Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz

Displaced Persons
Ghita Schwarz
William Morrow/HarperCollins
Released: August 2010
Source: library eBook

The last book that I read in 2010 was a good one.  It’s not exactly a superstition, call it more of a goal, but I like to end or start each year with a good reading experience.  I don’t remember where I heard about Displaced Persons, but it was recommended somewhere and I was thrilled to find I could download the ebook from my public library to read on my Kobo.

Displaced Persons opens in May 1945 just after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of the concentration camps.  It follows a core group of characters as they rebuild their lives over a 65 year period, to October 2000.  Refugees from concentration camps and others who lost their homes and families were renamed displaced persons (DPs), hence the title of the book.  Most leave Europe for Australia, Palestine, England, and America.  They start over in new countries, create communities, and struggle with what and how much to tell their children about their own experience.

While this novel doesn’t put the reader directly in the shoes of the characters, which I don’t think was the author’s intention, you feel like you’re standing next to them and seeing what they’re going through.  You witness their numbness, fear, hunger, the surreal feeling of being alive after what just happened, the rekindling of hope, the betrayals, the silence, the eventual public dialog about the Holocaust.  I think Schwarz did an amazing job of creating a cohesive narrative that covers 65 years and the lives of multiple characters in just over 300 pages.  It sort of exhausted and invigorated me at the same time. It is what some would call a haunting novel, or at least it was for me.  After finishing Displaced Persons it took me a few days of flipping through other books before I could find one to commit to.  The characters in Displaced Persons wouldn’t let me go.

I was surprised to learn about the judgment that some non-European Jews had for those Jews who stayed in Europe. I had no idea that there was such judgment against the European Jews by the Palestinian Jews or Zionists to the point that Yiddish was looked down on as the language of “sheep”–the Jews of Europe, who in the eyes of non-European Jews (or those who left before the Nazi horror), let themselves, or so the judgment goes, be led to slaughter like sheep.

The lack of understanding in this novel is sometimes due to language barriers–many of the DPs eventually speak several languages–but there is also a lack of understanding on many levels due to a fear of speaking out, of speaking one’s truth.  But its complicated because to speak the truth during the war years was to risk certain imprisonment and possibly death.

This lack of understanding and the compassion it could breed is shown between Jews from various counties and within families.  As Pavel reflects late in the novel, “It was all just people, the members of a family, streams of wool thread, separate, hooked into the same loom by coincidence, touching and twisting only when the design required.  Maybe no one felt anything for anyone but the missing….Surviving in order to argue and hate.”  Pavel bursts out laughing after that thought and its a laughter that seems to say humanity will survive.

And toward the end of the novel, stories are being told and recorded, scholars are writing books and giving lectures, movies are being made about the experience of the Jewish men, women, and children who survived the Nazis.  People are making an effort at understanding by listening to the stories of the survivors.  Some of the stories of survival seemed unbelievable, but they are the stories of people who lived.  Practical, realistic thinking lead to death sentences.  “It was when magical thinking came true that one lived.”

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