In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman. New York: Scribner, 2016, 282 pages, $25
Only rarely do books have the literary wallop to break through my protective psychic defenses.
In the Land of Armadillos is one such work, for the day after reading two of its short stories — “The Partizans” and “The Messiah” — I dreamed that I, like the characters in those stories, was a Jew living under Nazi rule. I was as frightened in my dream as were those fictional Jews in the book, maybe as scared as the poor souls for whom this was not a dream or fiction, but horrifying reality.
Ostensibly a collection of short stories — each is self-contained — In the Land of Armadillos is really historical fiction, focusing on the Jews of the Polish town of Wlodawa, with the same cast of their German masters — some stereotypical Nazi murderers, others more complex people — appearing in several of the stories. (It was not clear whether these fictional stories are based on fact, and there is no foreword to help. Only in the three-page acknowledgements at the end of the book do we learn that the stories are based on tales from the author’s mother, father and others, told “through the filter of fiction.”)
Here, much is not what it seems at first glance. As they move through the book, readers will encounter people and places seen from very different perspectives. Sometimes later in the same story, or in other related stories, earlier perceptions are altered or clarified.
For example, in “The Partizans,” Zosha and her family are awakened at night and forced to walk into the forest to a pit where Nazis and their local helpers were murdering Jews. Zosha was shot and fell into the huge hole but her friend, the partisan Zev — appearing to be half man, half wolf — suddenly appeared and seemed to rescue her.
But later in the story, readers learn that on the spot where the killing took place, when the anniversary of the massacre coincides with a full moon, “a strange, incorporeal vision can be seen flitting through the trees.
“The female wears only a thin white nightgown. Her pale hair shimmers and swims in the wind blowing down from the Russian steppes. The male has the lean upper body of a timber wolf.”
Some of the stories reveal great irony. Max Haas’ job was to assign Jews to work details. But he understands that the Nazi hierarchy has promoted him and given him a beautiful Polish villa because he has shown a “calm demeanor in the disposition of difficult duties,” he writes in his diary.
What Haas really meant was that he was a willing and adept murderer of Jews.
He was having problems with the Judenrat. The Jewish council would not provide him with a list of the names of people not able to work anymore. So, he goes to the building housing the Judenrat and shoots 15 of its officials. “I didn’t enjoy shooting them, but it was the quickest way to get their cooperation,” he writes. “The list of names I requested will be in my hands by morning.”
There also was a crew of stonecutters who refused to show up for work. Haas had them brought to a square where he whipped them and then shot them.
And yet this monster inadvertently helped immortalize some of the Jews murdered in Wlodawa.
Often suffering physical privation and psychological insecurity, Jews for centuries have awaited the coming of the messiah, whose appearance would herald a period of peace and plenty.
And there was evidence he had finally come in 1942. After all, the author writes in “The Messiah,” a whole battalion of German soldiers had been wiped out, saving the lives of many Wlodawa Jews.
But, instead of bringing 1,000 years of peace, the man claiming to be the anointed of God threatened to quit soon after his arrival.
Then, there is story of Willy Reinhart, a thief, philanderer — he sent his wife and sons away so he could live with a pretty, young Polish woman — and apple polisher extraordinaire who, despite his character flaws, tried his best to save Jews from the Nazi death machine.
The stories, which originally appeared in The Kenyon Review, Gargoyle, 2 Bridges Reviews, Danse Macabre and jewishfiction.net, are of varying lengths (the longest is 74 pages, the shortest, 14). Yet each tells a unique tale, and each contributes in its own way to the overall narrative.
The story that In the Land of Armadillos tells helps both to confirm and undermine stereotypes of perpetrators and victims playing their roles in the greatest crime in recorded human history.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.