Novel depicts the coming Holocaust through the eyes of children

You could wear out a calculator tallying all the Holocaust-themed novels written since World War II. But how many were written before the war?

Yankev Glatshteyn’s “Emil and Karl,” first published in 1940, might be the only one.

“Emil and Karl” was written with a young audience in mind, but its harrowing tale of trauma and survival speaks to readers of any age. The novel has been republished this year for Yom HaShoah.

Born in Poland in 1896, Glatshteyn came to America in 1914, emerging as a popular Yiddish-language poet and novelist. He wrote “Emil and Karl” in the waning months of 1939, after Hitler had already launched his plan to exterminate Germany’s Jews, overrun Austria and invaded Poland.

But it was still fairly early in the game, which makes Glatshteyn’s prescience all the more remarkable.

Set in Vienna, Austria, shortly after the March 1938 German invasion, the novel follows one momentous week in the lives of two 9-year-old boys — Emil, a Jew, and Karl, the non-Jewish son of subversive socialists. After the two best friends abruptly lose their parents to the Nazi maelstrom, they are literally left out in the cold.

Glatshteyn’s Vienna retains nothing of the city’s former gilded gaudiness. Instead, it is sinister, dark and deadly, the Strauss waltzes of old replaced by the stomp of jackboots.

The narrative grows ever more surreal as Karl and Emil tearfully wander the streets, seeking shelter and kindness from any adults still burdened with a conscience.

There are few takers. A kindly janitor allows the boys to sleep on a basement floor one night, but he is soon arrested. Back on the streets, Karl and Emil, along with hundreds of terrified Jews, are forced to scrub the cobblestones with their bare hands while the Nazis jeer. Asks Karl innocently, “Why do they do it?”

No answer follows this, the most salient question of the 20th century.

From there, Emil and Karl find shelter with Matilda, a member of the anti-Nazi underground. She hides the boys at her remote cabin outside of town, eventually letting them in on her secret.

As an exercise in plot-driven storytelling, “Emil and Karl” never lets up. Not that Glatshteyn skimps on the underlying emotion. He simply prefers to keep readers as breathless as his title characters, too buffeted by events to take stock.

Yet the author makes one exception in the person of Friedrich, a lonely, morally rudderless drunkard who mooches off Matilda every evening. Glatshteyn devotes four pages to a monologue from Friedrich, who wanly makes excuses for his role in persecuting his Jewish neighbors.

It’s a brilliantly oblique rumination on the psychology of the master race.

After that, the plot gallops ahead, with Glatshteyn sugarcoating nothing. The boys face greater and greater peril, even as their childlike innocence melts away like candle wax. By the end, with nowhere else to run, Emil and Karl cling to each other as the last trains to freedom depart.

Do they survive? Perhaps not even Glatshteyn could have then dreamed up the death camps and crematoria. But he is too brutally honest a writer to end “Emil and Karl” on an up note.

Jeffrey Shandler’s translation from the Yiddish is taut and respectful, just colloquial enough to appeal to modern readers.

Shandler would likely give all the credit to Glatshteyn, whose foresight is exceeded only by his gift for storytelling. No one knows how many Jewish kids read this book back in 1940, but one can only wish more of their elders had.

As it is, “Emil and Karl” gives new meaning to the immortal passage from Deuteronomy, “And you shall teach them diligently to your children.”

“Emil and Karl” by Yankev Glatshteyn (194 pages, Square Fish Press, $6.99)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.