What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander, places him, once again, among the finest Jewish-American writers of our time. Like Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Joseph Epstein, he captures the essence of living as a secular Jew under the shadow of the Holocaust. And he does so using allegory, magic realism in the spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the comic elements found in the films of Woody Allen.

The title story is a case in point. In it, two couples--one of whom is Hasidic--play "the Righteous Gentile Game." The object of the game is to analyze personal relationships and guess which people would save us should another Shoah occur.

To better understand the rationale for this story, it is helpful to refer to an NPR interview with Englander. In it, the author indicates that his orthodox, fifth-generation American family actually played this game. So poisonous was such a mind game that he reflects on it even today.

"We really were raised with the idea of a looming second Holocaust, and we would play this game wondering who would hide us," he says. "I remember my sister saying about a couple we knew, 'He would hide us, and she would turn us in.' And it struck me so deeply, and I just couldn't shake that thought for all these years, because it's true." (NPR, Fresh Air, February 15, 2012)

Not surprisingly, Nathan Englander tackles moral issues in each of the eight stories that comprise this collection. But a theme that repeats over and over is that ethical choices are not always clear-cut--that extreme situations damage people and render them inhumane. Two very powerful stories that explore this are "Camp Sundown" and "Free Fruit for Young Widows."

In "Camp Sundown," evil is unleashed when a group of seniors at a summer camp suspects a Nazi is hiding in their midst. Similarly, in "Free Fruit for Young Widows," a concentration camp survivor (Private Tendler) begins a new life in Israel, only to kill four Egyptians in cold blood. This is a haunting story, told in pieces by an Israeli father to his son. Although it deals with the 1956 Sinai Campaign (England, France and Israel vs. Egypt to regain free access of the Suez Canal), the issues are universal.

Englander speaks through the voice of the narrator--Shimmy,the father--to shed light on Tendler's seemingly heartless actions. This was not the first time Tendler seemed to be without a moral compass; during the same war, he had become enraged and beaten Shimmy senseless. Shimmy explains to his son the reasons for his unwavering forgiveness of his friend.

It is hard to know what a person would and wouldn't do in any specific instance. And you, spoiled child, apply the rules of civilization to a boy who had seen only its opposite. Maybe the fault for those deaths lies in a system designed for the killing of Tendlers that failed to do its job. An error, a slip that allowed a Tendler, no longer fit, back loose in the world. pp. 205-206

"Free Fruit for Widows" is the concluding story in Nathan Englander's book. The issues it deals with--familial love, kindness, empathy-- are poignantly contrasted with the horrors of war and their impact on individuals. It raises very pertinent questions that go far beyond the echoes of the Holocaust.

This is a stunning short story collection that successfully grapples with issues of morality and free will. Some stories will have the reader laughing aloud; others will bring tears. The writing is beautiful and sincere. Most important, the book asks philosophical questions that give pause, and ultimately, remain unanswered.

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