Quiet Americans, Erika Dreifus, Last Light Studio, 2011
When we think of the Holocaust, we think, of course, of deportations and concentration camps and war and genocide. But all that came before, and the lasting impact on survivors and their families after, too often receive very little of our attention. Erika Dreifus explores these other, quieter stories of the Holocaust - those of survivors, their ancestors, and their descendants - in a thought provoking collection of short stories, Quiet Americans. In these stories, characters wrestle with the complicated emotions and moral questions left in the wake of this particular war and these particular atrocities against humankind. Inspired by her own family history (her paternal grandparents were German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s), and informed by her academic work, Dreifus’s stories are both personal and illuminating.
In the opening story, and one of my favorites “For Services Rendered,” a Jewish pediatrician and his family are assisted in safely leaving Germany before the deportations by none other than Reischsmarschall Hermann Goering and his wife, whose daughter is in the pediatrician’s care. The doctor and his family flee to New York, where, over time he is able to reestablish his practice. Eventually the Reichsmarschall and his wife are brought up for trial on charges of war crimes and collaboration; the pediatrician is left to weigh their act of personal kindness against their crimes against an entire people, including the pediatrician’s own sister. Will the doctor offer a word on behalf of the wife, who advocated for him, and to whom he owes his and his immediate family’s survival? Other stories, such as “Mishpocha” consider what it means to grow up with gaps in family history as we lose a generation of survivors; in “Lebensraum” what it may have been like to be both a refugee and American serviceman supervising German prisoners of war; or, as in “The Quiet American,” how the past might still be very much part of the present in a visit to modern-day Germany.
I enjoyed reading all the stories in this relatively brief but thoughtful collection. The issues and themes will resonate particularly with readers of Jewish ancestry who may recognize bits of their own families in the stories, but can well be appreciated by any reader who likes fiction that considers history, heritage and identity.
Ms. Dreifus has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about Quiet Americans, you can read our conversation here.
Portions of the proceeds from sales of Quiet Americans are being donated to The Blue Card www.bluecardfund.org, which supports survivors of Nazi persecution and their families in the United States.