June 21st, 2016
A determined archivist struggles to find truth.
In the “what if” genre of historical fiction, Zelitch (Waveland, 2015, etc.) imagines a postwar Jewish state not in Israel but in Saxony, east of Berlin, on the border of Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Created in 1948, Judenstaat is celebrating its 40th anniversary by making a documentary film to shore up national pride. In charge of research is librarian Judit Klemmer, a young woman frustrated by lies and evasions as she tries to “make sense of things that everybody knew, and no one would acknowledge….For forty years,” she thinks, “our country has been buried alive.” Intended as a “national project of reparation and even retribution for the Holocaust,” Judenstaat was supported by “Righteous Gentile” Germans. But it has existed uneasily among many who would prefer to see it fail: anti-Semitic Saxons, who “denied any Jewish claim to the land”; cynical Cosmopolitans, loyal only to themselves; angry fundamentalist Jews known as black-hats; and fascists from Germany and Russia. Judenstaat was so vulnerable that it began surrounded by a wall, which now is being taken down. Judit’s mother is not alone in feeling fearful: “We have so many enemies,” she tells Judit, “and isn’t that all the more reason to secure our borders?” But Judit realizes that the state’s enemies cannot easily be identified. Her own husband, a Saxon orchestra conductor, was slain, and Judit does not know who killed him, nor if he really is dead. She’s haunted by a ghost who leaves her an unsettling message: “They lied about the murder.” Whose murder? she wonders. So many have died; so many disappeared; so many lies have been presented as truth. Enmeshed in the past, Judit grapples with questions of justice, revenge, and trust.
A philosophically resonant tale about the shaping, and force, of collective memory.