Jurek Becker wrote “Jacob the Liar” which I have not read. One of the stories in this collection is taken from that book. The best story in this anthology is “The Wall”.
Holocaust stories are pervasive. This one is made more compelling because it is told from the perspective of a young boy who is doing what kids would do under normal circumstances. Parents and age offer some shelter for children. They recognize but don’t understand altered states. They still try to live in their child’s world.
The child and his family are forced to vacate the ghetto and are moved to a transit camp next to it. A guarded wall separates the two. Conditions in the ghetto are poor, but exponentially deteriorate with each transfer. This is confusing to a child. The toys and possessions that are his life are hurriedly left behind. A potato is now a highly valued object.
The boy and his friends from the ghetto, now in the camp, decide to risk climbing the wall and returning to their homes to retrieve their valuable possessions. They are not ignorant of the risks. It is however, the usual childhood adventure of proving who is not scared. Love, humanity and gripping fear pervade the tale. What resonates is the contrast between children and adults in an imposed gruesome world. Unlike many short stories, the reader of holocaust stories unfortunately knows the unstated conclusion.
“The Tale of the Sick Princess” is a short fable that was in “Jacob the Liar”. The moral is you can be cured by what you believe, even if it is fanciful.
“The Most Popular Family Story” has the feel of a Catskill routine. Laughter is contagious and the humor is sometimes in the telling and not in the tale. Here it is the retelling of a tale that has been a family custom for laughter. It unifies the family and puzzles those not in the clan. It is also a source for remembrance of those who can no longer hear the story.
“The Suspect” is based in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. It is an “enemy of the State” story. Fear is self-regulating. Suspicion of anti-State activity by innuendo forces the voluntary withdrawal of the narrator from all social interaction for a year. Only fear itself, is what need be feared.
The author had been resident in the Lodz ghetto, two transit camps and of East Germany while under Communist control. “The Invisible City” is autobiographical. Photographs of the Lodz ghetto were discovered and Mr. Becker hoped he could find pictures of his parents. He admits in the story that he was only 2 years old when his family came to the ghetto and 5 years old when they left. He never knew what his mother looked like and he had no memories of the ghetto nor the camp. On a personal level his historical fiction is in search for memories of himself. It is an invisible city he cannot enter.
The penultimate story “Romeo” is miscast. “A Matter of Convenience” would be more appropriate. It is my second favorite story of the collection. The cost of living in West Berlin is to dear for an émigré to the city who has found work in West Berlin to send money home to his family. He learns that he can shorten the time he needs to work in Berlin by engaging in currency arbitrage through daily transit to East Berlin. The catch is that you must return to West Berlin at midnight, although you can turn right around and go back. There is a border fee to be paid, so if you have a place to stay in East Berlin during the week you can save some of this fee by reducing the number of transits. West Berliners cannot own property in East Berlin, and there is no transit between East and West Berlin during the weekends. Men in West Berlin who engage in this practice find a woman in East Berlin who has an apartment with enough room to stay in, or who are willing to have a relationship. Some of these women are professionals, but many, including the hookers, want to barter for goods from West Berlin. The “Romeo” in this story engages in this trade, but it is an unprofessional relationship of mutual exchange. The story is not judgmental but reflects the reality that the value we place on ourselves is often a function of circumstance.
Mr. Becker’s widow provides an introduction to the book and continues to promote his writings. What is interesting about “The Invisible City” is the author’s acceptance of daily life even amid deprivation. The barber in the ghetto still goes about his life as a barber: Che Sera, Sera. It is not uncommon to witness this demeanor in survivors. The body and spirit are adaptable.