Living On: Anne Whitehouse on Quiet Americans by Erika Dreifus

Quiet Americans, Erika Dreifus, Last Light Studio Books, 2011

The characters in Erika Dreifus’ profound first collection of stories, Quiet Americans, are first and foremost survivors, or else descended from, or married to survivors. They count themselves among the lucky few that got out alive, escaped from the vast conflagration of a people–European Jewry–and their distinguished culture—a broad, liberal, freedom-loving culture that had flourished despite a history of persecution and humiliation, but did not survive the Holocaust. They share a sense of life’s precariousness, of the accidents of destiny. They fear that in an instant they might lose all that constitutes their position and well being. They find themselves caught between a sense of hard reality and a hope for the future. They are “quiet Americans” because they don’t tend to speak out or try to call attention to themselves. They don’t want to make a fuss and are generally grateful to be left alone—“better not to give crazy people any reason to get any crazier.”

In these seven stories, Erika Dreifus presents us with the sufferings and triumphs of a group of German-Jewish-American survivors and their descendants. The style is deceptively simple, clear, understated. Intervals of silence live in the sentences, concentrating the emotional effects. Decades are lightly passed over, as Dreifus examines how history is transmitted from one generation to the next, and to the one after that.

The stories “Matrilineal Descent,” “Lebensraum,” and “Homecomings” span the lives of four generations of the Freiburg family over 85 years. From Germany under the Empire, to the Third Reich and the Freiburgs’ escape to America, ending with the assassination of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the family members experience anti-Semitism in their contacts with Germany either directly or indirectly. The stories “Floating” and “The Quiet American” feature characters who could be the Freiburgs’ descendants. Dreifus has an exquisite sensibility for the absurd, for the paradoxes and accidents of history.

In “Lebensraum,” for example, Josef Freiburg, having emigrated to the United States from Germany in1937, finds himself in 1944 newly married, with a child on the way, a soldier in the U.S. Army administering food services in a base in Iowa which is soon to receive a huge infux of German P.O.W.s whom he must oversee as kitchen workers. Josef worries that the prisoners will not obey his orders because he is Jewish; at first he tries unsuccessfully to conceal from them the fact that he speaks German , and he believes he hears the hated word, “Jude,” whispered about him behind his back. When his wife gives birth to a son, Josef’s commanding officer takes it upon himself to arrange a proper bris for the boy. To Josef and his wife Nelly’s astonishment, the German prisoners are present, because, as the American lieutenant explains, “They asked to be here. They like you.” Nelly, however, objects, and the lieutenant, ever sensitive, heeds her and removes them. For a moment, Josef almost opposes her, but changes his mind.

Dreifus possesses the ability to pinpoint acutely those moments of indecision and ambivalence in people’s lives when so much lies at stake. She takes an exquisitely fine scalpel to dissect the complex ethical dilemmas that confront us when we attempt to find guides to behavior in compromised circumstances. Her best stories feature a twist, a surprise, that makes us as readers thrillingly aware of the ironies of life. The first story, “For Services Rendered,” features a Jewish pediatrician who cares for the child of a high-ranking Nazi official. The official’s wife is devoted to her child’s doctor, and, at her insistence, the Nazi arranges for the doctor and his family to leave Germany. The doctor finds himself unable to plead for safe passage for his sister, who will perish. At the end of the war, the Nazi official is sentenced to death at Nuremberg and avoids the punishment by killing himself. Despite his wife’s opposition, the doctor writes in support of clemency for the Nazi official’s widow and receives a warm reply from her, which he is unable to read, picturing instead his sister and her child who perished while the Nazi official’s wife and her child survived.

The final story and my personal favorite, Mishpocha, is told from the point of view of a son of two survivors who met at a European DP camp in 1945. David Kaufmann’s parents did not like to discuss their pasts with their son. To his questions, they replied, “Leave it alone!” After his mother’s death, David, now middle-aged, with an almost-grown family of his own, plunges into the brave new world of Internet research to learn about his family’s past. A DNA test yields surprising results, exploding his conception of himself. At last his father reveals to David the secret of his origins.

Dreifus seems to be saying that identity is a self-constructed concept. In these days of rather rigidly enforced political correctness, this is a lesson we need to be hearing. It has been said that only from exile can one truly see the world in perspective. Wary, skeptical, resourceful, Dreifus’ characters possess the ability to look at things clearly from a distance. Her true subject is history.

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