By Harriet P. Gross
Last week I talked movies, and whether or not certain big-screen portrayals are good for the Jews. I questioned the ending of “A Serious Man,” a fast-approaching, amorphous something caused by nature — or by God — emerging from the sky. Definitely not good for the Jews.
By contrast, the incredibly impossible ending of another current film, “Inglourious Basterds,” may be devoutly desired — not only because it’s a huge act of imagined revenge against top Nazis by Jews of their time, but because, had events actually happened this way, there might have been a much quicker end to Hitler’s war against us.
Some other “what ifs,” also with strange premises and stranger endings, came our way not too long ago. Two of them are best-selling books by highly respected, prize-winning Jewish authors. In “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” Michael Chabon posits a major Jewish settlement — not in Israel, not even in Russia (as was actually tried at one time), not in Africa (where land was once seriously offered, but rejected), but in Alaska. Of all places! And in “The Plot Against America,” Philip Roth challenges us to consider what life might have been like for our country’s Jews if Charles Lindbergh had been elected president of the United States.
Of the two, Roth’s tale has the edge on sound historical ground. There was a time when Lindbergh, the great aviator who was also a devoted supporter of Hitler and an avowed Jew-hater, might indeed have come to be nominated for that office. Roth plays off realities: much of pre-Pearl Harbor America was in isolationist mode, dead-set against entering a war seen as belonging to people across a vast ocean, without the kind of connection to the United States worth taking up arms for. And certainly dead-set against saving Jews. American attitudes changed only when the attack came unexpectedly from that ocean in the other direction.
Chabon toys with something most of us have feared, but hesitated to talk about. (Maybe we can cast this in the present tense without offending too many people? We fear, and hesitate to talk about, the possibility that Israel will someday cease to exist.) But not acknowledging something doesn’t mean it will go away; remember that head-in-the-ground ostrich. Chabon goes head-on, destroying the baby state not long after its birth, leaving a band of Jewish refugees to carry out some secret contingency plans made in the deep-freeze that is Sitka.
Two fantastic (as in “fanciful”) stories with genesis in real events, or at least real possibilities. So let’s try for a third. How about three men who run away from danger by hiding in a dense wood, and somehow get the word out that others in the same danger are welcome to join them in their tree-bound existence? But — wait! This tale is true! It happened in real time! Those three men were the Bielski brothers, and one of those who accepted their invitation recently came to speak at a local congregation, whose copious sanctuary was brimming with people eager to hear her.
Yes, her. A woman. Leah Bedzowski Yonson, now Americanized as Johnson. After everyone saw the HBO documentary “Jerusalem in the Woods,” which made it quite clear that some unbelievable things are indeed to be believed, she spoke — or rather, read a prepared speech — to the group. She’s no longer young, you know; her heavily accented voice is not strong, not even with a mike. But the fact that she and her husband married under a chuppah in that forest in 1943 was — and is — a grabber.
Leah’s son, Dr. Murray Johnson, was even more eloquent, telling the group that the Bielski partisans had the most powerful of all motivators — survival — and found more meaning in rescuing other Jews than in killing those who were out to kill them and the ones they rescued. Imagine his children’s b’nai mitzvah celebrations, attended by two living Bielski widows, others of that hardy band with numbered arms, and their very own grandma, whose son lovingly calls her “the ultimate partisan.”
Back now to Quentin Tarantino — not Jewish. He chooses to send his band of Basterds out for revenge, saving indirectly rather than as the Bielskis did it. Some of those men died in their fictional efforts, as did some of the partisans in their real ones. But enough of the latter lived to add at least 20,000 to today’s Jewish population.
“Life goes on,” Leah said. “We must live.” And that’s the message that’s definitely good for the Jews.
By Harriet P. Gross