Shelf Unbound talks with Erika Dreifus about her new book of short stories, Quiet Americans, published by Last Light Studio (www.lastlightstudio.com).
Shelf Unbound: The stories in Quiet Americans look at the impact of the Holocaust on generation after generation, starting in prewar Berlin and moving through time and family up to the present day. What new perspective were you wanting to bring to the canon of Holocaust literature?
Erika Dreifus: This is such an important and complicated question. For starters, I’m beginning to notice the emergence of a new cohort of writers, those of us who are grandchildren of people who encountered, fled from, and/or survived Nazi persecution in Europe. I’m in my early forties, and I seem to be among the “elders” of this generation: fiction writers and memoirists including Julie Orringer, Alison Pick, and Natasha Solomons were all born in the 1970s (Solomons in 1980), and they, too, have returned to their grandparents’ histories in their writing. (I have written about this more extensively for Fiction Writers Review: http://fictionwritersreview.com/essays/looking-backward-third-generation-fiction-writers-and-the-holocaust.)
Second, most of the stories in the collection feature, in one way or another, immigrant experience and its after-effects, in the lives of the immigrants themselves as well as in their descendants. In that sense, I like to think that Quiet Americans can find a place in the literature about immigration as well as within the context of post-Holocaust literature.
Shelf: Your paternal grandparents were German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the 1930s. Did you grow up hearing their stories of the Holocaust first-hand?
Dreifus: I heard snippets of stories — about what my grandmother’s parents endured back in Germany during the Kristallnacht of November 1938, for instance, and their ultimate escape to South America in 1940 — and I asked questions. I should probably add that as a couple, my grandparents resembled most closely the characters of Josef and Nelly Freiburg, who appear a few times throughout the book. Like Josef Freiburg, my grandfather was the “quieter” one; my grandmother was the primary storyteller in all matters.
Shelf: The first story in the book, “For Services Rendered,” is about a high-ranking Nazi’s wife and a Jewish doctor before the war and the moral implications of the actions they take to survive. You write these characters with incredible emotional nuance and empathy. Where did the idea for these characters come from, and did the story lead you where you were expecting it to?
Dreifus: Well, thank you. The idea came from one of my grandmother’s story snippets. When she arrived in New York in the spring of 1938, my grandmother found a job working for a Jewish-American couple as their daughter’s nanny. The little girl went to a pediatrician who later became my father’s pediatrician, too. Like my grandmother, this doctor was a German-Jewish refugee. According to my grandmother, he had cared for the offspring of “a high-level Nazi” back in Germany, and ultimately, this Nazi had told the doctor that he should “get out of” the country. I found these circumstances striking, but didn’t really focus on them until shortly after my grandmother’s death. At that point, research and writing took me in all sorts of directions I hadn’t anticipated. For instance, in my efforts to try to identify the mysterious “high-level Nazi” in question, I discovered all sorts of historical detail about Hermann Göring’s wife, Emmy, and the rest just fell into place.
Shelf: You quote Günter Grass at the collection’s start: “It never ends. Never will it end.” And your stories reveal the profundity of the enduring pain of the Jewish people. Yet you end the last story with a moving moment of hopefulness. What was your thinking there?
Dreifus: That’s a lovely observation. I’m not certain that it was intentional. And maybe that is a good thing. Maybe it points to our fundamental instincts, as humans, to hope.
Read an Excerpt:
Featured in August/September 2015 Issue
“The Quiet American, Or How to Be a Good Guest”
from Quiet Americans
You will go to Germany. You will go, after years and years of refusing to go (even when you traveled through the rest of Europe after your freshman year of college), just as you refused to learn German until circumstances (that is to say, graduate school requirements) forced you to. But if your grandparents, may they rest in peace, managed to go back and visit, way back in 1972, then you can go. You will be practically next door in beautiful baroque Central Europe for a conference; you really should go while someone else has paid your transatlantic airfare. So you will.
You are an American. You are a grown-up. What’s to worry about? Even now, even this summer of 2004, when your own homeland needs security, and every time you watch the news you’re afraid you’ll hear about another suicide bombing on a bus in Israel.
You talk with your best friend before you leave. You say: “I don’t know which is worse, at this point. To be an American in Europe—or to be a Jew.”
Your best friend is also an American Jew. She also has European-born grandparents. Hers survived a total of seven camps. Your best friend doesn’t have an answer.
So today, a hot Sunday in August—a very hot Sunday that reminds you how much you hate extremes in anything, especially the weather—you are in Stuttgart. This is the city to which each of your father’s parents had traveled from their hometowns, back in the late 1930s, to apply for their visas at the American Consulate. You’ve already searched the Web and thumbed through the local telephone directory in your nice, air-conditioned hotel room.
There is no longer an American Consulate in Stuttgart.
When you were younger, your parents and you and your sister went to Paris. Because even then you showed an appalling inability to read a map and you demonstrated a similarly instinctive lack of any sense of direction, your parents signed you all up for a family bus tour of the city. Jet-lagged, you fell asleep two minutes into the tour, by the Place de la Concorde.
But twenty years later you are in Stuttgart, and you aren’t jet-lagged, and your parents have reminded you, via an e-mail message that you read at a cybercafe, that it would be a good idea to take a bus tour of the city. To orient yourself. So you have already visited the information office at Königstrasse 1A to learn about the tours. You’ve paid your seventeen euros and bought your ticket. And now you are standing outside the Hotel am Schlossgarten, waiting for the bus.
You aren’t jet-lagged, but you do have a cold, and every few moments you sneeze and blow your nose into tissues you then stuff into your bag. Probably this will guarantee an empty seat next to you, for which you are grateful. You can identify the other Americans easily enough—although somewhat atypically you can’t instantly guess whether they are American Jews or Gentiles—and your instincts are affirmed when you casually step closer and overhear their conversation.
English. American English.
When you climb on the nice, air-conditioned bus you sit behind them.
All the other passengers seem to be German. And old. The natural question comes to mind as the bus lumbers along: What did they do during the war? Maybe your mind is playing tricks on you but somehow the old women across the aisle bear a striking resemblance to your grandmother: fleshy and white-haired with proud noses and blue-gray eyes.
Your guide—an unusually petite woman named Greta who is wearing a string of green beads and whose lined face suggests she might be in her fifties, like your parents—lets forth a stream of words in German and then she says, in English, that this is how she runs things: she will tell the group everything in German and then repeat it for the English-speakers. You smile. You’ve already forgotten nearly all the German you learned that summer you needed to acquire proficiency for graduate school.
Except for one word. And it’s not a day of the week or a month of the year or a color or anything so simple.
It’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It’s a word that means, roughly, “coming to terms with the past.”
Greta with the green beads seems to be a good guide. She tells you that more than five hundred thousand people reside in Stuttgart; she praises its many parks, its ballet, its zoo. She describes all the buildings the bus passes. The State Gallery. The Opera House. The regional Parliament Building.
As the tour continues there’s a refrain. Again and again Greta says: “This building had to be rebuilt after the war. The original was destroyed by the bombings.”
Is that a note of accusation in her voice? Or are you just being, as you’ve been told you can be, paranoid?
The Americans—you and the American family occupying two rows across from you whom by now you’ve learned live in Chicago—say nothing. Naturally. You’re all just guests, here. The teenage son in the Chicago group dons some headphones and his parents don’t say anything then, either, not even, We paid seventeen euros for you to go on this bus trip and you’re going to listen to what the guide has to say! Maybe they don’t want him to listen, anymore. In the meantime, his sister reaches for some bottled water.
But a few rows ahead someone is shaking his shiny bald head, every time Greta makes that comment about the buildings and the bombings. The white-haired woman sitting next to him doesn’t move.
Part of you is actually sympathetic to Greta. You’ve read Günter Grass’s Crabwalk. You’ve read W.G. Sebald’s essay “Air War and Literature.” You understand that the Germans suffered, too. The civilians. Maybe Greta’s family suffered. Maybe Greta’s father or uncle or older brother was gravely injured or even killed on the Eastern Front. You could understand, if that were her point.
The problem—and it’s a serious problem—is that that doesn’t seem to be her point. Buildings don’t quite equal civilian lives, but buildings seem to be what preoccupy your tour guide. But you stay quiet. You shred a tissue and drop the pieces into your bag. You pick at your cuticles and at the chipped polish on your fingernails. Because, again, you might just be paranoid.
But you also stay quiet because, remember, you are a guest. And not just any guest. You’re one who just doesn’t know whether it’s worse to be an American or a Jew in Europe these days. And today you aren’t only in Europe.
You are in Germany.
But Greta the Guide won’t give up. Now you’re looking at the New Palace. It’s really an old palace; in fact, it’s a very old palace. But it, too, suffered tremendously during the war, the poor thing. You’ve descended from the bus, all of you, to admire it close-up. The Germans heard the story first, and now they’ve walked off, across the street, to await the guide at the next landmark while you and your compatriots get the English version. To your surprise the bald man and the white-haired woman, whom you had taken for an old German couple, remain with your Anglophone group. Greta speaks.
Another tale of destruction. Another refrain. Again you’re hearing that line about how much work had to be done to repair this building postwar, because “the original was destroyed by the bombings.”
Now you’re getting really annoyed. And you’re standing in the sun and sniffing away, to boot. But you’d be annoyed anyway.
As a Jew. Because this woman—this so-called guide—seems to be privileging certain kinds of wartime destruction over others, and her judgment is more than a little bit warped, in your opinion.
And as an American. Because you can’t help feeling that this woman is angry at the Allies for having “destroyed” her country’s property. Apparently there’s no credit in the Bank of Greta’s goodwill for the Marshall Plan.
But you say nothing. You think that even Sebald and Grass would want to slap this woman. But you certainly do not slap her. You don’t even say anything to her. You are only a guest. So you say nothing. You look away for a moment. Just a few yards from this spot there’s a café, where lots of people sit under umbrellas. They’re laughing, talking, eating, drinking. They’re not standing out here in the sun listening to nonsense and sniffing, now, for multiple reasons. You sigh.
But when you look back at your own little group the bald man is breathing fast. Sweat runs down his face. His wife’s freckled hand rests on his arm. You’re alarmed. Is there a doctor here? How do you say, “Emergency!” in German? Right now that has to be a word far more important to know than Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
But the man shakes free from his wife’s grasp. He wipes his face with a white handkerchief. He breathes deeply. And then he starts speaking.
“Young woman,” he says to Greta, and you hear at once the voice of a Briton. Your mind flashes back to the D-Day celebrations that you watched on television at the beginning of the summer while you babysat your toddler niece, major celebrations this year for the sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy landings. “Look, sweetie,” you’d said, to this child named for your German-born grandmother, and how proud you’d been when the little girl had stopped strangling her plush stuffed puppy to stand at attention on her chubby legs, solemn-faced and respectfully silent not when George Bush was speaking, not even when the cameras shifted to the display of the Franco-German rapprochement at Caen, but just when the British veterans—an even smaller group than the ever-shrinking pool of American ones—had been marching, in uniform, past Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, at Arromanches. In her own way, the queen was a veteran herself, staying in London with her parents and sister throughout it all. They’d been bombed, too, remember.
This British man evidently remembers. He remembers a lot of things.
The sun is in your eyes, and you can’t quite look at him right now, but you can hear everything he is saying to the tour guide. “You should think a bit more before you speak, you know. I spent the war in the RAF. I cannot say that I am responsible for these particular bombings to which you continue to refer. But if I were, I would hardly be ashamed.”
Greta stares. Despite the sun, you raise your eyes and stare, too. The Chicagoans—including the headphoned teenager—stare. Everyone stares. Except the Briton’s wife, who is rummaging in her large purse.
But no one says anything.
Then you sneeze, and you reach for another tissue. The Briton’s wife pulls a cap from the purse and passes it to her husband.
At the end of the tour you give Greta a tip, which she will share with the driver, and you nod your appreciation. It’s the polite thing to do. You learned this from your father, when you saw him hand a few coins over to the tour guide on the bus that day twenty years ago, in Paris.
Outside, you hurry to catch up with the bald Briton and his wife. Now you don’t have to be so quiet, and you can be more sincere. You have something to say.
“Excuse me,” you begin, once you’ve reached them. And you look at this man, who may not have bombed this city but almost certainly bombed others. You clear your throat. And you speak again.
“Thank you,” you say. “Thank you—so much.”
From Quiet Americans by Erika Dreifus, Last Light Studio 2011, www.lastlightstudio.com. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.