Anya, by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer.
Macmillan. 489 pp. $8.95.
It would be fair to say that until recently the audience for works about the Nazi murder of the Jews has itself been almost exclusively Jewish. The major exceptions have been occasional works of fiction, among them in particular André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just.
The reasons for the appeal of such works to non-Jews are many, but one that has not been commented on is the paradoxical way in which they stress universal aspects of suffering unmediated by Jewish symbols and Jewish notions of history. The Last of the Just, although it makes some use of the Jewish legend of thirty-six righteous men, is permeated by a doctrine of purification-through-suffering whose affinities are closer to Christianity than to Judaism. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s Anya, another “Holocaust novel” that has recently been published to very favorable reviews, relates the fortunes of a highly assimilated Polish Jewish family during the 30’s and 40’s; the female members of this family experience the war as mothers and daughters who, like their fictional predecessors, have about them no Jewish encumbrances which might act as a bar to universal empathy.
Ironically, Mrs. Schaeffer’s universalist perspective is the source of two of her novel’s greatest strengths. It allows her, first of all, to illuminate a neglected and troubling aspect of the Holocaust: the fact that vast numbers of Jews, many more than we like to think in our idealizations of the six million, faced the extermination camps with little idea of why they were there and even less of the role they were being forced to play in a millennial Jewish drama. Secondly, and related, Anya successfully avoids the tendency to allegorization which is a kind of hallmark of novels of the Holocaust, especially those by survivors.
Anya is a fictional treatment of a single female consciousness under conditions of destruction. (Falling, Mrs. Schaeffer’s first novel, adumbrates this same theme on an individual level; its heroine, a failed suicide, reconstructs her life out of the shambles of mental collapse.) Anya Savikin, who tells the story in her own voice, is the second child of a large, well-to-do family of Russian Jews living in Poland between the wars. Her father, a businessman, a vegetarian, an atheist, suffuses the home with a gentle studiousness and a love for Russian literature. Anya’s mother surrounds her children with quantities of solicitude and wisdom, informing her love with an indestructibility which becomes the theme of the novel. Like one of Tolstoy’s happy families, the Savikins are predictable yet charming in their happiness. Storytelling, jam-making, piano lessons, country houses, favorite hiding places, kind Gentile servants, elaborate holiday meals, long illnesses, and adolescent flirtations—the Savikins use their money to create a domestic felicity whose loss becomes the chief presence in Anya’s life. Meanwhile, Anya attends the gymnasium in Vilna and becomes one of the first women and one of the first Jews to go to the university’s medical school. With her marriage to Stajoe, a young Jewish engineer, Anya moves to the more cosmopolitan city of Warsaw, living a life of cafes and promenades until the birth of her daughter, Ninka.
The first bombings of Warsaw by the Nazis begin a process of devastation which strips Anya of father, husband, sisters, and, finally, mother. Sensing that the ghetto will be liquidated, she leaves Ninka with a Christian family and later recovers her, deeply scarred by the war, after her own escape from the Kaiserwald concentration camp. With her daughter clutched to her side, Anya wanders and hides among the ruins of Poland and Lithuania as these are first occupied by the Germans, then liberated by the Allies, then occupied by the Russians. Driven by the passion for survival, Anya finally cajoles her way to America, remarries, and settles in New York where her life is oppressed by unrelenting memories of her lost family and by Ninka’s inability to return her mother’s love.
The particularity of loss is made palpable in the bonds between mothers and daughters: Anya and her mother, and then Anya and Ninka. At the novel’s central moment, when her mother is consigned to death, Anya changes from a daughter to a mother in her own right, fiercely committed to the survival of her child. But if Anya has looked to her mother with adoration and appeal, Ninka’s attitude toward Anya—resentment of love’s suffocating demands—represents the other side of the dynamic. In the hands of a less inventive writer this theme would be insufferably cloying, but Mrs. Schaeffer manages to pull it off by avoiding sentimentality and by establishing her own mode of verbal imagination. The powerful experiences of mothering and being mothered give rise to a world of discourse which, while overshadowed by the Holocaust Kingdom, manages to create an effective pocket of resistance.
Despite the incursions of the outside world, the spaces which come to life in this novel are essentially domestic. The Savikins’s apartment in Vilna is so intensely imagined that each piece of furniture gives off endless recollections of family life. As the horror grows, our eye is drawn not to the ghetto streets or to the rubble of the war’s last days, but rather indoors, into a succession of makeshift shelters where mothers try to provide for their children. Within these domestic interiors we hear the constant appeal of daughters to their mothers for encouragement, assurance, and explanations. Reduced at times to mere chatter—the novel is largely dialogue—the very persistence of speech signifies a desperate opposition to the perfidy of the unspeakable. As part of this campaign, metaphors are marvelously mixed with abandon, with a child’s obliviousness to the boundaries between objects and people. Anya, reunited in the ghetto with her childhood friend Rachel, remarks:
Her figure was gone entirely. On top she was flat as a board and thin, but from beneath her tiny waist she looked like an onion; then came two thin legs. We fell on each other like two cut trees.
Anya’s faults are repetition and formlessness, defects that correspond to the other, excessive side of a mother’s love, the one Ninka writhes against. Every stage in Anya’s trek through Eastern Europe is lavished with the same attention, every new shelter with the same precocity of description. There is, moreover, something suffocating and constricted in the relentless focus on the family, made even more so by the way in which male characters are overshadowed and effaced by the women, and relations between men and women go virtually unrepresented.
In the end, what remains impressive about this evocation of the years before and during the war is that it is entirely an act of the imagination. Mrs. Schaeffer, American-born, was not yet alive when most of the events she describes took place. Her achievement in getting inside Anya’s world is a sizable one, yet it must also be said that there is something aloof and slightly self-satisfied about the feat. As a non-survivor Mrs. Schaeffer has the emotional distance necessary to conjuring up the intimate, domestic side of the Holocaust, yet she does so at the expense of thorough probing into the complexity of human responses to radical evil. Anya and her family are indestructible, they refuse to give ground; one wonders however, whether this quality of stubbornness, even in Mrs. Schaeffer’s affecting rendering of it, is really an eloquent response to evil or merely an insensitivity to the enormity of its demonic power. Perhaps just here, in the inability or unwillingness to imagine the gigantic external scale of the Nazi murder of the Jews, is the point at which the universalist perspective inevitably exacts its costs.