The Holocaust Kid: Stories by Sonia Pilcer (Persea Books, N.Y., 192 pages, $23.95)
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 12, 2001) -- In one of the more outrageous scenes in her outrageous new book, The Holocaust Kid - outrageous not necessarily because of what Sonia Pilcer has written, but because what she has written is so clearly a reflection of outrageous reality - the thinly-veiled protagonist, Zosha Palovsky, is attending an interfaith conference on the Holocaust at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.
Zosha has been sitting for hours in the hard pews of the cathedral, listening to a procession of pompous academics, theologians and artists -- few if any of whom had any direct connection to the Holocaust -- drone on about its significance. Having been born the child of survivors in a displaced persons (DP) camp, Zosha has a few ideas of her own about the meaning of this meaning-shattering event.
The audacity of those who would profess to know anything about the Holocaust gets the better of Zosha, and her resentment builds until she expresses what can be read on some level as the book’s credo, the inspiration and motivation for Pilcer’s stunning and at times shocking book:
“I was a medium, Houdini of the Holocaust, which transmitted itself through me, the uncut umbilical cord of my mother feeding me blood images vivid as they were terrifying. Spirits of the dead cried out of me…. . I would show them what it meant to have one’s kind extinguished in history’s bonfire, and the only living family singed at the source so all that released itself with the exuberance of nature came slow and with great difficulty.”
This is what Pilcer succeeds in doing with wit, courage, and no small degree of tenderness and affection in her taboo-busting book, “The Holocaust Kid.” Applying the same sort of streetwise sass she used in cult-classics of urban life like “Teen Angel” and “Little Darlings,” Pilcer paints a vivid portrait of Zosha Palovsky, a child of survivors trying to come to terms with her parents’ unfathomable experience through her own insatiable curiosity, creativity and thirst for life experience.
Zosha is a member of a select group - or rather, a group resulting from an elite selection that took place before its members were born. Zosha characterizes this group, variously called 2Gs or Second Generation, thusly: “While the survivors seem to have the ability to go on with their lives … it is their children who spend much of their time, not to mention money, talking to Ph.D.’s, and MSWs. In unaccented, well-reasoned English, we speak of anger, guilt, trying to se
te ourselves from our parents and their Holocaust past. Secretly, we believe that nothing we can ever do will be as important as our parents’ suffering.”
This is Zosha’s sentence, her plight, and in some ways “The Holocaust Kid” is her response, her “Portnoy’s Complaint,” her attempt at doing something with or creating something out of her parents’ suffering, from which she cannot wholly se
te herself. The challenge to do so is laid directly at her feet by Uly Oppenheim, a Holocaust Studies professor and professional lothario, a “Shoah Casanova” who makes it his life’s work to bed as many 2Gs as possible. “…. The Second Generation has no real experiential content. Just fantasies, overactive, morbid imaginations,” says Oppenheim. In some small way, “The Holocaust Kid” is Zosha’s counterresponse to Oppenheim’s condescension.
Pilcer’s book defies Oppenheim’s pat diagnosis of what ails 2Gs. It is Elie Wiesel shot through with a heavy dose of Henry Miller and a little bit of early Philip Roth for good measure. There will undoubtedly be some who feel that Pilcer’s portrayal of Zosha’ parents, Genia and Heniek, is uncharitable, that she sets them up as figures for mockery. But Zosha has immense respect and admiration for her parents -- concentration camp survivors who had to escape Poland (by smuggling themselves into Germany of all places) after the war when murderous Poles threatened to do to them what the Germans didn’t do. Their lives are her legacy, and in the end, the stories that Zosha tells - Pilcer’s stories - are theirs as much as her own. Zosha writes, “It is our way to tell tales, bug-eyed people of the Book. We become writers and therapists because we believe in the power of storytelling. As if the right arrangement of words could release us.” Pilcer’s book is labeled just “Stories,” and as such begs the question as to whether it is to be read as autobiography, fiction, or that nebulous, in-between region called creative nonfiction. Although the book makes no claims to being so, there is a novelistic unity and progression connecting the stories. You can graph Zosha’s growth through the men who pass through her bed, from the greaser in the movie theater through Ludwig, the Russian-German lover with a neo-Nazi past, through Uly Oppenheim through Avi, the slightly-shellshocked Israeli expatriate artist and cab driver who, like Zosha, was born in a DP camp.
In the end, however, it doesn’t matter. The measure of the stories is to be taken on their own merits. And it is on their own merits that the stories measure up. We can’t ask of them any more than they are willing to give us, and what they give us is blood, sweat, tears, laughter, sex -- and the indisputable ring of authenticity.
Seth Rogovoy is the author of The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 12, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]
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