In his 1940 Yiddish novel “When Yash Arrived” (available in English as Homecoming at Twilight), the Polish-born American author Jacob Glatstein tells the story of a Polish Jew’s return to the land of his birth from the U.S. Dara Horn recommends the book as a way “to repair the damage done to the American Jewish psyche by hundreds of lousy Holocaust novels and school productions of Fiddler on the Roof.” She writes:
American Jews with roots in Yiddish-speaking Europe bear the burden of a past not merely gone but incinerated. The community’s response has been to sanctify these ancestors’ deaths rather than their lives, as though it were our responsibility to recall their murderers’ actions rather than theirs—and thereby to regard these ancestors as holy innocents, trapped in sentimental amber. [As a result, American Jews] are never allowed to view the Jews of pre-Holocaust Europe as adults, as participants in a complex and diverse and contradictory world or, more important, as people who were aware enough to see it coming. . . .
When I call Homecoming at Twilight a masterpiece, the word hardly seems adequate. “Masterpiece” describes Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a novel about a resort/sanatorium that shelters its diverse guests from the horror about to engulf Europe in World War I. But The Magic Mountain was published in 1924, years after that war ended. Homecoming at Twilight, a novel about a resort/sanatorium that shelters its diverse guests from the horror about to engulf Europe’s Jews, was written before World War II even began. (It wasn’t published until 1940, but it was composed in the mid-1930s.) . . . .
Glatstein’s book is still eerily predictive. From the conversations in this book with and about every type of Polish Jew as they gather at this resort—secular and religious, young and old, Zionists and Communists and Polish patriots alike—we learn just how profoundly all of them sensed their imminent doom, not because they could see the future, but because they could see the past. “They want to destroy us, nothing less,” one character notes of his non-Jewish neighbors early in the book, which, I’ll note again, was written before the first mass murders. “They want to exterminate us, purely and simply. Yes, exterminate us.”
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