By Tova Reich
HarperCollins. 326 pp. $25
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It takes considerable matzoh balls to publish a novel, a Swiftian satire at that, entitled
Tova Reich is fearless, in the best possible way, and her take on the culture of victimization spares no captives in the gulag of self-anointed martyrdom. In our thin-skinned culture, where anyone can be offended by a pinprick of a slight, My Holocaust wickedly cuts to the bone in a way that makes Christopher Buckley's comic romps, which I admire, seem like teething exercises.
The book begins at Auschwitz, where Maurice Messer, a coward about everything but commerce, has inflated his wartime activities. This isn't hard, as he lies about everything. As chairman of Holocaust Connections Inc. - sounds like a dating service of death - he's the Max Bialystock or Groucho Marx of Shoah fund-raising. He has his own Margaret Dumont to philanthropically fillet, glamorosa Gloria Bacon Lieb, as well as her hapless cluck of a stepdaughter, Bunny Bacon.
Maurice's son and partner Norman, more self-aware but - as these things tend to happen - twice as neurotic, has his own problems, a thorn in his side. His daughter Nechama, Hebrew for "comfort," has offered him no solace at all as she's been reborn as Sister Consolatia of the Cross. Worse, she's set up shop at the convent several hundred meters from Auschwitz, as much of an in-your-face-Daddy gesture as a Carmelite can muster.
In Reich's lunatic world, everyone exploits tragedy, and, with so much to go around, it's there for the taking. When Maurice spies a trio of New Age interlopers at the concentration camp, holy ground for closing fund-raising appeals, he exclaims: "They're trespassing on mine Holocaust!"
"Um, Maurice?" Bunny Bacon now stepped forward purposefully to make a point. "Don't you think there's enough Holocaust to go around for everyone? I mean, I really really like this diversity."
And with that, the book is off to the races, a huge comic pity party shaming the Holocaust industry, where everyone's misery is worse than yours.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum, under Bunny's bizarre stewardship (Maurice promises anything for money), becomes a battleground for all victims - African Americans, Native Americans, Tibetans, the "Roma" ("formerly known as gypsies"), Freemasons, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, the disabled and, well, everyone, all cataloguing man's inhumanity to other men (and certainly women) who appear "foreign" that has forever clouded history and probably always will.
Since World War II, many American Jews have viewed the Holocaust as the defining filter of history, even when they weren't directly affected, in much the way that some African Americans view slavery. The creation of the state of Israel also matters, as does the civil rights movement and quantifiable progress in decreasing discrimination. It's a matter of perspective, and how much of the past you want to drag into the current equation.
Reich creates free-wailing radicals of all stripes, each one more caught up in his histrionics. Abu Shahid, Maurice's Arab match, complains about "my son the doctor," adding "ah well, you'll excuse a poor father's forgivable embellishments. . . . Actually, he's merely an emergency medical technician."
"I sent him to the Harvard of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, he was on track to become the world's greatest jihad martyr for Allah, a hero of Islam. But then the rabbis got hold of him when he was on holiday in Ukraine looking for a preview of paradise - the rabbis of Chabad. He mixed them up with mullahs of Hamas, my poor Shahid. Chabad, Hamas - what's the difference? A bunch of beards on the prowl for lost souls, promising deliverance, salvation, the Messiah - the boy was never too discriminating. And this is my reward - a Jewish doctor without even a shingle."
Naturally, Maurice thinks he might be an ideal match for his granddaughter, the Jewish nun.
Reich's gift for satire is impeccable, her ear for absurdity pitch perfect. Given that there's not a sympathetic character in this wild bunch of whiners, and that the humor is consistently broad, My Holocaust might have been shorter, brevity being the essence of lacerating satire.
We live in a world of television-couch confessions, where every saga is stained by slights and injustices. Few of us get out unscathed. No one has cornered the market on victimization, though plenty of people have tried. Certainly, the publishing industry has profited with a memoir boom mired in woe.
Reich is fearless in taking on such an essential subject with such insight and unerring humor. I take no offense in being offended, if the truths revealed enlighten. Sometimes it's good to be slapped silly by words.