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Englander short story in ‘New Yorker’ says Holocaust legacy gives Israel a pass to do anything

Israel/Palestine
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In the May 17th New Yorker there is a beautifully written, touching short story by a 40-year old Jewish American author, Nathan Englander, entitled "Free Fruit for Young Widows." It is yet another Holocaust story, this time not by someone who experienced it but by someone who was born during the Vietnam War.

The story begins in the Sinai with an imaginary and most unlikely incident following the 1956 invasion of Egypt by France, England and Israel in which both Israeli and Egyptian soldiers happened to be wearing the same uniforms, provided by the French to both armies at different time. Shimmy Gezer ("formerly, Shimon Bibberblat, of Warsaw, Poland") sits down to eat lunch at an outdoor table and four armed commandos sit down with him and exchange grunts. They are joined by Gezer’s buddy, Professor Tendler ("who was then only Private Tendler") who after placing "the tin cup he was carrying on the edge of the table, taking care not to spill his tea," proceeds to shoot each of the armed commandos in the head.

Gezer, "shocked by the murder of his four fellow soldiers," tackles his friend, who screams back to him in Hebrew. "Egyptians!, Egyptians!" And then, in Yiddish, "The enemy has joined you for lunch." How it is possible that enveloped Egyptian soldiers would still be armed we are left to ponder? Rather we find the humanist, Gezer, telling his friend, Tendler, that "You should have taken them prisoner," and with his "tears streaming and fists flying," crying, "You didn’t have to shoot," he attacks the much larger Tendler, who gives him a bloody beating.

Much later, after the war, Tendler has become a professor and Gezer the owner of a fruit and vegetable stand in Jerusalem’s ultra-religious Mahane Yehuda market, and Gezer explains to his son, Etgar, why he never allows the professor to pay for his groceries (nor the widows of Israeli soldiers fallen in battle). It goes back, of course, to the Jewish Holocaust, in which young Tendler is liberated from an unnamed "death camp" by two large American soldiers who faint on seeing this scrawny boy crawl out from under a pile of emaciated corpses that had been scheduled for the ovens. It turns out that Tendler has been living beneath the pile for some days, kept alive by crumbs of food provided by the Sonderkommando who Englander does not identify but who were prisoners themselves.

Now liberated at age 13, his family dead, Tendler makes his way slowly back to his home in Poland where he is given a warm welcome by Fanushka,"his nurse, their maid," and her husband and children who have been living in the Tendler family home. But things are not as they appear. Going outside to take a leak, and standing just underneath the kitchen window, Tendler overhears the nurse lamenting, but not that Tendler’s family had been destroyed.

"He will take everything," is what she said. "He will take it all from us–our house, our field. He’ll snatch away all we’ve built and protected, everything that has been–for so long–ours….He will steal it all away. Everything. He has come for our lives." And Tendler hears her say. "We will eat…We will celebrate. And when he sleeps we will kill him." It is not to be. Tendler has managed to obtain a revolver and using a pillow as a silencer, he goes about killing, one by one, Fanushka, her husband and both their sons.

On hearing the story from his father, "Etgar decided Professor Tendler was both a murderer and, at the same time, a misken. He believed he understood how and why Professor Tendler had come to kill that peasant family, and how men sent to battle in uniform–even in the same uniform–would find no mercy at his hand. (That Englander uses the term misken without defining it shows that he knows his targeted audience. From what I have been able to tell from the internet it might mean someone who is to be pitied but, according to Rabbi Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaim, "it conveys a piercing overlap of spirit; an abiding kinship; a mutual commiseration that leaves each feeling a little lighter, a little holier.")

At the end of the tragic story, the reader is left with the message that Israel and its supporters have sent to the world: What happened to Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany was so horrible, so unique, that it justifies any action, no matter how heinous, that Israel takes in its defense, even when those actions are considered despicable in the eyes of the non-Jewish world and do, in fact, constitute war crimes.

Since a significant portion of the New Yorker’s readers are liberal Jews in their sixties and seventies, many of whom by this time have begun to question’s Israel’s behavior, this appears to be Englander’s way of shutting them up, by artfully implying that had they not been lucky enough to have been in America during WW 2, they would have shared the fate of Europe’s Jews. In essence, it is the same Old Testament message that resonates from the throats of Israel’s ultra orthodox rabbis, "We must kill or be killed." Unlike the shrill proclamations from those racist rabbis, which will shock anyone not caught up in their insanities, this is a well crafted piece of Israeli propaganda.

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