Jonathan Kaufman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, first encountered the remnants of Jewish life in Eastern Europe when the Iron Curtain collapsed under its own weight and the Holocaust-blasted landscape was revealed to Western eyes.
What he saw--a once-glorious synagogue in Budapest now empty and decrepit, for example, and a clock tower with Hebrew characters on its face--prompted him to wonder what had happened to the Jewish survivors in Germany and Eastern Europe after the gas chambers and crematories shut down. “A Hole in the Heart of the World” is Kaufman’s sometimes sentimental, often stirring quest to find out.
“Much has been written about what the Holocaust did to Jews. But little has been said about what it did to Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland,” Kaufman sums up. “Destroying the Jews had not just wounded this part of the world. It had ripped out its heart.”
Five families living in Germany and Eastern Europe, four Jewish and one Catholic, are profiled in Kaufman’s book. Through their eyes, we experience the horrors of the Holocaust, the long exile of the Cold War, the upheavals that heralded the end of communism--and the hard realities of Jewish life in a place haunted by 6 million ghosts.
For example, we meet Klaus and Gregor Gysi, father and son--Klaus is a veteran Communist who rose to high office in East Germany, and Gregor is one of the thousands of young men and women who insisted on listening to the decadent rock music that his own father had banned as minister of culture.
Then there is Estrongo Nechama, a concentration camp survivor who went from loading corpses into the crematories at Auschwitz to offering up prayers as the cantor of a tiny congregation in West Berlin--and then witnessed the vicious anti-Semitism that seemed to flare up precisely when the Berlin Wall came down.
Tamas Raj is a rabbi who reinvented himself as a political dissident in Hungary, teaching Hebrew classes in his own home after the regime banned him from the pulpit. Emboldened by the decline of the Soviet system, the underground movement invited him to recite the Jewish mourner’s prayer at a memorial service for one of the fallen heroes of the 1956 uprising: “Now Rabbi Raj stood before a crowd of 100,000,” writes Kaufman, “saying kaddish for communism itself.”
Sylvia Wittmann is a lively young woman who combines a certain entrepreneurial genius with a restless interest in her own Jewishness--she leads tours of Jewish sites in Czechoslovakia, hosts a small congregation in the basement of her home and is pondering whether to become a rabbi.
And, perhaps most intriguing of all, is Barbara Asendrych, a Polish Catholic woman who is tormented by the mysteries of her own family history even as she wonders why the Jewish people are still so concerned with wartime atrocities in Poland: “The Jews have given up on the Germans,” she muses. “But they still hate the Poles.”
Kaufman makes good use of his rather large cast of characters to act out the tragic history of Europe in the 20th century, from the first stirrings of fascism to the “Velvet Revolution.”
But the book is really a song rather than a dirge.
“Forty-five years of hidden Jewish life began revealing itself,” Kaufman writes of his own experience in Eastern Europe, “teeming with vitality and contradictions.”
The message of “A Hole in the Heart of the World” is spoken by Sylvia Wittmann as she frets over the fact that American Jews who visit Prague regard the entire city as a collection of antiquities and curiosities--they want to see the Jewish museum where ritual objects gathered up by the Nazis have been preserved or the graveyard where Kafka is buried.
“But this is not a museum,” insists Sylvia, who embodies the vision and the vigor that Kaufman found among the Jewish remnant. “I am not a stone in the cemetery.”