades after the war, a Catholic priest and a companion visit Wlodawa and talk to an old Polish man about what happened there. What comes out is a long-repressed confession of his own part in the horror. The priest realizes that what the old man is describing was captured in a photo -- I think a real one that I believe I have seen, but cannot now find. If so, it is a stunningly empathetic interpretation of the image on the part of the author, but then she has already shown herself empathetic to Germans, Poles, and Jews alike. No, what most strikes me about this story is that it does not rely on any kind of fantasy to round off its sharp edges. The moral dilemma, the question of guilt, is out there for all to see, stark but impossible to resolve. These are questions that stick in the mind for ever.
"That's something," said Eric. Sympathetically. "He couldn't have been the monster they say he was."
"You should have noticed by now," the priest said. "Sometimes a monster looks just like any other man."
The first story, the book title, “In the Land of Armadillos”, presents us with the ambiguity of moral dilemma, as perceived by a soldier; the necessity of distorting humanistic sensibility in the face of wartime atrocity. How does a German of “Schutzstaffe” (SS) rank, Hitler’s feared “Protection Squadron”, a man proud of his well earned promotion, excited to tell his wife of the villa that’s now at his family’s disposal, rationalize the true nature of his military postings? In an excerpt of the letter he writes to his wife:
"Now I am sitting at my own desk, in my own office, looking out of the window of our new home. Your new home, my darling...Dearest little bunny, I wake up, I go to work, I sign papers, I direct people to go here, to go there, to do this and that, but all day long, I am thinking of you…nothing makes any sense without you by my side."
This officer doesn't mention from whom his new quarters were appropriated, or the horrific meaning of “do (ing) this and that” while he’s at work. He seals the letter, and affixes a stamp; then he takes out his personal diary and posts this entry:
"the composure of the Jewish woman as they dug their own graves; the courage of the men who offered no pleading, no tears; and I can’t forget the attractive figures of pretty girls as they put down their shovels and turn to face me…only at that moment, as I sighted the barrel, pointed at their hearts, did I feel a flutter of emotion. Otherwise, I ate well, I slept like a baby. I should feel something, shouldn’t I? What does it mean?"
These linked short stories, all located in the village of Wlodawa, in eastern Poland, during 1942, will ask, and try to answer,"what does it mean?”, from a variety of perspectives…be it the pondering of Jewish citizenry who face the incomprehensible, the foreboding entry of Nazi troops upon their lives; or, what it means be the purveyor of forced labor and instant death…and still posit arguments to justify your actions, imagining your own moral compass to be in proper working order, ignoring its divergence from True North; or lastly, what it means to be an elderly, gentile man, trying to explain to a priest who’s looking for historical information about the wartime events in Wlodawa, how he was part of a firing squad that eliminated a Jewish family that he adored, whereby he personally put out of her misery, his gut shot girlfriend, who looked up at him, pleadingly, naked, atop an excavated pit filled with dead Jews, all residents of his hometown. The priest does not know how to respond to this belated confession, the residual guilt of a lifetime.
Also, Shankman’s generous utilization of both fable and parable as a literary mechanism is, well, quite fabulous.
These stories personally resonate, as I’ve been told that my own family roots are traceable to a Polish village that borders Lithuania…of which there is no longer factual evidence; a family tree denuded of all its leaves, no inklings of former residency, no graveyard, no public records, not since the Nazi's decimated the country’s Jewish population over 70 years ago.
Helen Maryles Shankman portrays the complexities that affected people during that time, and the difficult decisions they had to make.
Very highly recommend for readers of historical fiction. A wonderful mix of history and folklore that will keep you up late into the night reading. It will have a special place on my bookshelf.
Most recent customer reviews
It is a moving collection written with depth and immense feeling
for which I am very grateful.