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American Book Review
Vol. 26, No. 6
September/October 2005

Nordic Jew
Rika Lesser

Edited by Peter Stenberg
University of Nebraska Press
462 pages; cloth, $60.00

More than 30 years ago, just after graduating from Yale, I lived for a year in Göteborg, the second largest city in Sweden. In one of at least three poems I was required to write while not returning to North America for twelve months – such are the terms of the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship – I addressed my mentor, Richard Howard:

To begin, there's a felicity I keep forgetting
to inform you of:
Framgången, the lane on
which I dwell
means "success." In my Germanic confusion
(more likely
Romanic lassitude), I took it for
but I
have progressed...
... But I must say, it would be easier to live
elsewhere: the nearest street,
more to my condition. Why, in the last three
days, I've been
taken for Mexican, Filipino, Italian, Greek
These Nords simply can't recognize a New
York Jew!...

My hair was darker then, and Swedes were often surprised, indeed shocked, that I could speak their language. All that year I met only two Americans in Göteborg, though I got to know several Polish Jews who had left Warsaw in 1968. Strangers who occasionally stopped me for directions inquired in German.

I returned to my native borough and, at the end of 1975, moved to Brooklyn Heights, which has been home base despite numerous trips back to Sweden (and Finland) ever since. Like the editor of the anthology under review, I was surprised to find so much contemporary Jewish writing in or derived from Sweden. Perhaps I should not have been surprised to learn at the end of his introduction that Peter Stenberg was brought up here as well.

What took a nice Jewish girl like me, straight out of college, to Sweden? More chance than necessity. But this is not my story. This is a compendium of partial tales, mainly of survivors and refugees and their offspring, heirs of pogroms or the camps, some in search of their ancestry, some in search of answers. Most of the contributors landed in Sweden by necessity and by chance. Hédi Fried, Zenia Larsson, and Cordelia Edvardson were evacuated from labor or concentration camps in Germany (after Auschwitz) and were transported by the Swedish or the Danish Red Cross. Hédi Fried (b. 1924 in Sighet, Romania) crisply describes her new beginning on a journey to Sweden that commences on July 3, 1945, and ends several days later on the ferry from Travemünde to Malmö: "We were given breakfast and a beautiful bed each, with paper sheets. This proved an odd experience: when I lay down in the rustling bed, I felt like an expensive chocolate."

The single most affecting survivor narrative is a memoir written in the third person by Cordelia Edvardson. Born in Berlin in 1929, the illegitimate daughter of the German Catholic writer Elisabeth Langgässer and a Jewish father, Edvardson was separated from her other half-Jewish siblings and alone sent to Auschwitz. She writes forcefully of her survivor rage when she spends her first Christmas following her evacuation in a Swedish home, refusing to forget her anger despite her hostess's urging. She joins a Catholic congregation in Stockholm but later leaves it and converts to Judaism. Sweden does not remain her refuge. In the excerpt from Burned Child Seeks the Fire (1984), she describes a return trip to Sweden after many years in Israel: "For a survivor, it was a good land.... [T]his was limbo. The place east of banishment and west of deliverance.... In the midst of so much innocence she found it hard to breathe, and she realized she had to move on." Her memoir is available in English in its entirety, translated by Joel Agee from the German with the author's cooperation in 1997.

Another fine survivor narrative excerpted here is from the "kidult" novel by Rose Lagercrantz, The Girl Who Didn’t Want to Kiss (1998). The author was born in Stockholm in 1947; in the book, she fictionalizes the wanderings of her German-born father through Czechoslovakia and Poland to Sweden, where he eventually meets her Romanian-born mother (she hails from Transylvanian Sigeth, currently Sigethu, probably Hédi Fried's birthplace), an Auschwitz survivor. The telling is spare, straightforward, exceptionally moving. Lagercrantz has won many awards for her writing; some of her books for young readers are illustrated by her daughter Rebecka.

Virtually all 22 contributors are celebrated in Sweden, though not necessarily foremost as authors, as will become clear. Hédi Fried is known for her work with Holocaust survivors and for peace. Tomas Böhm is a psychiatrist who writes popular works about psychoanalysis as well as novels. His fictional piece, an excerpt from The Vienna Jazz Trio (2000), suffers from heavily clichéd language; the translation was done by the author working with a collaborator. Quite a few fine translators of Swedish (along with other languages) have been called upon, and the quality of their work is high. A handful of the contributors are of international repute – readers may be more surprised to learn that they are Swedish than Jewish.

The first of these is Georg Klein, an assimilated Hungarian-speaking Jew who survived World War II in Budapest and emigrated in 1947. World renowned as a cancer researcher who has headed the Tumor Biology Department at Karolinska Institut for some 30 years, Klein has already published three of his memoirs in English. In an excerpt from one previously untranslated and printed in the anthology, he recounts how as a teenaged member of the Jewish Council in Budapest he read, and realized only later when he viewed Claude Landzmann's Shoah (1985), that the twenty, typewritten, top-secret pages of the Wetzel-Vrba report were what came to be known as "The Auschwitz Protocol."

Per Wästberg was ending his long term as president of Swedish PEN (1967-1978) when I became a member of American PEN. I felt honored to translate a handful of his poems around that time. One of his Stockholm novels from the early 70s, The Air Cage, was available in English. Since 1997 he has been a member of the Swedish Academy. Not until I read his contributions, "The Hirsch Family in Stockholm" and "Grandfather's Time," did I have any idea that he was Jewish. Going back to 1792, his mother's is one of the oldest Jewish families in Sweden. Wästberg's text distinguishes itself as the sole inclusion that seems utterly without affect. Is this an extreme case of Swedish understatement? A sign of ultra-assimilation? There is nothing else like it in the book.

Lars Gustafsson, one of Sweden's most prolific authors, has been for years a professor of Germanic studies and philosophy in Austin, Texas; now, however, he writes from Berlin. Many of his books, both fiction and poetry, are available in English translation from New Directions. According to Stenberg, Gustafsson's conversion to Judaism occurred in 1982. Unfortunately, the lovely opening section from his long poem Declaration of Love to a Sephardic Lady (1970), reprinted here in a translation by Robin Fulton (a Scotsman resident in Norway), seems devoid of any Jewish connection beyond the word "Sephardic."

Born in Berlin and raised in Germany and England before his parents settled in Sweden and he followed them, Peter Weiss (1916-1982) is recognized as a great German twentieth century author. In English, thanks initially to Peter Brooks's productions, he is best known for the plays Marat/Sade (1963) and The Investigation (1965). Weiss became a Swedish citizen in 1946 and wrote many of his early works in Swedish. According to his third wife, Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, even after his Swedish publisher refused to publish Situationen, Weiss wrote exclusively in his mother tongue. The Situation was first published in German translation in 2000. In the stream-of-consciousness excerpt translated from the Swedish here, its main character, engineer Knut, is an alcoholized erotic golem. In any case, the rejection delivered him back into a major language, which in part may account for his greater international success than many of the highly worthy literary authors represented in this anthology.

How many Americans know that Erland Josephson, best known for his roles in Bergman films, has written many novels and books of memoirs? A Story about Mr. Silberstein has been available in cloth in English since 1995 and in paper since 2001; it is sensitively translated by Roger Greenwald (born in the Bronx, resident in Toronto). In the excerpt, a pitiable and recognizably nasty relationship develops out of need between Silberstein, a victim of anti-Semitism, and an alcoholic actor named Asp in postwar Stockholm; it is grippingly dramatized. "I'm not mad. said Silberstein. Keep conversing with me. It tickles my self-contempt not to answer you, it's first-rate.

For every possibly recognizable name, there are at least three you have never heard of. A delightfully humorous piece of a novel by Joakim Philipson concerning the erotic adventures of an uncle who was not circumcised until the age of seventeen opens the collection. Not only Erland Josephson but also Jacques Werup, celebrated equally for his music and his writing, as well as Susanne Levin write extensively about anti-Semitism in different parts of Sweden. There is an all-too-brief account of a narrow escape from the Nazis by Joachim Israel. There is one tale of personal survival that seems willfully evasive, Zenia Larsson's "I am I – My Portrait of Me." Two works that grapple with family histories spreading across central Europe or Russia – by Marianne Ahrne arid Peter Mosskin – are simply too complex, too resistant to editorial extraction; these are given more pages than seem warranted by the quality of the writing. Contrasting with them, an amusing passage from Roland Schütt's The Slingshot Condom, a novel about the author's Russian parentage, is included. Schütt was born in 1913 and made his authorial debut in with The Slingshot Condom in 1989. As far as I know, this is the only work in the anthology that has already become a major motion picture. More text and context are needed to penetrate the work of the well-established poet, Tobias Berggren. Only four sections from "Fields. A Suite," taken from his 1997 book Fields and Legends, are printed. This reader would like to see the whole poem and preferably not split between different translators.

Three roughly contemporary nonfiction writers, primarily journalists, all write engagingly of what I would term their displacement. In the only manuscript drawn from a desk drawer, Kaj Schueler, born in Stockholm in 1949, writes of his ongoing search for the good in a human being in a bad time. He continues to seek out the motives of Franz Heckendorf, the man who helped his paternal grandparents get out of Berlin to neutral Switzerland: "Why did he help my grandparents?... Was there a place for altruism in a time of anti-Humanism and cynicism? Do we see goodness as an absolute characteristic, with no flaws?"

Göran Rosenberg, born 1948, also in Stockholm, is a journalist and filmmaker who founded the Swedish monthly, Moderna Tider, which he edited for nine years. His powers of memory and analysis are everywhere evident in the excerpt from his 1996 book, The Lost Land: A Personal History, which has been translated into the other Scandinavian languages as well as Dutch, German, and French. It describes his family's move, its "ascent," to Israel in 1962.

If Nathan Shachar has translated the story "Hamdu's Love" without assistance, we may have a Nabokov or an Aleksandar Hemon in our hands. At the very least, he is a polyglot of great and diverse talents. Born in Stockholm in 1951. he grew up in the US and Mexico and has also lived or studied in Spain and Jerusalem. In this tale of love between members of different Palestinian clans in the occupied West Bank, Hamdu dreams of emigrating to Sweden but cannot within the bounds of the story, written in 1995. Shachar adds a post-script, informing us that Hamdu finally marries an Israeli Arab girl in 1997, enabling him to get Israeli papers and to live and work freely. "'Hamdu, in his own words, was transformed into a human being overnight."

The final text, set in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is from a novel by Anita Goldman. Born to refugees in Göteborg in 1953, she is my exact contemporary. Stenberg quotes her in a head note: "My sister and I were the only ones in the school who were dark and looked different." At nineteen she moved to Stockholm to study journalism. Over the years she became a novelist and journalist, reporting from Israel, where she married and lived from 1980 to 1997. Currently Goldman chairs the Women's Committee for Swedish PEN. The protagonist in this excerpt from Daughters of the Stones (published in Swedish in 1997), a former elite paratrooper in the Israeli army, will soon return to Israel for the funeral of his young nephew, stoned to death in an alley in Bethlehem. He feels himself in the grip of his bad conscience:

The Homeland binds him with a thousand invisible strings of guilt and sentimentality.

The common suffering binds, has to be shared by everyone, high and low, but still has to be shared. It's not the love of the sea or working the soil or the smell of the orange groves that binds the sons of the Homeland to one another. No, it's suffering and death. The greater the number of people who die for the Homeland, the harder and more desperately they have to hold fast to it, can't let it go.... Yes, even if you claimed that this war, this attack, this action, this sacrifice in particular was unnecessary, could have been avoided, this just proved paradoxically enough how valuable it in reality had been. Because the fact that we oppose and criticize and complain and condemn just shows of course that we are living in the only democratic country in the Middle East, and if that isn't something worth dying for, then what is?

What a terrible question, today and every day. Substitute the name of any country for The Homeland. You don't have to be Jewish. Or Swedish. Or from Brooklyn. All but two of the writers in this book are alive and dealing with eternal questions in terribly responsible ways. That's something my 30-plus years of transatlantic trips have shown me that Swedes and Jews share, with or without ethnic or religious ties. I would single out Shachar, Rosenberg, Lagercrantz, Goldman, and Edvardson for particular attention – and plan to agitate for more translations. Read the anthology and discover your own favorites.

Rika Lesser is the author of three volumes of poetry, Etruscan Things (1983), All We Need of Hell (1995), and Growing Back (1997), and the translator of collections of poems by Hesse, Rilke, Claes Anderson, Gunnar Ekelöf, and Göran Sonneu.

Reprinted by permission of American Book Review.

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