My grandfather came from Galicia in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire like Isaac in the novel Isaac's Torah and also was also a soldier for the Austria-Hungarian Empire like Isaac but my grandfather Samuel Stein emigrated to New York before World War I while Isaac stayed in Eastern Europe rolled over by wars. Isaac's story is like that of my long lost Galician cousins.
Angel Wagenstein has written in Isaac's Torah is one of the great novels of the last ten years. Wagenstein is a Bulgarian screenwriter, film director and novelist. He comes from a Sephardic Jewish family who fled to Paris in the 1920s because of the father's lefitst politics. Returning to Bulgaria after an amnesty, Wagenstein during World War II joined an anti-facist partisan unit, was arrested and condemned to death but his life was saved by the arrival of the Red Army. After studying film in Moscow, he worked as a screenwriter and film director in both Bulgaria and East Germany. His film Stars directed by German Konrad Wolf was awarded the Special Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival.
Isaac's Torah is the first novel in an award-winning trilogy about European Jews. The hero Isaac Blumenfeld grew up in a small shtelt (village) in Galicia before World War I--Galicia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Isaac always tells jokes and Jewish stories and this book is a tribute to Eastern European Jewish humor and story telling as he tells in life in five books like the five books of the Torah in the Bible. He tells how he stayed in the same village but the village was regulalry absorbed into a different nation, so Isaac had five homelands--Austro-Hungary Empire, Poland, Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Union-- and Isaac survived two concentration camps--the first Nazi and the second Soviet. Isaac is not just a survivor but winds up wealthy old man in Vienna telling us his life and still making jokes and pondering the meaning of his Jewish universe.
Isaac in the novel dedicates his prefrace ot his best friend Rabbi Shmuel Ben-David saying he thinks over his life where he wasn't interested in politics but politics was interested in him and "please don't look for any logic in my destiny, because it was not I who directed the events but they who directed me." The novel's major debate is between Rabbi Ben-David who says that all this suffering led to a higher reason and to Iova Weissmann, a film director also from the small Galicia village, who said life is dominated by chaos.
Isaac's First Book "How I went to War, in Order to Bring Victory" is actually a comic opera about how 18-year old Isaac was drafted into the Austrian-Hungarian Army at the very last moments of World War I and was busy bungling his way through training when the war was declared over. In Isaac's Second Book "The End of My War or How I Became a Pole" is also funny tale how Isaac's village is now delcared part of Poland; the Jews treat the returning soldier who never saw combat a war hero; Isaac marries his sweetheart Sara who has four children, and Isaac goes back to playing his violin badly in family celebrations. Nothing much changes in this rural village--same jokes, same stories, same Shabbat celebrations--except Liova Weissman shows films in the village cafe.The Jews take down the photo of Austria-Hungarian Emperor and put up a picture of a Polish hero but nothing really changes.
In Isacc's Third book "The Red Front or the Five-Year Plan Speeded-Up" the agreement betwee Hitler and Stalin divides up Poland, and Isaac's village is absorbed into Stalin's Soviet Union. Now Isaac's village starts changing as the Soviets change the name of the family tailoring business, many Jews Russianize their names, the German couple who hated Hitler were deported back to Hitler's Germany, and Isaac's best friend Rabbi Ben-David resigns from being rabbi and becomes head of the Atheists' Club but Isaac's family still celebrates Sabbath on Friday night. The Jews of the village want a rabbi so they pressure Ben-David to resume his position as rabbi which he does so Ben-David is spiritual guide to both the religious Jews and the atheists. The Jews in this village use humor and stories to undermine the Austro-Hungarians and the Poles and the Soviets. In Stalin's purges members of the town get arrested including Ben-David's sweetheart Esther Katz who has been a devout Communist, so Rabbi Ben-David in synagogue preaches a sermon about during Exodus Jews had to endure 30 years of "pain and hardship, wandering and suffering" in the desert because "our slave souls are not yet ready and free from the captivity of pharoah-deulsions." Isaac hears this sermon also as a prayer for the arrested Esther Katz, but he also puzzles about the meaning of all this suffering under Stalin.
In Isaac's Fourth Book he survives two Nazi concentration camps and in Isaac's Fifth Book he survives Stalin's concentration camp. Is this a Holocaust novel--yes, but with jokes. In this a novel about Stalin's Gulag--yes. Is this novel a celebration of humor and story telling and puzzling religious questions--yes. Is this a great novel about how millions survived wars and concentration camps in Eastern Europe--yes. Is this a great novel--yes.
Causes Julia Stein Supports
Doctors Without Borders