- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
“Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”) — Heinrich Heine (1797-1856),
I doubt that I will come across a book this year as powerful and moving as Jodi Picoult’s “The Storyteller” (Emily Bestler Books, Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 480 pages, $28.99). This story of Sage Singer, her grandmother and Holocaust survivor, Minka; 90-year-old Josef Weber, a much beloved displaced person from Europe in Sage’s grief support group and the beautifully drawn characters from the Lodz, Poland ghetto and the Nazi death factories will haunt you forever.
Twenty-something Sage Singer is a baker. Scarred physically (from a car wreck) and emotionally, she works through the night, preparing the days breads and pastries, trying to escape a reality of loneliness, bad memories, and the shadow of her mother’s death. When Josef Weber, an elderly man in Sage’s grief support group, begins stopping by the bakery, they strike up an unlikely friendship. Despite their differences, they see in each other the hidden scars that others cant, and they become companions.
Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. One day he asks Sage for a favor: he wants her, a Jew by birth, to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses…but then he tells her he deserves to die because of the crimes against humanity committed in Auschwitz. On the surface Weber reminded me of Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil” character Arthur Denker, played by Ian McKellen in the 1998 Bryan Singer-helmed film “Apt Pupil.” Denker is really Kurt Dussander — a former Obersturmbannführer in the SS who is now a fugitive war criminal hiding from justice in Southern California.
Minka, Sage’s Polish-Jewish grandmother from Lodz survives by telling a Gothic fairytale to the camp commmandant, in the manner of Scheherazade, the legendary Persian woman who stayed alive as long as she spun her complicated tale. Another young woman wonderfully portrayed by Picoult is Mania, whose mastery of the German language saved her life multiple times during the war, when she was picked to work in office jobs instead of in hard labor. Her knowledge of German impressed her German boss at one factory so much that he became a kind of Oskar Schindler saving his workers from being selected by the Nazis during a concentration camp roundup. Mania quoted Heine, and was immediately corrected (incorrectly) by her boss about the origin of the quote.
Picoult, raised in a secular Jewish household, says that the genesis of the novel — the “nut graf” in journalese — was an incident recounted by Simon Wiesenthal in “The Sunflower”. Wiesenthal cites a moment when, as a concentration camp prisoner, he was brought to the bedside of a dying Nazi, who wanted to confess to and be forgiven by a Jew.
Picoult said the passage so impressed her that it started her thinking about what would happen if the same request was made, decades later, to a Jewish prisoner’s granddaughter.
“The Storyteller” is extensively and meticulously researched, with Picoult listing the books she consulted. I was surprised that she didn’t cite one of the most important works of recent Holocaust research, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” The book stirred controversy about “collective guilt” when it appeared, but it became a bestseller and was honored by the Germans themselves.
In an interview, Picoult characterized this research as “among some of the most emotionally grueling I’ve ever done. I met with several Holocaust survivors, who told me their stories. Some of those details went into the fictional history of my character, Minka. It was humbling and horrifying to realize that the stories they recounted were non-fiction. Some of the moments these brave men and women told me will stay with me forever: such as Bernie, who pried a mezuzah from his door frame as the Nazis dragged him from his home, and held it curled in his fist throughout the entire war – so that it took two years to straighten his fingers after liberation.”
I marvel at the deviousness, the sheer denial of holocaust deniers, in the wake of so much human testimony. Their hatred of Jews sustains them! And, sadly, today’s Europe, which engineered the Holocaust, contains many deniers who at the same time wish Hitler had been more “successful.”
The novel’s U.S. Justice Department Nazi hunter Leo Stein, who falls in love with Sage, is based on Picoult’s research and her interview with the director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy in the Human Rights & Special Prosecutions section of the Department of Justice – a real-life Nazi hunter.
Picoult said she’s often asked why, “after all the Holocaust literature that has been written, I wanted to tackle this subject.” Picoult: ” I am agnostic, but I was raised by Jewish parents and so, like Sage, I find myself in the odd situation of being a spokesperson for a religious group I do not personally affiliate with anymore. And yet, someone has to be that spokesperson. Am I more qualified because I have relatives who died in concentration camps? That’s not for me to say. But some stories need to be told, and this is one of them, even though naysayers will insist that it’s ludicrous to hunt down ninety year old men at this point.” Picoult reminds us there’s no statute of limitations on murder. “And isn’t it hypocritical for America to remove hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens whose only crime is that they’ve overstayed their visas…yet still let former war criminals live peacefully in our suburbs? If we have a moral responsibility to the past, it’s to make sure that history like this doesn’t repeat. And that means making sure survivors know their government cares enough to make sure they don’t have to run into their tormentors at the grocery store. Perhaps by doing this, we are also sending a message to the person who, in another far away genocide, is thinking of pulling a trigger because a dictator has told him to do so. Maybe that person will remember that no matter how long it takes, for the rest of his life, this government will pursue him. And maybe that will be enough to make him put down the gun.”
About the Author
Jodi Picoult is the author of nineteen novels, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers “Sing You Home”, “House Rules”, “Handle With Care”, “Change of Heart”, “Nineteen Minutes”, and “My Sister’s Keeper”. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. Visit her website at JodiPicoult.com.