Page 21 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 48

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BERGER /HOLINESS AND HOLOCAUST
13
Pre-Holocaust Poland also forms the background for an ex­
ploration of faith and choice in “The Groom on Zlota Street.”
Like “The Prisoner,” this tale specifies a Mila Street address.
Unlike the prisoner, however, Yechiel (“God will be, forever”)
willingly chooses to affirm his Jewish identity; preferring to suf­
fer beatings at the hands of a gentile groom rather than allowing
the man to pay for pulling out the hairs of Yechiel’s beard.
Following his concern for the Holocaust, Nissenson’s tale also
conjures up the Nazi practice of ripping beards from the faces
of pious Jews.
Post-Auschwitz America forms the background for the prob­
lematic of faith in “The Law.” The story deals with the bar
mitzvah preparation of Danny Levi, the son of a survivor of
Bergen Belsen. Willi, Danny’s father, constantly tells of his Hol­
ocaust experiences. One story in particular concerns Heinz
Berger, an SS guard and scion of Protestant pastors. He could
recite the Ten Commandments flawlessly. And he was a mur­
derer. Willi, although Jewish, did not know the commandments.
This tale reveals crucial information concerning faith and the
Holocaust. In the first place, Nissenson is among the earliest
Jewish-American authors to write about children of survivors,
focusing literary attention on what is now being recognized as
a significant group in transmitting the message of the
Shoah.
His use of the bar mitzvah is also revealing. This rite of passage
means that the initiant is considered an adult and is therefore
responsible for maintaining the Jewish tradition. Clearly, one
of the components of that tradition consists of telling and lis­
tening to tales from the kingdom of night. In addition, Willi
himself had never become a bar mitzvah. He was an assimilated
Jew caught in the net of Nazi murder. Nevertheless, he vol­
untarily embraces Jewish belief after the Holocaust. Nissenson’s
tale, in fact, reveals the spiritually bankrupt condition of Chris­
tian faith and the religious significance of Jewish endurance.
“The Law” illustrates the wisdom of those who assert the mean­
inglessness of the old,
pre-Shoah,
distinctions between religious
and secular.12 People who participate in the murder of millions
are not religious even if their fathers are pastors. Moreover,
by portraying a stammering son of survivors, Nissenson under­
12. The writings o f Emil Fackenheim and Irving Greenberg emphasize this
position.