September 22, 2019

On Valor, Violinists and Vacations

“A Hole in the Heart of the World” (Viking, $24.95) by JonathanKaufman

The “hole” in the intriguing book title “A Hole in the Heart ofthe World” refers to the destruction of Central and Eastern EuropeanJewry under the two totalitarian scourges of this century: first, ofcourse, the immeasurably greater evil of Nazism and the Holocaust,and, secondly, communism, which brought the suppression of theremaining Jewish cultural and religious life, punctuated bycalculated “anti-Zionist” persecutions.

The time span covered by Jonathan Kaufman, a PulitzerPrize-winning reporter, is bracketed by two Nov. 9 events. The first,in 1938, was Kristallnacht, the warning shot for the comingHolocaust; the second, in 1989, was the dismantling of the BerlinWall, which heralded the end of the Soviet grip on the satellitenations.

As Berlin bureau chief for the Boston Globe in the late 1980s andearly 1990s, Kaufman traveled widely and tracked the stories andmemories of four Jews and one Catholic, and their families, duringthe momentous 51 years.

Those profiled are Gregor Gysi, scion of an old communist family,who rose to the leadership of the East German Communist Party;Estrongo Nachama, a Holocaust survivor who became the influentialcantor of West Berlin’s small Jewish community after World War II;Tamas Raj of Budapest, a rabbi turned anti-communist dissident inpostwar Hungary; Sylvia Wittman of Prague, daughter of a “Zionistagent” imprisoned by the Czech Communist regime, who sparked a Jewishrevival in her native city; and Barbara Asendrych of Warsaw, who wasraised as a Catholic and who discovered as an adult that she was bornof Jewish parents.

Kaufman writes with the fluency and dramatic flair of a top-notchfeature writer, a job he now holds with The Wall Street Journal. Ifhis narrative displays the strengths of the genre, it also lays opensome of its weaknesses.

For one, he seems to be privy to the subtlest thoughts andfeelings of even tangential characters. For another, his love of awell-turned phrase occasionally leads him into quotes that simplybeggar belief.

In describing the “hole” left in Poland by the destruction of itsJewry, for example, he writes: “It became common to hear Poleslament, ‘We are trying to rebuild our country with our bodies, but weare missing the head.'”

The title of the book is similarly catchy, but is somewhatmisleading. As the subtitle “Being Jewish in Eastern Europe” makesclear, “A Hole in the Heart of the World” refers really to a halfdozen European nations rather than the entire globe.

Nevertheless, his parallel biographical sketches serve astestaments of individual courage and dogged persistence in the faceof carnage and persecution.

Perhaps the book’s greatest service lies in Kaufman’s subtheme,which records the revival of Jewish life and identity after a decadeof slaughter and four decades of oppression and persecution.

His conclusions reinforce my own observations in Berlin, Pragueand Bucharest that it takes only a small critical mass of Jews totrigger a chain reaction of communal activities (and rivalries).

“Violin Virtuosos: From Paganini to the 21st Century”(California Classics Books, $29.95) by Henry Roth

Henry Roth, the Los Angeles-based violinist, musicologist, teacherand music critic, has distilled some 60 years of practice andobservation in the encyclo-pedic.

Pedagogic, but never pedantic, his writing serves as an easilyabsorbed introduction to the professional and personal lives of theworld’s great masters for the layman, and a complete guide to thenuances of the art for the expert.

Roth devotes 21 chapters to detailed descriptions of the mastervirtuosos, from Nicolo Paganini and Fritz Kreisler to Jascha Heifetzto Yitzhak Perlman.

All but a handful of this all-male lineup are, not surprisingly,Jewish, mostly of Russian origin or descent. But Roth points out, inconversation, that the Jewish predominance is a relatively modernphenomenon, which was preceded by “waves” of Italian, French andBelgian masters.

In two valuable closing chapters, Roth draws attention to theemergence of young and talented women violinists and performers ofAsian descent, who are now beginning to vie with the veterans onconcert stages.

“A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe” (Pelican Publishing Company,$18.95) by Ben Frank

IMG SRC=”BJewishEurope.jpg” WIDTH=216 HEIGHT=342 alt=”” ALIGN=bottom>

The revival of Jewish life in the former Soviet satellites is dulynoted in the second edition of Ben Frank’s “A Travel Guide to JewishEurope,” which has been expanded to include the Czech Republic,Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.

The 600-page volume remains a useful, if not terribly exciting,guide.

The best features are the introductory briefings on Jewishcommunity histories in each of the 18 countries profiled. Worst arethe choppy writing and pedestrian photos.