History as It Didn’t Happen: Thrillers Consider the What-Ifs
By Jean Zimmerman
New York Times
July 27, 2016
When it comes to historical mirrored worlds, an author’s success can be measured by the ability to create a story that, despite being preposterous, feels altogether real. Thus Zelitch’s novel wonders what might have occurred if World War II had resulted in a Jewish homeland located not in Israel but deep within the wounded heart of Germany. In 1948, she fantasizes, the sovereign nation of Judenstaat came into being, carved out of what was formerly Saxony, home to a million Jews who survived the camps, with more streaming in every day. A founding proclamation states the country’s premise: “The very place we faced our death is where we’ll build our lives.” One of the young nation’s spiritual leaders raises a new flag sewn from the uniform worn at Auschwitz: blue-and-white prison stripes and, in the center, a yellow star.
Looking back from the year 1987, a historian named Judit Klemmer has been assigned a “Fortieth Anniversary Project” for the National Museum, a documentary film intended to celebrate Judenstaat’s past. At the same time, she is still nursing her grief over the murder of her husband, Hans, the first ethnic German musical conductor of the country’s symphony orchestra, shot three years earlier by an “unrepentant” Nazi. The novel sets out a double mystery as Judit seeks the truth about the origins of Judenstaat as well as the truth behind Hans’s killing. Her quest bears the weight of the collective grief of her people, for whom the shadow of the Churban (Yiddish for the Holocaust) is a day-to-day reality.
Is the novel’s placement of the Jewish state in Germany rather than Palestine a poke in the eye of history? Judit conducts a freighted journey through the complexities of this imaginary German-Jewish nation, introducing its highly educated intellectuals and the Orthodox “black hat” denizens of its sordid underbelly. Throughout, a central question dogs both her and the reader: “What happens when you lose everything, but have to go on living? Who do you become?”