By Lori Dresner, Managing/News Editor
Enduring the atrocities of one of the most horrific genocides in history is an experience few people could conceive in their worst nightmare. The accounts of murder and indecency that Holocaust victims endured are so obscene that words cannot capture what they may have witnessed. Few individuals have gone through any equivalent experience to be able to tell a Holocaust survivor, “I know how you feel,” and have it be true.
A new novel, “Among the Living,” by Jonathan Rabb, tells the fictional journey of Holocaust survivor Yitzhak “Ike” Goldah, a 31-year-old Jewish man, as he starts his life over in Savannah, Georgia in the summer of 1947. The story begins with Yitzhak meeting and going to live with his only surviving relatives, Abe and Pearl Jesler, who are part of the Conservative Jewish community. With no children of their own, the Jeslers provide Yitzhak all he needs to make himself feel at home in Savannah.
While adjusting to life in Savannah, Yitzhak harbors complex emotions that he has a difficult time conveying in words. Introspective because of his experience, he struggles with questions about his past, his future, and his identity. No one else in the town seems to remotely understand or relate to what Yitzhak has gone through, although people pityingly tell him on numerous occasions that they do. That is, until Yitzhak meets Eva.
It does not take long for Yitzhak to realize that there is a divide between the Jewish community that lives in Savannah: Reform and Conservative Jews. Yitzhak’s initial understanding of this comes from meeting Eva De la Parra, a young and beautiful widowed woman whom he learns is part of the Reform community, a sect of Judaism that has existed in the South for 200 years.
As two individuals who have personally experienced the exquisite pain of loss and tragedy, Yitzhak and Eva’s relationship is one of the most powerful in the book, developed through the dialogue they exchange and experiences they share. As their bond grows, the possibility of a future between them is one of the first signs of promise for two young characters who bear scars of incredible loss.
Yitzhak’s blossoming relationship with Eva, however, does not come without chiding from the Jeslers and other figures from within the town, both on the Conservative and Reform side of Judaism. The deep-rooted divide between these two sects puts a strain on Yitzhak and Eva’s relationship that threatens to keep them apart. Eva’s mother is adamant that Yitzhak, despite his experience, could never understand Eva’s delicate emotional state or what she has been through in losing her husband.
Their relationship is further jeopardized when a woman from Yitzhak’s past arrives in town. As he struggles between reopening the past with her and moving towards a new life with Eva, Yitzhak is torn between two worlds that could never coincide, and he grapples with an entanglement of love and despair when trying to choose between the two.
As the main character, Yitzhak brings a unique perspective to this novel. There are insights to what he is thinking and feeling, but he is overall emotionally distant from the reader. Certain events trigger flashbacks to his days spent in the concentration camp and what he saw, although these instances are few and far between—understandably so, as this is a story about a survivor’s post-Holocaust journey, not one that delves deep into the events he went through.
One aspect of the novel that becomes progressively bothersome is the patronizing way in which Pearl treats and speaks to Yitzhak, especially considering his age. Certain instances of Pearl’s overbearing nature and apparent obliviousness to it are nearly laughable, whether they were intended to be that way or not. Pearl is so insistent on knowing where Yitzhak is at all times that one might guess that he is a teenager, not a man in his 30s.
Although Yitzhak’s experience is central to the novel, Rabb devotes time in the subplot to bring in other characters who are in the midst of other events in Savannah. Abe is the owner of a shoe business called Jesler Shoes in Savannah. He employs at his store a 14-year-old boy named Jacob, and Calvin and Raymond, two African-American men who are the grandfather and boyfriend of Mary Royal, the Jeslers’ servant.
The subplot branches off from Abe’s involvement with illegal shoe imports from countries outside the U.S. When Abe inadvertently oversteps his boundaries, he and his employees find themselves in hot water with the prospect of being found out by unions in the North. The situation is further compounded by the involvement of a local newspaper that learns of the events at hand. As these events unfold, racial injustices of the Jim Crow era are exposed, demonstrating that Savannah is divided on issues further than religion.
Although ample time is allotted to these characters and their experiences, both the subplot and the characters involved in it feel underdeveloped to the point where they seem to lack substantial significance to the novel. There are many instances when the subplot seems to wander, and the characters exchange words without saying much of anything. Though the subplot and main plot are linked, the effort to join the two seems forced, and there are indeed times when the subplot feels entirely separate from the main plot itself.
“Among the Living” brings an unconventional narrative to the genre of Holocaust literature. Classic novels about the Holocaust, such as “Night” by Elie Wiesel, give firsthand accounts of what victims endured in concentration camps and their struggle to stay alive when death was staring them in the face. “Among the Living” is contrastingly about the survivor’s experience and what came next. Although the subplot detracts and much is left unsaid about several of the characters, this novel is salient for its portrayal of a survivor trying to find his place among the living while trying to put the unsayable into words.
The Current was provided a free, advanced uncorrected proof copy of Among the Living for review purposes by Left Bank Books.