Everything is Illluminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Zack Abrams

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Art: Livi Prendergast https://liviprendergast.wordpress.com/ 

When Everything is Illuminated came out in 2002, Jonathan Safran Foer was praised by literary reviewers for writing an autobiographical novel that, among other things, “blends laughter and tears” (Abramowitz 130). The novel’s story is rather straightforward: the protagonist, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, goes on a quest to find the woman who helped to save his grandfather during the Holocaust. It was Foer’s blend of magical realism and his use of language that got the public talking about his book. Francine Prose claimed (and Scott Veale reiterated) that “not since Anthony Burgess’s novel, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, has the English language been mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio.” (Veale 28).

Foer’s novel sticks out in my mind for a much more personal reason. This novel gave me a character I could empathize with, one who attempts to answer questions about his family left in the wake of the Holocaust. I answered questions about my own history, my own Jewishness, through Foer’s quest. When Foer traces his grandfather’s origins back to the shtetl of Trachimbrod, a fictionalized version of Trochenbrod in Ukraine, it felt as if I had discovered the name of my great grandfathers’ shtetl. When he sees and feels what shtetl life was like for his ancestors, I imagined mine there too, living there alongside his family. I felt as if I was reading my own fictionalized family history; I was vicariously answering questions whose answers are otherwise unattainable. You see, the shtetls where my great-grandfathers came from were bombed and burned to the ground by the Nazis during World War Two. We have no further knowledge about their lives in Europe beyond that and our pre-anglicized names.

I first read Foer’s novel in my second year of university, at UNC-Chapel Hill, as part of my English Literature degree. It was the first novel written by a Jew that I had ever discussed in a classroom setting. I had had twelve years’ worth of school focused on Christian authors and Christian mythology. One day of Hebrew School and religious education per week at the Temple could not compete with that. I became disillusioned because I never saw myself in the works I studied during my formative education. And all that was only compounded by the equally unavoidable stream of commercial Christian holidays. In whole of my pre-collegiate academic career, I never saw an accurate portrayal of someone like me in literature. Sure, there were Jewish Characters. There were stingy, greedy Jews playing small parts in Shakespeare and Edith Wharton, and a smattering of “Christ-Killers” in Middle English works. But where were the post-Holocaust Jews trying to find their way after the Holocaust? Where were the grand and great grandchildren of the survivors, struggling to connect with their heritage in a society that canonizes the victims of the Holocaust without acknowledging its own complicity in perpetuating Antisemitism still today?

I approached the novel in an academic setting, and I think it is where it fits the most. Our class discussions centered around the novel’s portrayal of the Holocaust, the Pogroms, Jewish life, love; how can a writer embark on fictionalizing the horrors of the Holocaust, and making it humorous/entertaining? Foer’s novel should not be taught only for its plot or for the points I have mentioned above. The book is about a privileged white Jewish man’s attempt to deal with a post-holocaust world – there are better examples of this. It should be present in curricula because the book is rife with failures of representation. Foer does not accurately portray the horrors faced by non-Jewish populations in Nazi-controlled Ukraine. His novel only acknowledges Jewish loss at the hands of the Nazis. Jews were not the only group who faced disenfranchisement and isolation in ghettos. They were not the only ones rounded up and sent to the labor or death camps. It is incumbent on Jews and Gentiles alike to dispel this false conception.

Here is a brief and blunt history of Trochenbrod under the Nazis: the Nazis turned the shtetl of Trochenbrod into a ghetto, shipping in Jews from other nearby communities and forcing them to settle there. According to Virtual Shtetl, in August and September 1942 over 5000 Jews were killed by the SS, and their houses and belongings burnt (Stzern 2010). Over the course of World War II, nearly 25% of Europe’s Roma population was killed. But this violence does not appear in Foer’s book. Nor does Foer include the violence and internment faced by homosexual men or the differently abled in Nazi controlled areas. These groups were not targeted in the same way as the other groups Nazis persecuted. Nazis targeted Jews, Romani, Sinti, and differently abled people “because they existed” (Heye 14), and homosexual men because they feared homosexuality was contagious (Thomas 2001). Of these groups, only homosexual men tended to avoid execution. Instead, these men were castrated, murdered in camps, or worked to death (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum 2014). Our Jewish history intersects with the history of many other marginalized groups and Foer fails to acknowledge this. However, we can use this failure to kickstart a more meaningful and comprehensive conversation around oppressed groups.

Representation in Literature classes is extremely important. This novel provides a means to represent Jews while also providing lecturers and classes with an even more salient discussion: the need to represent and acknowledge other marginalized communities targeted by Nazis during the Holocaust. These people are frequently passed over and ignored. It is important for both Jews and those teaching Jewish literature in academia to make a point of calling attention to those murders, in addition to the slaughter of European Jews.

Works Cited:

Abramowitz, Molly. “Review of Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer”.  Library Journal, vol. 127, no. 2, 2002, pg. 130. EBSCOhost. goo.gl/O3q3u4. Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.

“Genocide of European Roma (Gypsies), 1939–1945.” United States Holocaust Memorial

Museum. www.ushmm.org/wlc//en/article.php?ModuleId=10005219. Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.

“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

www.ushmm.org/learn/students/learning-materials-and-resources/homosexuals-victims- of-the-nazi-era/persecution-of-homosexuals. Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.

“RADOC.” RADOC. www.radoc.net/. Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.

Sztern, Anna. “Zofiówka (Trachimbrod).” History – Jewish community before 1989 – Zofiówka

(Trachimbrod), 2010. Virtual Shtetl. www.sztetl.org.pl/en/cms/story/. Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.

Thomas, Kevin. “Poignant Documentary Recalls Nazis’ Gay Victims”. Review of Paragraph 175, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Los Angeles Times, 23 February 2001. articles.latimes.com/2001/feb/23/entertainment/ca-28995/2. Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.

Uwe-Karsten Heye, Joachim Sartorius and Ulrich Bopp, eds. Learning from History: The Nazi

Era and the Holocaust in German Education.  Press and Information Office of the Federal Government, 2000, p. 14.
Veale, S. “New & Noteworthy Paperbacks”. New York Times Book Review, 27 Apr. 2003, pg. 28. ProQuest. goo.gl/7rZTN8. Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.

About the author:

Zack Abrams, a native of North Carolina, earned his BA in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013.

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