By October 8, I had reread “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. By October 15, I’d reread “The Lost” by Daniel Mendelsohn. By October 13, “An Exclusive Love” by Johanna Adorján.
During dark days, this is what I do. Read stories of the Holocaust. Next up, I told myself, the holy grail: “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William Shirer.
Instead, I plucked “Sophie’s Choice” from a little free library.
A novel centered on the Holocaust usually strikes me as a bad idea. So does a trade paperback that runs to 684 pages. Worse, I already knew the ending, or thought I knew it. As most anyone could tell you, William Styron’s 1979 classic dramatizes every parent’s nightmare: A Nazi officer forces Sophie to choose which of her children to send to the gas.
The idea of the book repulsed me. I devoured it anyway. As a parent, Sophie naturally speaks to me. But as I track every second of Israel’s war with Hamas, it’s the torment of her American lover over Nazi atrocities that haunts my days and nights.
It’s 1947, Brooklyn. Sophie is a Polish refugee, a lapsed Catholic, and a knockout. Her lover, Nathan, is a research scientist, American, Jewish, and—yes—rich. He’s the life of the party, regaling a constant, impenetrable entourage in dead-on accents and immaculate physical comedy, before jumping to the piano to lead rousing sing-alongs out of the American songbook followed by serious, crowd-gathering renditions out of the canon of classical music.
He is also Sophie’s savior. When she lands in Brooklyn, she is anemic, penniless, and alone. No one knows of her children or her “choice.” Meeting Nathan is transformational. With an open checkbook, he takes her for top-notch medical care at Columbia Presbyterian and weekly shopping sprees at Saks. He buys her new teeth, a bejeweled Omega wristwatch, and a diaphragm. Only the number tattooed onto her forearm betrays her harrowing past.
Like Sophie, Nathan has a dark side. After the party comes the vicious hangover. He beats and belittles Sophie, disappearing for days before returning for torrid makeup sex. Still, the good days outnumber the bad. Then come the Nuremberg Trials and Nathan’s unraveling.
So far, I’ve ducked the question of why I devour stories of the Shoah in dark times. It started when I was 18, on a summerlong BBYO trip to Israel. Finally, I’d found the fun part of Jewishness: the boys on Tel Aviv beach. Yep, I was one of those.
Then the bottom fell out. The trip came to an end. My plane touched down at Detroit Metro and I learned the worst. My brother, two years younger, was dead. Killed on the way to soccer camp. My devastation was total. But a couple weeks later I left for my first year of college. I partied to black out and flirted with failing out.
Somehow, a friend got me to read “Maus.” I binged it. Here was a portal to the dark places I needed to go as I grieved, guided by a son living in the shadow of his parents and their torment over surviving. The supply was inexhaustible. Primo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg, Elie Wiesel and Stefan Zweig, Charlotte Delbo and Patrick Modiano and too many others to name, all besieged by the enduring anguish of surviving. My grades scarcely improved but I started waking up in my own bed and knowing how I’d landed there.
Fourteen years later, my dad died and I found a new genre flourishing: reported memoirs by adult grandchildren of Jews who had directly experienced the Shoah. That’s my generation, writers who as little kids were made captive audience to ancient Europeans recounting unspeakable barbarism and the guilt and shame of surviving it.
As my Hebrew school teacher put it in her memorable icebreaker: “I was your age when I jumped off the train to Treblinka.”
We were seven. The year, 1982. The same year “Sophie’s Choice” came to the big screen. It was major, an event, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. I recall my dad one night at the dinner table spilling the beans on the substance of Sophie’s best-known choice and wondering inwardly whom he would choose among us.
“After the Third Reich,” Nathan spits at Sophie in the wake of the Nuremberg broadcasts, “suicide should become the legitimate option of any sane human being on earth.”
He harangues her, a partial projection. How did she survive when six million Jews did not? Did she do it with her stunning Aryan looks? By spreading her legs? By calling upon her antisemitic upbringing? Or was it her knack for secrets and lies?
The trouble is, as his brother reveals toward the end of the book, Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic. He pops uppers by the fistful and hoovers up heaps of cocaine. He’s not a scientist either. He’s some low-level clerk at Pfizer, the gig a favor from a family friend. Nor did he serve. His psychiatric state disqualified him from facing down the Nazis firsthand. And the money? Their father made a fortune canning kosher soups.
Got all that? Nathan’s a lunatic, drug addict, liar, trust funder, and 4-F. A fraud who doesn’t deserve his gazillions, much less the love and devotion of beautiful, bereft Sophie.
The pile-on is meant to explain what comes next, the book’s proper ending: Sophie and Nathan complete a suicide pact. Suicide, not incidentally, is Sophie’s true choice, the one in which she wields genuine agency.
As for Nathan, I’d wager that what really does him in are questions of how he survived the war. He may be a paranoid schizophrenic, but he is sane enough to feel guilt, shame, and regret over his inability to do anything to protect his people from the Nazis. Stumbling upon Sophie, he might have hoped, was his ticket out of the torment. But resurrecting her wasn’t enough. Maybe nothing would have been enough for someone who is convinced that suicide is the only sane response to the Third Reich. History shows him far from alone in this calculation.
Now, as I take in testimony of Hamas’s butchery and psychological torture, I can’t stop thinking about Nathan’s torment over being here while aching to be over there, doing something.
I ache to be in Israel right now. To huddle in the mamad with my aunt and uncle rather than WhatsApp with them from my daughter’s soccer practice. To video my cousin in Rishon as she tells her toddlers she is pregnant with twins rather than marvel at her on my phone as proof of Israeli resilience. To celebrate shabbat with my other cousin and his boyfriend as the Iron Dome puts on a lightshow out their window in Ramat Gan rather than try and explain Queers for Palestine to them over facetime. To do something, anything, to contribute to the war effort on the ground rather than puzzle out why the Commentary crowd are the only ones in the West talking any sense right now.
Not unlike Nathan, I ache to rid myself of the stench of the draft dodger.
Only then might I doom-spiral a tick less often over my own contributions to an antisemitism spun out of control, especially on campus. Where, for example, a swastika was graffitied onto the office door of a psychology professor who happens to be Jewish and the administration only offered to clean it and I said nothing. Or where my peers scorned me for studying with a famed historian who happens to be a Zionist on television, and I still said nothing. Or where my student made a keffiyeh his daily uniform and “the Zionist entity” his daily talking point, and I let the dean turn his eliminationist bile into a problem of writer-based prose.
I liked the prestige of the Ivy League. What I didn’t understand then was that it was never going to like me back. Jews aren’t in the business of being liked. We’re in the business of sticking around, sticking together, and sticking up for each other. Sometimes, oftentimes, it hurts. For Nathan, it hurt him to death. Despite it all, I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.