The Heart and Marrow of a Century

From the vantage point of our already traumatic new millennium, "Old Men at Midnight," celebrated author Chaim Potok’s latest collection of three novellas, requires us to look back in anguish at a wrenching picture of the 20th century.

"This America of yours is not a country that values history," says the character Mr. Zapiski, a World War I soldier who has become a melancholy teacher of Torah trope in New York. "Where I was raised, history was the heart and marrow of a person." That is why, as she herself moves from teenager to older woman in this collection, Ilana Davita Dinn, who first appeared in Potok’s 1985 novel "Davita’s Harp," persists in eliciting from each of the main characters the personal story, however wrenching, of their lives.

"Who needs stories of yet another Jew?" one of the characters asks her. "I need them," she responds. "Without stories there is nothing. Stories are the world’s memory. The past is erased without stories." Or, in Potok’s words in a recent interview, "the only way of connecting history is by connecting stories."

In "Old Men at Midnight," the stories that Potok, through Dinn, connects are all those pierced by war, suffering, cruelty and loss, and the only redemption to be found emerges through the process of relating the story itself. "Each generation and its own conflagration," one of the main characters thinks. "Old Men at Midnight" dramatizes those conflagrations in harrowing detail, as it moves from the turn of the century to its end.

In the first novella, "The Ark Builder," a young boy just beginning to learn English finally pours out his story to Dinn, when she is herself just 17. The sole survivor of his Polish town of 4,000, Noah Stremin arrives in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1947, after enduring three years in a slave labor camp and two in a DP camp. "God saved him for a reason," his traditionally religious aunt insists. With Dinn’s help, Stremin finally finds the words to describe how he witnessed the destruction of the passionately painted ark on which he, his twin brother, and eventually the whole community had labored even as they heard the thud of German troops in the distance; the burning of the synagogue by the Nazis; the death of his beloved rebbe in the flames, and the murder or deportation to Auschwitz of everyone else in the town.

In the second novella, "The War Doctor," 58-year-old Soviet defector Leon Shertov tells his own devastating story, with the prodding of Dinn, now a graduate student. In the process, he unfolds the horrors of life in Russia from the beginning of the 20th century. In harrowing detail, Shertov describes his transformation from a religiously observant Jew to a wounded soldier in the putrid trenches of World War I; the bloody and senseless massacres during the Russian Revolution, and cruelest of all, his many years as a brutal KGB interrogator trained "in methods of inducing helplessness, bewilderment, how to lay terror on terror." Numbed by his own capacity for cruelty, the igniting of one memory alone saves him: he discovers among the Jewish physicians imprisoned and tortured in Stalin’s dungeons, the surgeon who had devotedly healed his hand in World War I, and who had secretly asked Shertov, all those years before, to teach him the Hebrew prayers. Helpless to save the doctor now, Shertov at least is roused enough to feel and finally defects.

In the final novella, "The Trope Teacher," which brings us to the 1990s, Dinn has become the elusive older writer I.D. Chandal living next door to Benjamin Walter, a professor renowned for his comprehensive understanding of war, but finding himself stymied when he tries to write his own memoirs. Begin with "the zero point of memory," she tells him, "the involuntary memory that comes out like a bolt out of the blue." Thus Walter, who sought to escape his own Jewish history earlier in his life, comes face-to-face with the images he had sought to bury. He keeps feeling the presence of his childhood trope teacher, Polish immigrant Mr. Zapiski, who had left New York to return to Europe at the brink of World War II to reclaim his own history.

"He went back to find the inside of himself as a Jew, which he couldn’t find in America," Potok explained in an interview, "not thinking that he would be destroyed. He felt the inside of himself was still there, and he was willing to gamble on it. Nobody at that point thought that the Holocaust would be so established that it would be destructive of a Jew." But in the story, Walter slowly faces what he witnessed as an American soldier during the war: the skeletal survivors of a concentration camp. "I walked around the camp," he finally admits. "Everywhere I went I saw Mr. Zapiski, dead and dead and dead in the vile exhausted earth."

The world of the last century was defined by its wars, Potok went on to say in the interview. It was a "terrifying, altogether unique" century, and its "the main figures … are in the three stories." That sense of war having been at the burning heart of the century may have emerged from the author’s own story. He not only served in the Korean war, but grew up hearing about his own father’s experience in the Polish troop of the Austrian army in World War I. "It had a great deal of impact on me," he explained. "My father told it to me early on his life and it impacted him personally and affected me personally as well." Moreover, after World War II, he continued, "I ran into Holocaust survivors everywhere."

By the end of "Old Men at Midnight," the young Dinn, who has become Chandal, and who has throughout the book succeeded in eliciting the three painful personal accounts of the century, seems to become a shadowy, elusive figure. "She disappears in the end," Potok explains, because "she is all story." In that sense, perhaps the elusive Chandal is the spirit that urges us never to erase the past. She is our key to our history, to the heart and marrow of ourselves.