Half-Jews outlast Nazi regime in ‘The Kaminsky Cure’

It is to the great credit of Christopher New, the author of the “The Kaminsky Cure” (Delphinium Books), that one is able to laugh, if not out loud, at least to smile sadly, while utterly immersed in a story that takes place in Europe during the most shameful time in our not-so-distant history. A time when “a frothy stream of anti-Semitism had begun to flow into the village like s— from the leaking sewer, except that there wasn’t a sewer to get leaks in yet.” 

Perhaps no sewers existed at the time in the small Austrian village in which our young narrator’s life unfolds, but in the Aryan Führer’s rotten mind, a malodorous sewer has been frothing for years, leaking a stream of fecal conspiracies aimed at annihilating the Jewish race.

The frightening developments of Hitler’s plan, from 1939 until his defeat at the end of World War II, is narrated by the son of the Jewish Gabi, who has converted to Christianity, and her husband, Lutheran minister Willibald Brinkmann, who is proud of his Aryan heritage. At age “five and three-quarters,” the youngest of four Brinkmann children breathes life into the story with a wonderfully ironic, humorous and heartbreaking voice, as he attempts to understand the constantly changing Nazi laws regarding his family. Who amongst them is Aryan? Who is a Jew that carries tainted blood, and who is half-Jewish? The answer, of course, is that Willibald is the pure Aryan, although he displays none of the courage the Jewish Gabi displays, and their children, then, are considered “privileged” half-Jews. 

While, one by one, the most basic of rights are snatched away, first from Jews, then from half-Jews, the Brinkmann children — Martin, Ilse, Sara and, eventually, our narrator — are barred from attending school, but not from receiving private education, although that restriction will come, too. So Gabi embarks on selling her jewelry, furniture and anything that would bring in some money for her children’s education. No matter her conversion to Christianity, Gabi remains Jewish at heart, and her children will receive an education, even if the family has to suffer cold and hunger and illness in exchange for private lessons from Frau Kaminsky. And it is Frau Kaminsky, who in an effort to protect Gabi from herself, suggests the “Kaminsky Cure” of the title. She advises Gabi to hold water in her mouth so as to stifle her dangerous tendency to blurt out what she really thinks about the Nazis, who are tightening their claws around her family’s throat.

As the story progresses and Hitler boasts of one triumph after another, the once privileged half-Jews are no longer immune from Nazi atrocities. Laws are in constant flux, as are loyalties of friends and family. The situation becomes unbearable, and mouthfuls of water prove inadequate in curbing Gabi’s rage from spilling out, so she gets into the habit of stuffing a balled handkerchief in her mouth or swallowing scalding coffee. 

Yet, despite all the inflicted horrors, not only by the Nazis but also by Gabi’s self-serving husband and his theatrical outbursts, Gabi manages to retain her humanity. She is naïve, optimistic and hopeful to the extent of declaring that “they do things by the book in Germany, so her name is not on the list yet, no one’s going to touch her,” and, as such, there is no danger in her accompanying the Jewish Frau Professor Goldberg to the train station, which is, of course, destined for the camps. This, when it is dangerous to be seen with a Jew and constant disappearances remain unexplained, adding terror to her son’s fertile mind, as does the “imploring voice” of Great-Aunt Hegwig before her disappearance, “Remember us!” And always that most terrifying of all childhood fears: What if mother disappears like the rest?  A logical fear that adds tension to an already tense situation.

The war ends, cartons labeled CARE arrive at the Brinkmann home from America, once full-fledged Nazis suddenly deny any affiliation with the party, friends turned enemies spin like Chanukah dreidels and become supposed friends again. They smile, bow to the Brinkmann family, have the audacity to look them in the eye and declare, “How pleased they are that everything turned all right.” The truth, as we all know it, is that nothing is the same and, “what was there is gone and cannot be replaced.”  

Toward the end of this gripping and intelligent novel, I found myself slowing the pace of my reading, savoring the artistry of New’s narrative and meditating on the internal journey of the characters rendered on the page with such admirable insight. This is a novel well worth reading, not only because of the fresh, poignant manner through which it brings to life the struggles of a family during the reign of the Third Reich, or because it reminds us that no matter how long ago Hitler’s atrocities might have occurred, if they fail to illicit horror and disbelief, then we have ceased to be human. “The Kaminsky Cure” is also admirable for its attempt to answer the often-asked question of why millions of Jews followed orders without resisting, even when they knew the trains they boarded were speeding toward crematoriums. 

The answer, according to New, at least for the half-Jews, is that they believed that any resistance on their part would endanger the lives of the rest of their loved ones, whose names were not yet on the Gestapo’s list. 

DORA LEVY MOSSANEN is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Her latest book is “Scent of Butterflies.”

‘Half-Jews’ fight for acceptance

The Jewish world has a problem with the way Renee Kaplan defines herself: half-Jewish. Kaplan, a television producer in her mid-30s, is the daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who was raised Jewish.

“I’ve had endlessly to defend my half-Jewishness: resist rabbis who wanted to convert me, resent Jewish men who didn’t want to date me,” she writes in “Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes” (Soft Skull Press, 2006).

Kaplan says she rejects anyone who deems her dual identity inauthentic.

She is among the increasing number of adult children of intermarriage who consider themselves half-Jewish. While the Jewish religious denominations have varying views of what makes someone Jewish (the Conservative and Orthodox streams count as Jews only those with Jewish mothers, whereas the Reform and Reconstructionist movements sanction Jewish lineage from either side), the denominations are united in their opposition to the notion of one being half-Jewish.

You either are or you aren’t Jewish, they hold.

Yet the “half” term is gaining currency, particularly among those with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. The phenomenon is encouraged by Web sites, books and groups that celebrate or support these self-proclaimed half-Jews, from www.halfjew.com launched to establish “an identity for HalfJews,” to the short-lived student group at Brown University called “The Half-Jew Crew.”

Many children of intermarriage say they simply cannot turn their backs on the non-Jewish half of their identity. Their rabbis may say they are Jewish, but in their hearts they are also whatever grandma and grandpa are.

This openness to multiple identities is particularly true among college students, according to Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, who interviewed hundreds of students for “The Half-Jewish Book” published in 2000.

Klein says those who call themselves half-Jewish “feel they are a combination, they are an amalgam, they are bicultural.”

A 2005 survey by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life found that 48 percent of college students who consider themselves Jewish come from intermarried homes. It’s from this population that a new subculture is emerging of “people who draw from both sides of their heritage and synthesize their cultural halves into a remarkable new identity,” the authors write.

It’s something to celebrate, not hide, they argue.

Klein says his 27-year-old daughter considers herself half-Jewish, though he and Vuijst raised her as a Jew. She dedicated her bat mitzvah speech to her Dutch grandparents, who were honored as “Righteous Gentiles” for saving Jews during the Holocaust.

But her divided identity also causes her pain. In Israel on a visit, “everyone said she wasn’t Jewish,” Klein relates. At college she was kicked out of the kosher food line.

Some who use the term are conflicted.

Georgiana Cohen, a 27-year-old Web content specialist in Somerville, Mass., was raised by a non-Jewish mother but spent five years at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Fla. That experience, she says, “legitimized a last name I carried around like a fake ID.”

The split between life at home and at school was stark, she recalls.

“My childhood was all Christmas trees and Easter candy,” Cohen says. “Meanwhile, back in Boca, I sang folk songs like ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ led weekly minyan services with my best friend and captured Hebrew spelling bee trophies.”

She refers to herself now, somewhat flippantly, as “half-Jewish and half ‘fill-in-the-blank.’ “

Some self-proclaimed half-Jews feel anger, as they struggle for a sense of belonging in Jewish denominations that reject their dual identity.

In 2006, outreach activist Robin Margolis launched the Half-Jewish Network, an online community where those with some family connection to Judaism can express themselves openly whether they identify as Jewish, half-Jewish, Christian or nothing.

“A lot of these people have been greeted by organizations where the first demand is ‘make a choice,’ and if they don’t, they’re not welcome,” says Margolis, who attends a Jewish Renewal congregation.

The Reform movement, which accepts Jewish patrilineal descent, does not allow children in its religious schools to receive education in a second religion.

Some half-Jewish activists believe demography will prove a stronger force than tradition.

Nearly half of American Jews are intermarrying, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. As more of these interfaith families assert their place in the Jewish community, they likely will gain a more influential role in determining how the community views their distinct identity.

“We’ll be the majority of Jews in this country by 2030,” Margolis says. “Then the playing field changes. If we’re the majority, we’ll decide who’s a Jew.”