The Far Euphrates
THE FAR EUPHRATES
Novel by Aryeh Lev Stollman, 1997
Like most American and Canadian Holocaust fiction, Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates is less concerned with depicting the events of the Holocaust than in tracing the consequences for its survivors. Indeed, and also like the majority of texts written in the last two decades of the twentieth century, it is even more concerned with the effects of European Jewish history on the next generation of Jews, both on the children of survivors and on others of the post-Holocaust generation.
Alexander, the narrator-protagonist of Stollman's novel, is the single offspring of two Jewish Canadian families, both of whom have been singed by the Holocaust. Alexander's father, a rabbi, is the son of refugees who fled before the war. His parents' best friend and neighbor is a cantor who survived not only the concentration camps but also Josef Mengele's infamous experiments on twins. As the lone, haunted child in these two families, Alexander is a figure not only of the distortion and wounding by the past of the Jewish present but also of the real possibility of a literal end to Jewish continuity. Not only can the two families bring to term only a single child (Alexander's mother suffers miscarriage after miscarriage, and the cantor has been rendered sterile), but Alexander's budding homosexual preference takes him further outside the possibility of biologically determined reproductive futurity. It is Hannalore, the cantor's twin, however, who provides the novel's most shocking and painful image of the disfigurement of the Jewish people and of the generations who, biologically speaking, will never be. Though to its credit the text does not descend into graphic detail, Hannalore, born "Elchanan son of David," has chosen to live what is left of his life after the devastation of the concentration camps as a woman and, just as significantly, as a Christian.
Yet "whatever weird creature" Hannalore is—male/fe-male, Jewish/Christian, German/Canadian—she and Alexander, who, by his mother's account, is no less weird, are the rich human resource out of which the future is to be constructed. For Stollman, Hannalore in particular brings together both the everlasting wound, which is not accidentally represented as a perversion of the mark of the covenant (circumcision), and the heroism of Jewish survival, which she bequeaths to her spiritual offspring, Alexander. Hannalore is, as the text puts it, the "ghost" that haunts the post-Holocaust present, but she is also one more of Alexander's many mothers. In the context of her own conversion to Christianity, she is a sort of virgin mother who gives birth not to a savior but to a writer, to one who writes not in the Christian tradition of texts but in the Jewish tradition. Thus, she is less the Holy Ghost of Christianity than the Jewish Shechinah, on which the Holy Ghost is based, and she offers not redemption but hope. "The Shekinah followed Adam and Eve out of Eden," Alexander reports, "and the Shekhinah follows all of us in our time of Exile to provide us with a home … It is Her love we must seek." On this side of the far Euphrates, which is to say on this side of Eden (which is where the Euphrates is supposed to take its origins), all we have is this exilic home that we share with others and in which the voices we speak are not always or only our own. For what the novel is also about is how, in imitation of God, we create the world anew in language that speaks the past in and as the present.
In the most dramatic moment of the text Hannalore, at the unveiling of her tombstone, which is also the revelation of the awful truth of her sexual identity, speaks through Alexander. He "look[s] underneath the English lettering to the small Hebrew inscription that contained the same honeyed letters that God used to create His universe in several days: Ud matzal m'aish. 'An ember saved from the fire.' Then I read Hannalore's Hebrew name: 'Elchanan ben David.' Elchanan son of David."
Elchanan son of David will never literally engender a next generation. She will not bodily keep alive the Davidic, the messianic, line. Yet insofar as the present generation permits itself to become the willing medium of the voice of the past, she will continue to speak and live. Like other writers of Holocaust fiction, Stollman universalizes, even Christianizes, the Holocaust. At the same time, densely learned and deeply steeped in Jewish history, ritual, and even language, The Far Euphrates in no way compromises the specifically Jewish character of the Holocaust. Indeed, it recovers the origins of Christianity within Judaism and the origins of Western culture in Jewish tradition and writing. Like Alexander speaking Hannalore's words, The Far Euphrates speaks the Jewish past in the voice of a very live, very contemporary Jewish present.