There are few lines as resonant for me as William Faulkner’s oft-quoted “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Last month’s flare-up involving restaurateur and former cooking show host Paula Deen restored this lesson to its appropriate Southern context. But Faulkner’s observation also reflects a truth central to Jewish life — we Jews are animated by our history, whether in antiquity or in our recent past, and whether that history inspires us or haunts us.
In Rutu Modan’s new graphic novel, “The Property,” a young Israeli woman and her rather difficult grandmother travel to Warsaw for the grandmother’s first visit to Poland since leaving shortly before World War II. Although the ostensible purpose of the trip is to reclaim an apartment building that their family had owned, it turns out that there is much more to be revealed (which I won’t reveal here) in the course of their time in Warsaw.
With elements of both detective story and screwball comedy, the book portrays uneasy relationships across generation and nationality, with each character guessing at the other’s motivations. Modan suggests that things are always more complicated than we suspect, and that our relationship to the past can fuel how we relate to each other in the present.
Modan also deftly explores the current Jewish relationship to Poland. For example, the book’s depiction of an Israeli teen pilgrimage to concentration camps offers an unflattering vision of how Poland is employed as a pedagogical instrument for Jewish identity formation — as a land with no possibility other than as a cemetery.
This is not to say that Modan romanticizes the country. There is plenty of mutual suspicion to go around in the interactions between the book’s Poles and Jews. But she resists reductionism by honoring the complexity of the stories.
Like Modan’s previous full-length work, “Exit Wounds,” which revolved around a suicide bombing in Israel, “The Property” displays the strengths of the “grown-up” graphic novel. It is elegantly executed with economical line work and a narrative that is confined to dialogue; the restraint helps to keep the story provocative without being didactic. It’s a book I would recommend even to those who lack affection for the medium.
A different sort of history lesson lies in Jonathan Kirsch’s “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” whose release coincides appropriately with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Kirsch provides a detailed account of the saga of Grynszpan, the 17-year-old who walked into the German Embassy in Paris on Nov. 7, 1938 and shot low-ranking diplomat Ernst vom Rath. Germany seized on vom Rath’s death two days later, using it as a pretext for the widespread campaign of pogroms that would become known as Kristallnacht.
I consider myself knowledgeable about the history of the Holocaust, but what I previously knew about Grynszpan could barely have filled two sentences. Although his action is well-known, Grynszpan’s story is not.
Grynszpan was born in Hanover, Germany to a family of poor Jewish émigrés from Poland. In 1936, with life increasingly intolerable under the Nazis, Herschel’s parents sent the 15-year-old to live with relatives in Paris. However, Herschel’s attempts to gain legal residency status in France were rejected, and in 1938 he was formally expelled. With his Polish and German re-entry papers having expired, he was now stateless, and he continued to live in Paris illegally.
In October 1938, his parents and siblings were deported from Germany along with thousands of other Jews originally from Poland. With Poland unwilling to admit them, the refugees lingered in poor conditions in a makeshift transit camp in the border town of Zbaszyn.
Frustration and anger at his family’s plight led Herschel to seek vengeance on Germany. He purchased a gun, shot vom Rath and made no effort to evade capture. In his wallet was a postcard addressed to his parents with a short message that included the words, “I have to protest in a way that the whole world hears my protest.”
Kirsch demonstrates ably that, although there were some spontaneous eruptions of violence against Jews after the attack, the massive actions that broke out following vom Rath’s death were centrally organized from on high, replete with officially authorized phrases to be painted on the windows and walls of Jewish-owned businesses.
Owing largely to the vagaries of bureaucracy and war, Grynszpan was never tried in court. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels intended to enact a show trial in Berlin, but the crafty Gynszpan foiled it by threatening to testify that he and vom Rath were romantically involved and that the murder was the result of a lovers’ spat.
Grynszpan eventually was killed in German custody, but the circumstances are a matter of speculation.
Kirsch wonders aloud why Jews who fought against the Nazis are widely celebrated as heroes, but Grynszpan is not. Is it because he was young and troubled? Because his target was a low-ranking Nazi with an office job? Because his act came too early? Or because we can’t help laying some of the blame for Kristallnacht on him? It’s a question I’m still contemplating long after having closed the book. Because we’re never done with history.
“The Property” by Rutu Modan (232 pages, Drawn and Quarterly, $24.95)
“The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” by Jonathan Kirsch (352 pages, Liveright, $27.95)
Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.