“You cannot take your country with the soles of your shoes. But we always keep something in the heel. “ Talion, Achilles heel? What is hiding in that enigmatic sentence – perhaps a Yiddish saying – that the old American Joe Bernstein throws at his thirty-something stepdaughter. These two adore each other. A flow of affection and understanding runs between them. And yet what did Suzy and the “Rabbi of vintage products” which spreads its concept of “Story clothes” on several continents?
The young Romanian goy married Ben, one of the three Bernstein sons, a little for love – she was ecstatic at his alluring little nose like a cute potato ready to be devoured – but especially for the opportunity he offered her to escape a blocked future. We are then at the beginning of the 90s. As for the mother-in-law, on the other hand, it is a relational failure. Suzy had it all during her childhood in Ceausescu Romania, and sees Dora as the prototype of the spoiled, rich old woman. No tender feelings here, but ready-made US phrases and a typical American egocentricity, the exiled daughter-in-law thinks she understands.
In an atmosphere à la Woody Allen, this Washingtonian story then continues its march, infusing a humorous lightness in the novel by Catalin Mihuleac, Romanian writer born in 1960 and former geologist. Yet the overall tone of the book is terribly dark. Another story runs parallel to the success story Bernstein. Sixty years earlier, in Romania, the Oxenbergs suffered the anti-Semitism of a regime subservient to the Nazis, which culminated with the pogrom of June 1941 in the city of Iasi. This massacre – it caused nearly 15,000 victims, killed in the streets, at execution sites, in or at the exit of death trains – is a taboo in contemporary history in Romania. For a long time the Communist regime disguised the facts, claiming that the killings had been committed by the Germans. Even today talking about the Iasi pogrom can be difficult.
Catalin Mihuleac features a family from the city’s Jewish bourgeoisie. Jacques, the father, is a renowned obstetrician, specialist in Caesarean sections, the nationalists call him “The vagina doctor” and call for a return to traditional home births. The mother, Roza, is an elegant, emancipated and literate woman, she is preparing the German translation of an anthology of Romanian short stories. Their son Lev is a schoolboy with a sense of the playground business, and their daughter Golda a delicate child author of stories, one of which told to a German soldier will save her from the pogrom.
Very well documented, the novel shows how discrimination against Jews began in the 1920s. For the medical student Jacques Oxenberg, it started with absurd regulations. Example: Jewish rifles can only dissect Jewish corpses “Otherwise they will be fired”. Beatings, inflammatory statements … “Hatred smolders, hatred swells”. And shifting the point of view to the bellicose “on” side of fascist students, announcing the anonymous one of the greedy pogrom mob, Mihuleac writes: “We dream of the moment when hatred can cry out: ‘Hooray!’. ” Full of tumult, the book sees growing fear on the Jewish side until the terrible scenes of killing in the middle of the street on June 29, 1941. The realism is chilling: to the jubilation of the Romanian populace, who tears their clothes from the dying, the panic of the victims is opposed, sliding on the paving stones glistening with blood, begging in vain, dying at the hands of those who were perhaps their neighbors.
The history of the Bernsteins and that of the Oxenbergs will come together in a moving way at the end of the book, but already find in Suzy a bridge. The young woman who follows a teaching at the synagogue discovers a historical passion for this period. Furious that her husband indulges in a life dedicated to business and oblivious to the past, she organizes a horrible conjugal ambush. This is one of the disturbing moments in this book in an unstable balance between burlesque and gravity, but with undeniable force.
The Oxenbergs and the Bernsteins
Translated from Romanian by Marily Le Nir Editions Noir sur Blanc,
304 pp., € 22 (ebook: € 14.99).