Off the shelf | Two novels revisit historic moments for Jews in Europe

Two unconventional new books that bring to life significant moments in the European past are haunting me.

Paul Goldberg’s bold debut novel, “The Yid,” takes place in and around Moscow in early 1953. The city’s Jewish doctors are being persecuted on the false premise that they are plotting to kill Soviet leaders. Plans are rumored to be underway for the deportation of Jews en masse to the East.

One of the many Jews receiving an unwelcome visit from state security forces is Solomon Levinson, an elderly former soldier and former actor with the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET), a major European troupe until its dissolution by the government in 1948. The young men, sent on a routine assignment to arrest the old man in his apartment, get an unwelcome surprise when Levinson overtakes them in a startling act of acrobatic violence. The unexpected event puts him on the run and spurs him to action.

Levinson assembles a motley group that proceeds to launch a plot to stem Stalin’s own plotting. They include Aleksandr Kogan, who, as a newly jobless Moscow physician, has little to lose; Kima Petrova, who seeks revenge for the murder of her parents; and Frederick Lewis, an African American man who, scarred by the racism in the United States, immigrated to the Soviet Union, only to find himself disillusioned. Their haphazardly evolving mission involves the shedding of much blood, but also the exchange of ideas and much dark humor.

Theater is central to the book, which is divided into three “acts” that lead to a memorable spectacle, complete with costume and makeup. Looming heavily is the memory of Levinson’s leading colleagues (and competitors) in the GOSET troupe, Solomon Mikhoels and Benjamin Zuskin, who were murdered by the government in 1948 and 1952 respectively. The crushed world of Yiddish theater becomes invested with new life, as Levinson’s crew summons elements of absurdist drama and even “King Lear” (whose Yiddish language production was one of GOSET’s most celebrated achievements) into a real-life endeavor to bring down Stalin.

In Goldberg’s informative afterword, he reveals that much of the book is inspired by stories and people he encountered while growing up in Moscow. The book becomes an opportunity to visit some of the most disturbing chapters in Soviet Jewish history, with the recurrence of blood libels and the belief that Jews hid riches in their tefillin, reflecting the continuity of anti-Semitism from imperial Russia into the Soviet era. The question of whether the plot against Jewish doctors was just the opening volley in an enormous purge of Soviet Jewry that Stalin was planning just before his death in March 1953 remains the subject of debate among historians, and this harrowing scenario provides the setting for a very compelling novel.

The meeting of art and political reality is also at the forefront of German literary critic and historian Volker Weidermann’s newly translated volume, “Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark.” Neither an academic study nor a novel, it offers an imagined account of a poignant moment during the collapse of Jewish existence in Germany and Austria.

Stefan Zweig, whose work has seen markedly increased interest in recent years, was among the world’s most popular authors of the 1920s and early 1930s. He and his friend and fellow writer Joseph Roth, best known today for his 1932 novel “The Radetzky March,” had enormously different temperaments and reflected very different varieties of Jewish experience in the Hapsburg Empire. While Zweig was born to a wealthy assimilated family in Vienna, Roth was raised fatherless (his father having been committed to a mental institution before Roth was born) in Brody, an overwhelmingly Yiddish-speaking town in the empire’s easternmost reaches. Their lives remained dissimilar in adulthood, with Zweig residing in an opulent Salzburg chateau, and Roth, working as a journalist, opting for a Bohemian existence and spending much of his adult life traversing Europe without a permanent home.

Fleeing Hitler, Roth and Zweig came together in the summer of 1936 in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend, alongside other exiles, mostly Jewish. Basing his account on a great number of writings, Weidermann uses understated prose to explore the exiles’ psyches and conversations that would have taken place during this time in limbo.

The book’s tone evokes melancholy more than desperation, but Weidermann conveys the weight of this bleak transitional moment in which there is no longer a home to return to for these sons of Austria. And it would only become bleaker. Roth would drink himself to death in Paris in 1939. And, having sought haven in Brazil, a despondent Zweig would commit suicide there with his wife in 1942.

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

“The Yid” by Paul Goldberg (320 pages, Picador)

“Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark” by Volker Weidermann (164 pages, Pantheon)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.