The reviewer is theater critic for The Jewish Week, Panorama and WTOP-Radio.
If the tale is well-told, it shouldn't make any difference whether it is fact or fiction. But sometimes it does, especially with the type of four-generation chronicle Silvia Tennenbaum has written in "Yesterday's Streets," a novel spanning 42 years and encompassing two world wars, the fall of the Weimar Republic, a bit of the Russian Revolution, a bit of Zionism, the rise of Nazism, and the sweep of the Holocaust through Europe. Parallels between the author's book jacket biography and threads of the plot underscore the possibility that this might be a real family saga, thus infusing it with an extra piquancy and a special aching sadness.
At times, however, Tennenbaum's canvas is so broad, her strokes so utilitarian, that subtlety and style are obliterated by the mechanics of pushing the various subplots along. But then, as she is deploying all her myriad major and minor characters, her book will suddenly jump to life as the cold names turn into flesh and blood. Here, indeed, are those true touches, the echoes of family history passed on from mother to daughter.
Tennenbaum's first novel, "Rachel, the Rabbi's Wife," was dedicated to her rabbi husband. "Yesterday's Streets," dedicated to the memory of her mother, begins in 1903 in Frankfurt am Main with the Wertheim family celebration of the birth of its newest member, Nathan's daughter, Lene. It ends in 1945 in America with Lene's 17-year-old, half-Jewish daughter Clara reading in her mother's letter from cousin Benno (he was in the second group of American forces to enter Buchenwald) of the total destruction of her parents' world. Both Clara and Tennenbaum were born in Frankfurt in 1928; both were brought here in 1938; both have a musician stepfather; both have a deep interest in art, music and literature. At the novel's end, Clara is even headed for Tennenbaum's alma mater, Barnard College.
The Wertheim family had been a part of Frankfurt since the early 17th century, longer than many of their Christian friends. Old Moritz Wertheim delighted in retelling stories of the ancient Judengasse (Jewish ghetto) and of the family's rise from ghetto merchants to prominence in Frankfurt's textile industry and mercantile community. Of Moritz's five sons, Eduard has the best business sense. A confirmed bachelor, art connoisseur, supreme manipulator, Eduard gradually assumes leadership of the business and the clan, dispensing money and advice to his brothers, and enjoying his role of favorite uncle and surrogate father to his nieces and nephews. From the beginning, the seeds of anti-Semitism, of inflation, of social injustice and growing political unrest are taking root, but the prosperous, self-satisfied Wertheims are too busy and too secure to take notice.
Although we keep tabs on most of the brothers, their wives, children, grandchildren, and even in-laws, the family of Nathan, the eldest brother, provides the core of the action. Most prominent are his two daughters, Lene and Emma: Lene's love affairs and two marriages, her flight from the Nazis to Paris and America, her daughter, Clara, her musician husband, Manfred; Emma's abortive marriage to a Prussian officer, her friendship with Bernard Berenson (a delightfully catty segment), her conversion to Christianity. Then there are Nathan's twin sons: Andreas' homosexuality, and his death in the Lodz ghetto; Ernst's marriage out of his class to a Polish Zionist and their emigration to Palestine.
These are vivid portraits, etched with love and colorful detail. But even so, the reality occasionally seems to slip slightly out of focus as though the events have been softened by time, and splintered through the prisms of other eyes and other memories. This is true especially of the family's ready acceptance of Andreas' homosexuality, which seems altogether impossible for those days and that society.
This was the Wertheim family -- wealthy, cultured, conservative, smugly upper-class, drifting towards assimilation -- proud of their German roots and of being old-line Frankfurt residents. It was, as Ernst remembered, more than being a family; it was a state of being -- "it was a place, a quality, a mood." Lene's toast, made while in exile in Paris, cried out for all of them: "May you return home to Frankfurt one day, along with the rest of us, and find it to be the city you carry in your hearts." But there was no return. The city and the streets they carried in their hearts no longer existed, just as the Wertheim family, except for a possible branch in Palestine, no longer existed.
As a panoramic family saga, "Yesterday's Streets" is quite uneven. Especially moving passages and episodes are juxtaposed with almost embarrassingly transparent plot devices and wooden narration. Several of the characters simply disappear, almost as though Tennenbaum had accidently crossed their names off her tidy-up-the-story-line list and then forgot about them.
And yet, "Yesterday's Streets" presents a fascinating set of characters within a compelling context. Furthermore, this second book is far kinder than, and much superior in purpose, scope and quality of writing to Tennenbaum's slashing first novel. It will be interesting to see what she chooses next from her life experience to write about, and whether she can be kind only to the distant past.