Living History and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”

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How does one live with history? We all know that history has effected our lives, has determined our circumstances, our families, our hometown and our school’s quality. But what does that really mean, for us?

The history of oppressed peoples is even more complicated. For them, history has a tangible, locatable effect on their lives. But what does that mean for those lives? Novels like Beloved ask what it means to live with the history of slavery. Louise Erdrich asks over and  over what history does to her characters.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” strikes me as a similar project. To be honest, literature about what it’s like to live with the Holocaust has been written to death. Go to any bookstore, and you’ll find dozens of books about survivors. I speak from experience when I say that in Eastern Europe, at least a third of the novels you run across in bookstores and libraries will be about the Jewish experience of WWII. And there are almost as many memoirs on said subject.

The Holocaust scares us so much that we’ve written mountains of paper trying to make sense of it.

That’s not what this book is about. It is not a book about the Holocaust. In fact, in the title story a character comments that modern Jewish identity can become so preoccupied with the Holocaust that they stop paying attention to the reality of Jewish experience. That’s what this novel is about: the realities of Jewish experience. Often the Holocaust comes up, but the events are not the point–the point is what they mean.

The Holocaust is here a facet of Jewish experience, but it does not overwhelm it. The Holocaust’s effects, its lived results, are part of Jewish lives but they are not the crux of Jewish lives.

The stories tell of boys living in an Orthodox neighborhood, of a summer camp for old Jewish people who want to play bridge, of a street philosopher who gives away free fruit from his stand.

The stories are about how people live with history. How they feel it in their bones, how it surfaces in their souls when they least expect it. Any good story involves a situation that challenges the protagonist to make a choice, and in these stories the weight of history is never absent from that choice.

There is a lot of weight to Jewish history. Not what was done to the Jews; in this book, the history that effects people is about the choices their ancestors made. Those choices live on in their children and grandchildren. Those choices have become history, and everyone has to live with that.

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