Why is there no truly great Holocaust Novel? We have great Holocaust books, but no writer has ever been capable of conveying its tragic enormity. The few survivors dwindle rapidly from Old Age, the one killer the Nazis could never beat; and its most articulate witnesses, even world-renowned writers like Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel, can only tell us what it’s like to survive it. It would seem that any writer with the horrific imagination to render the Shoah is a completely lost name.
The one writer whose name we still know that might have done it lived in New York when he prematurely passed in 1944, a year before any Jew knew what happened to their cousins. When we lost Yitzhak Bashevis Singer’s older brother, Yisroel Yehoshua Singer, the 20th century lost its best hope of a great Holocaust Novel.
How do we know this? Because he’d already written “The Brothers Ashkenazi,” a novel about Jews caught in the grip of WWI and the Russian Revolution. In the early ’30s when The Brothers Ashkenazi was written, no more consequential event to Jews could be imagined than the formation of the Soviet Union.
Both Yitzhak Bashevis and Yisroel Yehoshua dip their pen into the same alchemical fluid whose ingredients are a family secret, but while Yitzhak turned his pen inward toward the soul, Yisroel turned it outward toward the world. Yitzhak writes about sinners and ghosts, and God and the Devil. Yisroel writes about money and corruption, betrayal and hatred. If Yitzhak sounds like Dostoevsky and Poe if they were books in the Tanakh, then Yisroel sounds like Tolstoy and Balzac if they were edited by Kafka.
Excepting “War and Peace,” it is difficult to think of a novel that gives the same epic sense of the world as a giant machine that constantly expands and contracts, that whirls itself into events beyond the control of any person and then comes to rest at its own caprice, having crushed millions of lives in its gears. At the beginning of 2017, this tale of Lodz and Petrograd a century ago is all too vivid a warning of what may come.
But if “The Brothers Ashkenazi” has a message, then its message won’t be very popular to a Jewish public, because the message is that we don’t really deserve better. For more than half-century, Jews begrudged the more famous Singer because he told the truth about us. Who can possibly read Isaac Bashevis in Pikesville — all those stories about shtetl Jews who see their values as superior to goyim while indulging in acts as cruel and vain as those perpetrated by any other ethnicity, and not feel a twinge of recognition? At least Yitzhak Bashevis had nostalgia for shtetlach, Yisroel Yehoshua has all the heymisher warmth toward Jews of a cold shower.
Like so much in Bashevis, “The Brothers Ashkenazi” contains passages disturbing enough to be in “Game of Thrones.” Nevertheless, what stays with the reader is not the broken taboos but the cruelty of the characters. It shows that World War may have been inevitable because every member of a society was focused on his or her own advancement. In the process, characters betray fathers and wives, brothers and daughters, nieces and inlaws. Every character seeks to control their own destiny, only for destiny to control them.
The plot’s all too basic. It begins with the casual cruelties of a few middle-class Jews who refuse to help poor Jews in need. The middle class Jews become rich, and the rich Jews exploit poor Jews. The rich Jews then become indispensable to still richer goyim who need new ways to exploit poor Goyim, and the poor Jews become Communists who organize unions. World War I breaks out to the West, and the rich goyim confiscate the holdings of the rich Jews. The Russian Revolution breaks out to the East, and poor goyim riot against their well-meaning Jewish brethren and reduce their possessions to nothing. Everyone is an opportunist or a fanatic, no one is humble enough to stop hating their opponents. As tension mounts, the world divides into ideological extremes, and the only thing the extremists can agree on is how much they hate Jews.
It’s both a medieval morality tale, and an accurate rendering of how history happens. The less humility and generosity we have to those for whom contempt comes naturally, the more likely we pay for our contempt with cataclysm. We may be living “The Brothers Ashkenazi,” thinking that we can all control our lives, only for life to control us. We are not all separate bodies, but symptoms of a diseased body that can only cleanse itself by killing off millions of cells — a body for which Jews are always accused of being the parasite.