Monday, January 24, 2011

Erika Dreifus' "Quiet Americans" Come to Terms With the Past

Erika Dreifus’ debut collection of short stories may have the word “quiet” in its title and, because it’s being released by a micro-press (Last Light Studio Books), it will probably enter the hurly-burly cacophony of publishing with little more than a whisper, but spend some time with Dreifus’ fiction and you will soon learn there is nothing soft-spoken about these seven tales.  Stylistically, they’re not loud or showy, but they speak to the heart and mind at a volume which cannot be ignored.

Quiet Americans is an unforgettable collection of short stories which draws its soft rage from the atrocities of the Holocaust.  The death-camp horrors are only seen on the periphery, but Auschwitz and Buchenwald never stop echoing in the lives of the Jews who populate the book.  As one character reflects, “Good news carried so much more responsibility these days.  So many burdens….with the holes of loss and absence, the demands of replacement, the trials and terrors tearing through the hours and days and years.”

Like a family tree, many of the stories are linked and we witness the gradual dilution of the Holocaust's impact from generation to generation.  Quiet Americans begins with a Jewish doctor treating the daughter of Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring and ends sixty years later in New York City with the son of survivors investigating the “stripped-bare branches” of his family tree on the internet.  In that latter story, “Mischpocha,” what happened in Germany stayed in Germany, much to the frustration of the son as he tries to get answers from his tight-lipped mother:
But whenever David tried to go back, even to a time after the Worst, to the years between his parents’ departure from Europe and his birth Over Here, she closed up. “David, please leave it all alone,” she’d say.  His father followed her lead. “David, my son, listen to your mother.”  Eventually, David had stopped asking.

Germany is the ancestral home for many of these Jewish characters and even when “the Worst” comes along, they find it hard to think of themselves as “displaced persons.”  If, that is, they even make it out alive.

In the first story, “For Services Rendered,” as the Nazi storm is brewing in the late 1930s and Dr. Weldmann is treating Goring’s daughter, he finds it hard to face the truth, no matter how much his wife insists they should get out before it gets worse:
She’d wanted to leave Germany for years, already.  He was the one reluctant to abandon the land of his ancestors.  He just refused to believe that this absurdity would continue.

Quiet Americans is rich with the themes of faith, rebirth, and familial devotion.  Dreifus doesn’t shy away from hard subjects, but she addresses the unthinkable--the broken histories of European Jews--with a remarkable mastery of form and sensitivity for her characters who have suffered through so much (or, if they didn’t suffer directly, then their immediate ancestors did).  She’s a classic storyteller and there’s a clear, direct line from Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud to her 21st-century keyboard.

I especially liked the way “Lebensraum” unspools and resolves itself.  In this story, Josef Freiburg is serving as a U.S. soldier whose assignment keeps him stateside in 1944.  His unit is given the duty of establishing a prisoner-of-war camp in a small town in Iowa called Clarinda.  Even though we know the confrontation between the Jew and his Nazi prisoners is coming, Dreifus handles it with such skill and subtlety it nearly takes our breath away.  Meanwhile, another thread of the story follows Josef’s wife Nelly as she gives birth to their son and the couple struggles to find a rabbi in the middle of Iowa to perform the traditional circumcision ceremony.  There is a moment of unexpected grace and then Dreifus ends “Lebensraum” on a beautiful, hopeful note:
Tomorrow, says the doctor, Nelly and the baby leave the hospital.  Josef can come fetch them after the breakfast shift.  After that, well, the world is open.  Free.  In America.  In Clarinda. The country’s basket of bread.  How much quiet.  How much land.

In the title story, expertly told from the second-person viewpoint, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors takes a trip to her ancestral homeland and finds herself confronted with the moral perplexities faced by many of the characters in the book.  She stays silent in the midst of her tour group, torn between sympathy for the tour guide whose family suffered the Allied bombings and her own grandparents who suffered at the hands of those same bombed-out Germans:
       But you also stay quiet because, remember, you are a guest.  And not just any guest.  You’re the one who just doesn’t know whether it’s worse to be an American or a Jew in Europe these days.  And today you aren’t only in Europe.
       You are in Germany.
Eventually, the granddaughter remembers the one German word she does know: Vergangenheitsbewaltigung.  “Coming to terms with the past.”  That is what everyone who walks the pages of Quiet Americans must do.

That is also the duty Quiet Americans charges readers with, no matter what our nationality or religion may be.  Somehow, we must reconcile ourselves with the idea of moral evil which still spreads its tentacles through the world.  How do we overcome the sins of the past and still move forward, like Josef, into a land that is open, free, and quiet?  Not through forgetting, but through forgiveness.

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