nonfiction

Book Review: Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower

My second book lately by Wendy Lower (the first being The Ravine). She’s an amazing researcher and fabulous writer, but her books are heavy, so beware. I added Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Chatto Windus, 2013) as soon as I learned about it, but it took me a bit to get to it, due to life business and waiting to be in the right mental space. It does share a lot in common with James Wyllie’s Nazi Wives, so if you’re looking to learn more about that aspect of World War II and Holocaust history, both these books should be on your reading list.

When we learn about the history of Germany in the 1940’s, the names in the books read like a long parade of men. It’s men who did the killing, who perpetrated all the harm, who were responsible for the mass death and suffering. But is that true? Using well-honed research skills, interviews, and original source documents, Wendy Lower says no. Not only were many, many German women supportive of the mission, especially on the Eastern front, more than a few of them participated in the murders and created suffering and pain for many others.

Many were there to support their husbands; others signed up to be stationed on the eastern front out of a sense of adventure. For whatever reason they came to be part of the Nazi killing machine, plenty of women supported Hitler’s ideals and bought into the antisemitism and hatred that was par for the course at the time. And far be it from learning anything; these attitudes followed many of these women – few of whom were prosecuted for their actions – long after the war ended.

Not an easy read. The women Lower portrays are the furthest from ‘sugar, spice, and all things nice’ as one can possibly be. These women are hateful and murderous, finding the death of human beings funny and entertaining. They delight in the suffering they cause, only to deny and weep when brought to trial. While women were often looked at as weaker and unable to perpetrate such horrors, Ms. Lower shows that this was absolutely not the case. Women were just as disgustingly brutal, and in some cases more so, than the men.

Rough book, but an important one.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy

Jewish books! My absolutely favorite, and since I don’t always check NetGalley with regularity (because I’m pretty realistic about what I have time for, unless it’s a used book sale and then all reality flies out the window), I often miss out on what they have to offer. Not this time! I came across The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy (Orca Book Publishers, 2022) while browsing NetGalley’s stacks one day and leapt to request it. Lo and behold, I was approved! Huge thanks to NetGalley. Orca Book Publishers, and Joanne Levy for allowing me to read and review this book.

Elsie is super excited about Purim this year. Her Queen Esther costume, created by her costume designer dad and which she’s still trying to accessorize with the perfect finishing touches, is going to be amazing, and she can’t wait to wear it at her synagogue’s Purim celebration. But then the bad news drops: the Purim celebration is cancelled. The synagogue is in serious financial trouble and is in danger of closing altogether. Elsie is devastated…and then she gets to work. If Queen Esther saved the Jews, Elsie can surely save her synagogue!

With her rabbi’s approval, Elsie’s synagogue opens up the Purim celebration to outsiders and begins to sell tickets to the events. It’s not just hamantaschen and hard work; Elsie and her best friend Grace experience a little bit of prejudice along the way. Things only get dicier when the synagogue is vandalized. Can Elsie continue to find inspiration in the story of Esther, or will Purim and the synagogue be cancelled entirely?

This is a charming, modern-day story centered around the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates how Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from imminent death at the hands of the evil villain Haman. It’s traditional to dress up in costumes (biblical or not; there was a banana at my synagogue this year), get drunk (yes, really!), and make lots of noise (including a very loud, “BOOOOOOOOOOOO!” when Haman’s name is mentioned). Elsie’s Christian best friend Grace serves as an outsider who’s unfamiliar with Purim and needs the basics explained to her, opening up this story to be enjoyed and understood by middle grade readers of all backgrounds.

Elsie is a spunky, determined kid who doesn’t always make the right choices (and what kid does?), but she learns from her mistakes and has excellent follow-through. Not only is this book full of fabulous Jewish representation, her best friend is Black, and her two dads, Dad and Abba, make for great LGBT representation, especially as it’s never commented on as being a Thing, just presented as Elsie’s everyday life, which I loved.

There are a few instances of antisemitism and racism here. Nothing violent and in-your-face scary, but sensitive kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of what it means to live with these threats may benefit a few conversations about them with a loving adult. Elsie’s courage in the face of hatred and the violation of her community’s sacred space provides a great lesson in bravery and the refusal to back down when it comes to creating the kind of future you want and need.

The Book of Elsie is a quick, charming read that should delight younger readers as well as educate those who may not be familiar with Purim. This would make for a great parent-child read; not only is it a lovely book headed by a determined main character, there are a lot of great discussion points throughout the book, and I can imagine many wonderful conversations a parent and child may have as they make their way through the story. I’m going to read this with my eight-year-old soon. I expect that she’ll love it. : )

Visit Joanne Levy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn

A good title draws a reader in immediately. A provocative title makes the whole world sit up and take notice. And it was a provocative title that had me clicking the want-to-read button on Goodreads last week immediately, without even needing to learn more about the rest of the book. I’ve heard of Dara Horn before, but hadn’t read any of her writing before this. But when someone in one of my Facebook groups mentioned her latest book, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present (W.W. Norton Company, 2021), I knew it would have to go on my list. Because that title…it’s true, isn’t it?

Dara Horn is a writer, professor, and scholar, often known for her essays on Judaism and Jewish-themed topics. But she came to the realization that she was always asked to write about dead Jews, never living ones. And this became the topic for her latest book: the world has a fascination with dead Jews, but rarely affords the same respect to living Jews. How many Holocaust novels are out there, often with a happy ending, often with a Gentile rescuer as the main character? How often do you think those happy endings happened in real life? How much do you know about the trauma suffered by survivors, the anger, the refusal of governments to help those who had lost everything, the many survivors who were murdered after leaving the camps? How many Jewish heritage sites exist around the world with no mention as to why there are no Jews living at those sites anymore? Why is The Merchant of Venice still one of Shakespeare’s most-performed plays, despite its blatant antiseminism (and what do you think that says to the Jews in your life)?

Our country’s education does a lot of things right, but it fails to instruct our students on so much of world history, and even when it does, it misses the mark in a big, big way. (Props to my daughter’s class, which is currently looking at various cultures around the world, and including a glimpse into both the history and the religions of those areas.) So many students are only exposed to the existence of Jews when they’re mass-murdered (as often happened throughout history, and continues to happen today), and they learn only what Hitler thought and taught about them- not what Jews actually are, what Jews actually do, what Jews have contributed to the many, many societies that have been home throughout the centuries. And that leads to people only appreciating and sometimes fetishizing dead Jews, and not appreciating live ones.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen, in one of my online book groups, someone mentioning that Holocaust fiction is a favorite genre. (I think I actually recoiled from the computer at the last post I saw. Their post and tone were so…cheery.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying books about the Holocaust shouldn’t be written. They should. The Shoah was a devastation that shouldn’t ever be forgotten, and writers should engage with it in order to demonstrate again and again, the horror of it all, and why such devastation and the attitudes that lead to it should be cut off before they begin. BUT. There’s definitely a trend of Holocaust rescuer books, of happy ending stories, of Nazi-guard-with-a-conscience stories. And those just aren’t reality. And we need to ask ourselves why we need those stories so badly as a society. What are we trying to convince ourselves of here? Whose stories are we leaving out when we pile on the ones with a lovely rainbow arc of redemption?

This is not an easy book to read- not for me, as a Jew; hopefully it won’t be for you, either- it’s not meant to be. It’s meant for people to take a hard look at why our world sets up Holocaust museums (which are absolutely necessary) but won’t deal with the growing wave of antisemitism spreading wider and wider. Why we’re so eager to blame Jews for their own demise, as Ms. Horn points out after yet another antisemitic murder; why newspaper articles on other murder victims don’t talk about the murderer’s frustration with Jews who had moved into the area (where the murderer didn’t even live. Imagine an article that said something like, “Understandably, Steve’s frustration only grew when his neighbor didn’t put away the dinner dishes away in her own house as quickly as he thought she should do. After a series of social media posts where he documented his unhappiness, police weren’t surprised to find her murdered body on the front lawn the next morning.” People would rage! But the article Ms. Horn quotes from, about murders at a kosher supermarket, isn’t much different).

People Love Dead Jews is a tough, thought-provoking read that is beautifully well-written (I wish I had half of Dara Horn’s brainpower). If you’ve ever looked forward to the release of a favorite author’s upcoming novel set during the Holocaust, or if this mass tragedy is the only Jewish history you’ve ever learned about, this is probably the book you need to read. (A good companion read would be Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.)

Visit Dara Horn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt

I believe I learned about Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt (Schocken Books Inc, 2019) while combing through the library’s digital card catalog for Jewish-related books at one point (remember actual, physical card catalogs? I miss those things. In what may be my nerdiest story yet, I actually have a scar on my left hand from when I was 12 and the H drawer of the card catalog fell out of its place and the metal parts of the underside of the drawer sliced my finger). It’s a topic I’ve encountered before plenty of times in my reading, but this was a recent publication, and I knew I needed to read it. I’m so glad I did.

Antisemitism is a lot like racism, in that it’s everywhere. It goes far deeper than Nazis and concentration camps, and there are a lot of ways to be antisemitic (if you’re unsure of exactly what that means or can’t think of more than one or two, this is likely something you should read). Structuring her book as a conversation over email with a student and a colleague, Deborah Lipstadt, a professor and historian, discusses antisemitism: what it is, what it looks like in its many forms, how to respond to it as a Jew and a Gentile, how to process feelings about it. She clarifies a lot of information on the topic, including a discussion on people who may not necessarily be antisemitic themselves but who enable those who are (a massive problem these days, unfortunately, and again, if you can’t think of any examples of this, you’re the target audience for this book, because it’ll open your eyes). The section of Jeremy Corbyn and the antisemitism of the Labour Party disturbed me deeply- I knew things weren’t great, but reading all the examples Ms. Lipstadt laid out helped me to understand how big the problem is there. I don’t know too much about British politics, so I really found this helpful in understanding what has been happening there.

This is not and should not be a comfortable read. Go into this prepared to learn, to recognize antisemitic statements and actions in yourself, in your friends and family, in your favorite politicians (yes, on both sides, and she doesn’t shy away from that unfortunate truth. Both sides absolutely do have an antisemitism problem), in the media you consume, and be prepared to be honest with yourself and change your ways, or call out antisemitism in those around you (they won’t like that. Big deal; do it anyway). Creating a better, safer world is everyone’s responsibility, yours included, and books like this are an important resource in doing just that.

I will say that while this is a deeply serious subject and one that isn’t necessarily pleasant to read about, the tone of this book is kept as light as possible, making it, while not the easiest of reads, a deeply engaging one. I flew through this book, always looking forward to the next chapter and appreciating the education on every page. It’s a book I wish I could get everyone I know to read; it’s that important. If you know and love Jewish people (or even just know, to be honest- and if you’re reading this, you know me! Hi!), if you were horrified by the tiki torch-waving alt-right marching through Charlottesville while screaming antisemitic garbage a few years ago, if you’ve read stories about the uptick in antisemitic events (including the stabbing of a rabbi in Boston last week), and especially if you fit into none of these categories- this is the education you need to be a good friend, a good citizen, and a good ally.

Visit Deborah E. Lipstadt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.