Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sobibor by Michael Lev

So, once upon a time in the beginning of the year, I inadvertantly booked myself for a bit of an early year Holocaust-fest by committing myself to reading Schindler's List and then asking for and receiving Sobibor by Michael Lev from the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing. At long last I have finished this second book of my unintended Holocaust-fest, and found that it was somewhat similar to Schindler's List and also very different.

Sobibor is a documentary novel in the style of Schindler's List by Michael Lev, who is, as I gather from the author information and foreword of the book is a big name in Yiddish literature. The book has been translated from the Yiddish, rather clunkily at times it seemed to me, by Barnett Zumof.

Sobibor is the story of 14 year old Berek Schlesinger, a Polish Jew, whose parents send him away from his shtetl to hide from the Nazis in the woods. He scrapes by getting a little help from a friendly elderly Pole and his wife and eventually reuniting with his beautiful cousin Rina who he had presumed dead and who he seems to love in a way that is distinctly uncousinly. While trying to reach Russia or at least some relative safety with partisans in the forest, Berek leaves Rina to find some water only to find her gone on his return. After he discovers that Nazis have taken her to the death camp Sobibor, he determines to go to the camp in search of her. There he is taken under the wing of a jeweler who is as close to indispensable to the Nazis as one can be inside a concetration camp, and Berek's life continues through his association with Kuriel the jeweler.

At this point, the book seems to break away from Berek's narrative entirely to chronicle the successful Sobibor uprising from the view of its leader Alexander Pechersky. I found this section to be much more captivating than the beginning of the book, but it was a little difficult to adjust to the abrupt turning away from the base of the plot. The book continues after this unexpected diversion to follow Berek after the war as he encounters former SS from the camp and uses his extensive knowledge of the atrocities in Sobibor and his feeling of responsibility to those who died to help convict the officers of war crimes.

Unlike several Holocaust novels I've read, Sobibor requires more base knowledge of the Holocaust to appreciate its nuance, despite its footnotes that clarify some of the more basic elements. I'll be the first to admit that I occasionally appreciated the nuance and the undertones that required some consideration to understand, but I also found myself baffled at some points and would have liked some more explicit explanation of events instead of subtle hinting at goings on.

"...What, you want to know, has happened to Kapo Shlok? Listen to this: On the way here, two stones fell from the sky; one, thrown by the Germans, broke the Kapo's backbone, and the other, thrown by the Jews, finished him off."

The book was slow to start but really hit its stride with the chronicle of the uprising. Lev's depiction of the uprising is brief yet powerful. In less than fifty pages, Lev brings Pechersky to life following his escape into memories while he is cramped in a cattle car traveling from Minsk to Sobibor but also establishing his character as a leader that people are inspired to follow in even the most dire situation.

In the dark, deep cellar prison in Minsk, it had been so crowded that only on the fifth day, when most of those who had been driven down there had already died, could they find room to lie down. Every time they opened the door to carry out the dead, the guard, himself a former POW, would ask, "Will it be long yet before all of you die?"

"Long!" a certain man would answer.

...Once the senior guard had said, "We're sick and tired of you already, but there's been no order to do away with you. Haven't you dragged this out long enough? Strangle one another and let there be an end to it!"

The same man who used to answer "Long!" cried out in the darkness, "You'll never live to see that day!"

The convicts hadn't elected that man as their leader - not all of them even knew his name. (...) He wasn't the leader, but everyone obeyed him.

Thankfully, the narrative keeps the fire it acquires during the account of the uprising as it follows Berek into the post-war period. Lev gives us an inside view of the trials of several high ranking SS murderers from Sobibor, but more interesting and thought-provoking are the brief encounters he has with the former torturers of Sobibor. Berek and his wife pass by Erich Bauer, the chief gas-master of the camp responsible for the deaths of thousands, in a crowded park in Germany. The encounter has the surreality of a meeting with a ghost. During one of the trials, through sheer happenstance, Berek comes upon the father and brother of two of the SS killed in the uprising who lament their son and brother being dead in Berek's hearing. Lev also captures the former commandant of Sobibor, Kurt Bolender, who charms restaurant guests as an immaculately groomed head waiter but soon finds himself desperately trying to prove he has a Jewish grandmother to somehow lessen the penalties he faces in his war crimes trial.

Sobibor while often confusing and on occasion awkwardly written, presents the Holocasut from a slightly different angle. Instead of focusing exclusively on the suffering that took place, Lev explores the uprising and the aftermath. This unique angle provides a lot of food for thought for any student of the Holocaust. It begs the question of why uprisings weren't more common and more successful. Was it having Pechersky as a leader that made it possible or were the Germans so lax in that camp at that time that the inmates had a rare window of opportunity to pursue an otherwise impossible course of action? How can thoughts of someone as the pinnacle of evil be reconciled with thoughts of the same person as someone's brother - someone's son? How long should the search for justice have gone on? Would it have been better for Jews like Berek to leave the past to the past and free themselves from the burden of pursuing justice or to spend countless years pursuing evil men who have since become weak and feeble and even a bit ridiculous in the extremity of their love for Hitler and his twisted ideals? Lev's narrative asks all these questions and provokes us to consider their answers while at the same time shining a bright light on a valiant and successful uprising that proved that what seemed impossible could be and was accomplished.


  1. I put my name in for this one, but ended up with something else instead (which I'm happy with--so no complaints!). It certainly sounds intriguing and being that I am drawn to books about the Holocaust, this one especially caught my eye. It sounds like a worthwhile read, even with the flaws. Thanks for the great review!

  2. It's weird how our reading seems to come in trends. I read Schindler's List and then shortly after read 'A Plot Against America' which is an alternate reality by Philip Roth which details what might have happened during WWII if Lindbergh had been president.
    Anyways, great review! I'll keep an eye out for this one.

  3. LF, do you want my copy? I'm on a "if you love them set them free" kick when it comes to books I've read, so if you'd like it, I'd be more than happy to send your way!

    Raych, yeah, isn't it funny how that goes? I rarely intend to read similar things back to back to back but somehow it just happens! Did you like A Plot Against America? I've got it on my TBR mountain, but I've heard very mixed reviews for it so I'd be interested to know what you thought of it.

  4. You really wouldn't mind, Megan? I'd be happy to take it off your hands. If you send me your e-mail address, I'll give you my address.


    That's so sweet of you to offer!

  5. While it doesn't sound like a happy read, I am intrigued. Thanks for the great review.

    Question - have you read The Book Thief? I don't remember but I'd be curious to know what you thought of it.


  6. While it doesn't sound like a happy read, I am intrigued. Thanks for the great review.

    Question - have you read The Book Thief? I don't remember but I'd be curious to know what you thought of it.


  7. CJ,

    Nope, I haven't read The Book Thief yet. That's not to say I don't really want to - I do! I'm actually supposed to be getting it in the mail from a Bookcrosser, but I'm starting to worry that maybe it got lost in the mail...which would be a huge huge bummer. :/