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Review: Among the Living, by Jonathan Rabb
Other Press, 2016. 303 pp. $26

When Yitzhak Goldah, a Czech Holocaust survivor, lands among his American cousins in Savannah, Georgia, in 1947, he at once becomes an object of fascination and dread in the Jewish community. Most people act as if they want to know what happened to him and what he feels about it. But they don’t, really. They’re scared of what he might say, but even more of what that would force them to reckon with–their guilt at having escaped, while their European brethren were murdered.

Congregation Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia, 2015 (Courtesy Jud McCranie, via Wikimedia Commons)

Congregation Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia, which dates from 1735, as it appeared in 2015 (Courtesy Jud McCranie, via Wikimedia Commons)

So they make sympathetic noises, and when he doesn’t respond the way they hope or think he should, they ascribe his reaction to “all you’ve been through,” without an inkling of what that is. And since he’s reticent by nature, a trait that his experiences at Theresienstadt and Birkenau only reinforced, he lets them assume what they wish, unwilling to reveal more and sensing that they wouldn’t hear it anyway.

He’s right. His cousins and benefactors, Abe and Pearl Jesler, have done their best to make him over. They haven’t even driven him home from the train station before they’ve told him that from now on, he should be Ike, not Yitzhak (Isaac, in English); he’ll work at Abe’s shoe store; attend services at their Orthodox synagogue; and, oh, by the way, there’s a party tonight in your honor, so you’ll want to take a nap first.

Ike feels more comfortable among the black servants and shoe-store employees (who of course are the ones to fetch and haul). It’s not just that he recognizes people who have suffered, or that, like him, they stand outside the gate of what’s accepted and acceptable, though he does so by choice. He grasps implicitly their fate never to be spoken of as an equal, for he endured that too; but again, he’s left that behind, whereas they’re still trapped. But more than that, he finds that Calvin, who tends Abe’s stock room, and Raymond, Calvin’s son, who drives a delivery truck, speak directly, from the heart, and he yearns for that.

He finds it also with Eva, a young war widow with whom he strikes up an immediate rapport. But to Abe, Pearl, and their community, Eva’s the enemy, because she’s Reform, not Orthodox. Maybe you’ve heard the old jokes about the town with two Jews and three synagogues, or about the Jewish castaway who builds two houses of worship on his island, so he can have one that he doesn’t go to. But here, it’s no joke, and Rabb nails that tribal fractiousness dead-center. Ike and Eva ignore the social pressure, but they’re lucky to have an ally. Her father runs a local newspaper, and Ike was a journalist in Prague before the war. You can guess where that will lead.

However, Rabb introduces a further complication, and here’s where things get tense. A woman whom Ike knew from Prague, and whom he thought had died in the camps, comes to Savannah too. And she says he promised to marry her, and that he owes her a good life, at least an attempt at what the Nazis interrupted. They don’t love each other and probably never did. Yet, as she says, if he turns her away, he’ll have to live with that forever. So what does he do? What can he do?

There’s much to like about Among the Living. I admire Rabb’s gift for economy, conveying what remains unsaid during social interactions, and his pitch-perfect rendering of innuendo and gossip. The story offers rich material in which to explore fear, prejudice, and trauma, much of which the author suggests with a subtle hand. For instance, a subplot concerning corruption at Savannah’s docks, for which Raymond pays a gruesome price, provides a contrast to Ike: Rabb sets the hero victim who stands as rebuke to repression against a black man who remains unknown and unsung, and for whom justice doesn’t exist. It’s a nice touch, and it makes you think.

Nevertheless, this lovely novel doesn’t deliver on its promise. Rabb captures the tribal milieu, but he doesn’t persuade me that this is 1947, and that everyone’s recovering from a world war. Rather, so intent is he on separating Ike’s experiences from everyone else’s, it’s as if the war had been an event in which participation was entirely voluntary, and most people in Savannah had simply opted out. Further, though Ike and Eva are engaging characters, I don’t know them as well as I’d like, particularly why he attracts her so easily, though I can see it the other way around. Finally, Rabb does his best to keep you guessing about how things will turn out, but I think he needed to push his characters further away from the happiness they deserve. With a subject like this, it’s hard to balance fairness with a satisfying reality, and yet, I wanted more from Among the Living.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.