One of the saddest things writing students can say when their work is criticized for being unbelievable is “But it really happened!” Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter. A story must happen on the page. Failure to create a believable world is a common flaw of historical novels, and Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “Daniel Stein, Interpreter,” based on the life of Oswald Rufeisen, Holocaust survivor turned Carmelite monk, is no exception. Just because the real Rufeisen was a precursor to the fictional Daniel Stein doesn’t mean that the latter lives in print.
Ulitskaya’s book begins when middle-aged Ewa Manukyan encounters elderly Esther Gantman at a party in Boston. Ewa mentions that she was born during World War II in the Belorussian shtetl of Emsk. Esther is astonished because she, too, was in Emsk, and she remembers Ewa’s birth to Rita Kowacz, “a fanatical Communist” fighting for the proletariat. Esther also remembers a young man named Daniel Stein, who saved all their lives.
The story now returns to the 1940s. Stein, a Jew with a facility for languages, becomes an interpreter for the occupying Germans. In this capacity he learns the date when the ghetto is to be liquidated and urges the people to flee. Several hundred, including Esther and Rita, take refuge in a forest, but 1,500 don’t heed his warning and are murdered the next day.
From there the book bounces back and forth in time and place, from Russia to Germany to the United States to Israel, where Daniel founds the Church of Elijah by the Spring, near Haifa. Most of the chapters are epistolary, but there are also excerpts from speeches, interviews, tourist brochures, history books and newspapers. The mix feels random. When Ulitskaya is on a roll, she provides multiple letters in a row from a correspondent, but then she seems to lose interest and skips to another venue. Several characters die offstage in accidents, disposed of in a way that merely ends rather than significantly concludes their lives.
Daniel’s conversion shortly after the war is undoubtedly authentic, though readers might sense it coming much earlier when, hiding from the Germans, he “tore the yellow star off [his] sleeve and decided [his] Jewish self would be left behind in the cellar.” There is something remarkable about people who adopt a new faith unmoored from their origins. One might wonder whether the horrors of the Holocaust made Daniel shun Judaism. That’s speculation, but it’s all a reader has, because Daniel’s mission is only a matter of assertion. He has little inner life.
Nor is Daniel alone in his mysterious conversion. Ewa becomes a Catholic, and militant atheist Rita converts to Anglicanism. A fourth character converts to Russian Orthodoxy. The first spiritual journey is fact, the second a strained coincidence. After that, the book becomes a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the conversion of the Jews.
Worse is the background against which these conversions occur. Lord knows, Israel is no paradise and Israelis no angels, but Ulitskaya dwells on the ugliest aspects of the place and its people. She devotes several of her final chapters to the most appalling episode in Israeli history, the massacre by Baruch Goldstein of 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron. Esther’s husband sums up the book’s attitude best: “Being Jewish is something intrusive and final, like the accursed hump of a hunchback.”
Conversely, Ulitskaya’s novel displays deep sympathy for Arabs in Israel and the Holocaust’s perpetrators. Reflecting on Emsk, Daniel says, “The person most deserving of respect there was Major Reinhold . . . a perfectly decent individual [who] tried to observe the outward norms of legality.” Reinhold is the kind of man who proudly declares, “I have not personally shot a single Jew, but somebody has to do it.” The monk “prays for the major.”
“Daniel Stein, Interpreter” genuflects to Jewish suffering while diminishing it at every opportunity. This is evident not merely in the novel’s broad scope, but more subtly and insidiously in its language. (Translator Arch Tait won last year’s PEN Literature in Translation Award.) When Daniel tells us, “Being a partisan was worse than working in the gendarmerie,” he uses the quaint French generic rather than the harsh German specific: Gestapo. And when vandals break into Daniel’s church, Hilda, his aide, calls it “a real pogrom,” usurping Jewish tragedy. Yet the most offensive revelation in this topsy-turvy world comes by omission. It’s a description of a German church graced by “a fountain symbolizing the tears of those who mourn the Jewish people . . . who perished.” The tears of living Germans are revered; the tears of dead Jews are forgotten.
If there’s anything more stunning than this novel’s drumbeat of conversion upon conversion as Jews commit atrocity after atrocity, it’s that this book won Russia’s National Literary Prize and sold 2 million copies. Maybe nations listen to what they want to hear.
Bukiet is the author of seven books of fiction and the editor of three anthologies. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
Daniel stein, interpreter
By Ludmila Ulitskaya
Overlook/Duckworth. 408 pp. $27.95