From the Publisher
“Wagenstein’s picaresque story portrays Jewish humor and Jewish wisdom as inextricable twins and time-tested agents of survival.”
“A very funny book about very sad events. Isaac Blumenfeld suffers at the hands of the Nazis, loses his entire family when his village is invaded, and is sent to a Siberian labor camp because of mistaken identity. But, incredibly, Bulgarian author Angel Wagenstein makes us laugh.”
"Angel Wagenstein’s novel is an important monument to the lives of those who suffered the horrors of the two World Wars and all those wars’ extenuations, but rather than a lamentation of Blumenfeld’s, and the Jewish people’s, loss, it is a celebration of his and their lives. As uplifting as it is tragic, Isaac’s Torah is a great contribution to the literature of the period, the Wars, and the Holocaust, and to world literature as a whole."
The Washington City Paper
“Armed with Yiddish lore and the wide-ranging advice of a colorful brother-in-law who is alternately a rabbi and an atheist, this simple tailor’s son from the shtetl of Kolodetz tries to navigate a course through the great terrors of his age.”
The Denver Post
Editor's Choice: FICTION
Bulgarian author and screenwriter Wagenstein devotes his powerful novel to an affable Jewish tailor from a small town in Eastern Europe who survives the reigns of Hitler and Stalin. Isaac's mesmerizing voice charms through every disaster, and engages and delights the reader without distracting from Wagenstein's profound insights into life's absurdities. Publishers Weekly
“He couldn’t care about politics, but unfortunately politics showed a growing interest in him.” Always there are the Yiddish jokes, even at the most hopeless times; in fact, in Wagenstein’s engaging historical novel, the wry humor reveals both the unbelievable horrors of history and fleeting moments of transcendence. Born in the Kolodetz shtetl when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I, the novel’s narrator, Blumenfeld, becomes a citizen of five countries, without ever changing where he lives, except when he is moved to Nazi concentration camps and then to a Soviet labor camp. Beyond what he calls today’s “Holocaust blather” with its “air-conditioned and aromatic criteria and values” are the facts, including that his wife and children never returned from the camps. Can one man be a Jew and a Nazi war criminal and a Soviet traitor? The jokes that pepper the text make you read them aloud, as do the wise comments of the rabbi who teaches Blumenfeld that meaning is in the searching and not in the finding. Great for reading groups.
Bulgarian author and screenwriter Wagenstein devotes his powerful novel to an affable Jewish tailor from a small town in Eastern Europe who survives the reigns of Hitler and Stalin. Wagenstein himself escaped from a concentration camp and was saved from execution when the Soviets entered Bulgaria. Half a century later, he creates self-effacing narrator Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, threading Jewish jokes throughout the narrative not only to sweeten the bitter material but also because they encapsulate the humanistic foundation of Isaac’s philosophy. Isaac’s town of Kolodetz in the Austro-Hungarian empire becomes part of Poland, then the U.S.S.R., before being overtaken by Nazi Germany and eventually reclaimed by the Soviets. He is drafted into military service by each of his first three motherlands. The Germans invade, and Isaac, posing as a Pole, is sent to a Nazi labor camp. Inadvertently revealing himself as a Jew, he ends up in a concentration camp, after which the liberating Soviets exile him to Siberia. Isaac’s mesmerizing voice charms through every disaster, and engages and delights the reader without distracting from Wagenstein’s profound insights into life’s absurdities.
Bulgarian author and screenwriter Wagenstein devotes his powerful novel to an affable Jewish tailor from a small town in Eastern Europe who survives the reigns of Hitler and Stalin. Wagenstein himself escaped from a concentration camp and was saved from execution when the Soviets entered Bulgaria. Half a century later, he creates self-effacing narrator Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, threading Jewish jokes throughout the narrative not only to sweeten the bitter material but also because they encapsulate the humanistic foundation of Isaac's philosophy. Isaac's town of Kolodetz in the Austro-Hungarian empire becomes part of Poland, then the U.S.S.R., before being overtaken by Nazi Germany and eventually reclaimed by the Soviets. He is drafted into military service by each of his first three motherlands. The Germans invade, and Isaac, posing as a Pole, is sent to a Nazi labor camp. Inadvertently revealing himself as a Jew, he ends up in a concentration camp, after which the liberating Soviets exile him to Siberia. Isaac's mesmerizing voice charms through every disaster, and engages and delights the reader without distracting from Wagenstein's profound insights into life's absurdities. (Nov.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Tragedy is overlaid with Jewish humor as an inoffensive man survives war and nationalism in Central Europe.
In an afterword, Bulgarian writer and filmmaker Wagenstein (Farewell, Shanghai, 2007, etc.) acknowledges Jewish jokes as "a source of courage and self-esteem through the most tragic moments," and his discursive novel makes considerable use of them in its account of the life of Isaac Blumenfeld. The son of a tailor in the shtetl of Kolodetz, Blumenfeld was a dreamy boy who fell in love with Sarah, the sister of his lifelong friend Rabbi Shmuel Ben-David, and was swept up in history. In 1918, Blumenfeld was called up into the Austro-Hungarian army but the war was lost before he saw action and he returned home a Pole. Twenty-one years later, now married to Sarah with three children, he is called up again and again steps down before fighting, this time as a comrade, Kolodetz having been annexed by the Soviet Union. In 1941, Blumenfeld is captured by the Germans and sent first to a labor camp, then to typhoid-ridden Flossenbürg. After the Americans liberate the camp, Blumenfeld succumbs to the disease. Once recovered, he learns his family has perished and settles in Vienna until he's arrested by the Soviets, tried for high treason and military crimes and sent to Siberia for ten years. The story ends abruptly, years later, with Blumenfeld back in Vienna, imagining himself and Sarah flying—Chagall-like—into the future.
As ironic judgments of monstrosity and meaning go, this one is intelligent and deeply felt, but insufficiently mordant.
Agent: Al Zuckerman/Writers House
Read an Excerpt
CONCERNING THE LIFE OF ISAAC JACOB BLUMENFELD through TWO WORLD WARS, THREE CONCENTRATION CAMPS and FIVE MOTHERLANDS
By ANGEL WAGENSTEIN
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Our tailoring workshop, "Mode Parisienne," was located on the main and almost only street in Kolodetz-a small town, miastechko in Polish, and shtetl in our language. We didn't have a proper display window, just a low pane with glued-on scraps cut out from Paris and Vienna fashion magazines, with elegant gentlemen in tuxedos and exquisite Viennese ladies in pink, though as far as I can remember we never tailored a single tuxedo or lady's pink garment. My father was mostly involved in turning old worn-out caftans inside out and was happy as a child when, at the fitting, in front of the mirror, the clothing, turned inside out for a second time, looked as if it were new-or at least this is what he'd say through his tightly pressed lips, which were holding an incredible number of pins. He was a good tailor and here's the place for me to mention his favorite story about how one time he'd tailored a red uniform for a dragoon from His Majesty's Lifeguards (I personally have never seen dragoons in our Kolodetz) and how the client was very satisfied as he looked in the mirror, but said, "I don't understand why you needed a whole month for a simple uniform when your Jewish God created the whole world in six days!" My father replied, "But look at His work, Officer sir, and look at this wonderful uniform!"
I was eighteen years old, helping out my father in the workshop, screaking out Jewish songs on the violin for celebrations and weddings, and reading selected chapters from the Tanakh, in other words the Five Books, to the children at the synagogue school, in our language the Beys Medresh, every Friday. As for the reading-I was reading all right, and reading, as they say, with passion and heart, but I wouldn't claim I was a Kogan at the violin. I was learning to play with the good old teacher Eliezer Pinkus, God rest his soul, he was a kind man and remarkably tactful, but one time he couldn't hold it in any more and carefully said to my father: "Please, don't be offended but your Itzik has no ear for music ...," at which my father angrily asked, "But why does he need an ear? He won't be listening, he'll be playing!" And how right my father was, for now I was more or less playing, or rather screaking out, as I have already indicated, the violin that my dear Uncle Chaim gave me on my bar mitzvah, that is my religious coming of age, on my thirteenth birthday.
I was a dreamy boy, and traveled in my dreams all the way to Vienna, and it wasn't only once that my father Aaron, or Ari Blumenfeld, pulled me out of these sweet journeys by his wooden tailor's measuring stick, so that I would find myself all of a sudden back again in Kolodetz by Drogobych, sitting at the table, with a needle stuck in an unfinished sleeve. In my dreams I was always wearing one of those spiffy Parisian tuxedos from the magazines, stepping down from a fiacre, and extending my hand to help a lovely lady in a pink dress, then bowing to kiss this tender and soft hand, but always right at this moment my father would smack me on the head with the measuring stick and so I never learned the rest of this story, neither who this wonderful lady was nor why I was helping her step down from the fiacre. I probably saw this scene somewhere in the movies.
Now, I remember about the movies. Sometimes, in a horse cart, all the way down from Lemberg, that is, Lvov, Mr. Liova Weissmann would visit. A journalist, newspaper publisher, and owner of a movie projector, he was selling his newspaper Yiddishe Heimland, and in the evening he'd show films at David Leibovich's café. These were always films, or parts of films, about wonderful distant worlds, inhabited by divinely beautiful women, who lowered their eyelids when gallant cavaliers kissed them on the lips. We were uneducated and too simple to understand such high-class plots; moreover, Mr. Weissmann, in the ongoing war situation, was getting those films from God knows where, and their subtitles (at that time cinematography was silent and subtitled) were in Danish, Flemish, Swedish, and one time in Japanese or something like that-and in Kolodetz by Drogobych no one spoke those languages, especially Japanese. Only Avramchik the postman, who had fought in the Russo-Turkish war as a signalman, claimed he could understand Turkish, but unfortunately we never happened to get a Turkish film. And one time, I remember, we were watching quite a long piece that was turned upside down, when somebody tried to whistle in protest and to stomp his feet, but Mr. Weissmann angrily said that this is how the film was and he was in a hurry to get back before the night caught him. And so, the gorgeous ladies and gentleman were kissing with their heads upside down, which was quite amusing. Sometimes they showed military newsreels and then Liova Weissmann would comment in dramatic fashion, "Our unconquerable army is advancing irresistibly!" It didn't matter what direction the soldiers were going in-left to right, right to left, coming toward us or going away from us-the commentary was always one and the same: "Our unconquerable army is advancing irresistibly!" Quite some time later I happened to notice the fact that Mr. Weissmann would say this only when Pan Voitek, the policeman, was sneaking a look at the image on the screen.
To these celebrations of art, if I can call them that, the young girls of Kolodetz would come-among them our Jewish girls, as well as Polish and Ukrainian girls. Now we were living, I have to tell you, quite a communal life in general and we weren't divided by religion and nationality, but still, we courted our own women-otherwise either their mothers would give us dirty looks, or our fathers would grimly hint that we better not have any illusions that they'd okay a non-Jewish woman. This situation would always make us enthusiastically tell the story of the baptized banker Goldberg, who married his daughter to the son of the baptized factory owner Zilberstein, and happily announced: "I have always dreamed of having for a son-in-law a nice rich young Christian from a good Jewish family!" But of course this has to be a joke, because reality was quite different, and in Kolodetz there were no bankers and factory owners, just the opposite.
But we were talking about the cinema and the inhabitants of those distant fairy worlds in which people, apparently, had no other cares but to drink champagne and kiss afterward. In one such movie scene, just when the lady on the screen (the screen was a tablecloth with a coffee stain that was alternately situated either on her face, or the face of the gentleman)-just when the lady parted her lips for a kiss, I unconsciously reached out and took in my burning palm the little hand of Sarah, the sister of our rabbi Shmuel Ben-David. She didn't react, she was watching the movie with eyes wide open, and when, together with the actress, she lowered her eyelids, I then bent over and lightly touched her lips with mine. It lasted just a second; then, it seems to me, Sarah, realizing I wasn't the fellow on the screen, looked at me with indignation and slapped me on the face. There was a laugh, a mocking whistle, and at that moment Pan Voitek the policeman peeked into the café and Mr. Liova Weissmann, who had fallen asleep, woke up with a start and solemnly announced: "Our unconquerable army is advancing triumphantly!" In short, I had no luck, neither with the lady in pink from the fiacre, nor with Sarah.
In addition to the thrilling evenings with the films of Mr. Liova Weissmann, I was crazy about Shabbos-the holy, for the Jews, Saturday evening, and not only because the next day we didn't work. I loved it when the family was gathered all around the holiday table-all of us clean and combed, in white shirts of homemade linen, freshly ironed by my mother-my father, myself, my sister Klara and her fiancé Shabtsi Krantz, who was an assistant pharmacist in Lvov and we were very proud of it, and Uncle Chaim. We would listen to my mother's short prayer glorifying Adonai, the only God of the Jews, followed by the grand breaking of the steaming bread, candles burning in the seven-branched menorah and peace falling on all of Kolodetz. Even the Christians fell silent that evening, there weren't the usual drunken songs and Polish fights, but if you're not Jewish, you'd probably think our Saturday night was just a Saturday, right? Oh no. There's nothing the Jews do like other people, so don't wonder at the fact that our Saturday night is really Friday, and that's just how it is-take my word for it.
Then all of the next day-Shabbos-until sunset, the Jews don't do a stitch of work and even the poorest delight in it, breathing in the deep and joyous Saturday peace. Some go over to the shul for prayer, swaying dreamily and for a long time, to the rhythm of the incomprehensible ancient Hebrew poems, while others do this business more quickly and less thoroughly and go out on the main street to take a stroll and look at the world. Passing each other, they nod importantly and even solemnly, and in a Viennese manner doff their hats, as if it's been twelve years since they've seen each other and as if yesterday they didn't almost have a fight because this one's hens invaded that one's garden. The women warmly exchange greetings with "Gut Shabbos," and indeed everything is peaceful and quiet, and on that day they forget the rumors going around again about Cossack pogroms in Russia, and that they owe the grocer, that the horse is limping, and that all these things are a bad sign. And all through the day there is that Saturday peace, as you perhaps know, it's a sin to do any kind of work, to make a fire, and even smoke. In ancient times, they say, this would be punished by death, but later on, with the development of more humane ideas, the death sentence was overruled and the actual crime declared a sin with unpredictable consequences in the Other World. Look, I'm not bragging, but in one way or another, it's a great invention of the ancient Jews-this holiday. Before that no one even fathomed that we could do without working one day of the week. And so insistent were my distant ancestors in introducing their innovation that they forced even God to rush through his work in six days so that on the seventh, like a good Jew, he had to rest. When I tell you also that on Shabbos it's forbidden and a fearful sin to touch money as a sign of something diabolic and unclean (even though during the other days the Jews don't hold this rather extreme opinion), you'll realize the whole deep and wise meaning of the Seventh Day. There's even a joke on this topic, you probably know it, but I can still tell it to you:
Two Jews from two towns are arguing over whose rabbi is more powerful in his spiritual connection with God and hence, more capable of performing miracles.
"Ours, of course, and I will prove it to you," says the first one. "Last Shabbos our rabbi was going to synagogue when suddenly rain came pouring down from the sky. Not that the rabbi didn't have an umbrella, but on Shabbos any kind of work is forbidden-so how can he open it? He looked up to the sky, God immediately understood, and there was a miracle, you won't believe it: on the left side-rain, on the right side-rain, and in the middle-a dry corridor all the way down to the synagogue. What do you say to that?"
"What I say, of course, is listen to this! Last Shabbos, our rabbi was coming home after prayer and what did he see? Lying on the road was a hundred-dollar bill! Well, how could he take it, when it's a sin to touch money? He looked up at the sky, God immediately understood him, and there was a miracle: on the left side-Shabbos, on the right side-Shabbos, and in the middle, you won't believe it-Thursday!"
Speaking of Thursday! The first Thursday of May 1918, at 10:30 in the morning, something happened that other, more epic writers would describe as "a turning point in life," or maybe "an historic moment." At this turning point or historic moment, my father, Ari Blumenfeld, was measuring the right sleeve of the military jacket of the policeman, Pan Voitek, probably for some alteration, while at the table, sitting and smoking, was my Uncle Chaim, known as Chaimle-a bohemian, a rascal, and a very good man, the only one from the family who had been to Vienna, and more than once, too-and I was sitting there daydreaming, that is, pretending to be at work. And right at this moment of the plot, the postman Avramchik comes in, or rather comes down-because Mode Parisienne was three steps below the pavement-with a yellow piece of paper in hand. "Big news for you!" said Avramchik.
"Good or bad?" my father asked, with fear in his heart, pins between his lips.
Avramchik looked in confusion at us, then at the paper, then at Mister Policeman, and was apparently unable to say definitively one way or the other whether the news was good or not. Then Pan Voitek took the initiative in his hands, as they say in the military news, and grabbed the paper. He read and offered this verdict:
"Good news! Your son Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld is mobilized Under the Flags of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army and has to present himself exactly seven days after receipt of this summons ... and so on, and so on. Congratulations!"
"But he's still a child ...," my father whispered.
"His Majesty knows perfectly well if he's a child or a real man! Children don't kiss young misses in the dark during cinema projections!"
"Did you do that?" my father asked reproachfully.
"Without knowing ...," I said, and that was the actual truth.
My father slapped me symbolically, apparently with the purpose of impressing Mister Policeman. "Here, in front of Pan Voitek, and to teach you a lesson."
"Good," I said.
"And couldn't we do something ...," said my father, "connected with heart failure or something like that?"
"No, no!" said Pan Voitek abruptly. "Stop with these Jewish tricks of yours! Our motherland needs him! At this moment when victory has never been closer!"
"Closer to whom?" Uncle Chaimle asked his question with great curiosity.
The policeman opened his mouth to reply, but stopped to think and only after a long pause said, "The question is still being clarified."
"And is it good for the Jews?" Mama asked anxiously, coming up suddenly at the end of the staircase leading to our kitchen, from which wafted the delicious smell of borscht.
"In what sense, Mrs. Rebekha?" asked the policeman.
"In the sense of the situation at the front line."
"Good for us."
"For us?" Uncle Chaimle asked, surprised.
"I said for us, not for you."
We all knew that Pan Voitek was Polish and that the concept of "us," "you," and "them" in Austria-Hungary was quite a delicate question, in which Jews should not be involved, and that's why my father and uncle looked at each other, nodded wisely to each other, and almost simultaneously said, "Yes, right."
I remained under the impression that nothing was right.
Excerpted from Isaac's Torah by ANGEL WAGENSTEIN Copyright © 2008 by Angel Wagenstein. Excerpted by permission.
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