Operation Shylock: A Confession

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Novel by Philip Roth, 1993

The difficulty of identifying a perpetrator from the Holocaust in order to achieve justice for victims of the Holocaust, the deceased as well as the survivors, is the paradigm for Philip Roth's examination of the perplexing nature of truth in the 1993 novel Operation Shylock. While this work does not fall into the category of historical fiction, Roth has combined his fictional tale with the actual war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk and his real-life interview with Aharon Appelfeld , a Holocaust survivor and fellow novelist. This deliberate mixture of fiction with historical fact gives a structural representation to Roth's idea that in life nothing is purely factual and fiction offers important truths.

For Roth, the questionable nature of truth is reflected everywhere, even in a subject as serious as the Holocaust. At issue in the case of Demjanjuk are the counterclaims of the defendant and a group of six survivors. Demjanjuk insists that he is not the infamous torturer from Treblinka but rather is merely a man unfortunate enough to have the same baptismal name, age, and physical appearance. The defense asks: How could Demjanjuk, a law-abiding American citizen, skilled autoworker, and father of three grown children be Ivan the Terrible? The Jewish survivors contend that the defendant is unquestionably their former nemesis, despite any evidence to the contrary. They swear he is the same anti-Semitic wolf, except that he is now dressed in the sheep's clothing of American respectability.

For Roth, Demjanjuk's plight offers a real-life model to point out the ambiguities of truth. The discrepancy between the description of Ivan and the appearance of Demjanjuk is great enough to lend credence to the defense's claims but not substantial enough to discredit the prosecution's allegations. Could John and Ivan be one and the same? Demjanjuk, after all, could have discarded his old identity just as many Nazi war criminals did. The story subtly asks: Wouldn't it be a miscarriage of justice to convict him on the testimony of survivors with fading memories who had not set eyes on the real Ivan for more than 40 years?

In the case of John Demjanjuk, there lurks the underlying irony to which Roth is so attuned. If the court makes an error, the State of Israel, the Jewish nation, would be guilty of killing an innocent man because of the same kind of lifelong prejudices against the "other" that Germany displayed toward the Jews. Yet Demjanjuk's guilty verdict seems assured since a deep-rooted dread that a Holocaust crime would go unpunished takes precedence over any assumptions of innocence and negates the chance that the testimony of Holocaust survivors might be impugned.

Looking at the difficulty of defining truth from a literary perspective, Roth inserts into Operation Shylock a part of his interview with Appelfeld published elsewhere in Appelfeld's book Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversationwith Philip Roth (1994). In response to Roth's curiosity about why a writer would fictionalize his Holocaust experience, Appelfeld explains: "My real world was far beyond the power of imagination, and my task as an artist was not to develop my imagination but to restrain it …" According to Appelfeld, any effort to reconstruct those places and times was interrupted by "visions of the trains and the camps …" For example, his tainted memories led him to fictionalize life at Badenheim, to see those summers not as they were day to day but as a symbol. To detail the grotesque realities of the Holocaust was so awful that remaining true to the facts ran the risk of not being believed. Therefore, Appelfeld asserts, "All my works are indeed chapters from my most personal experience, but nevertheless they are not 'the story of my life."' Appelfeld's explanations in many ways echo Roth's own ideas about maintaining the truth when translating life into art.

Roth, however, is well aware that most survivors are not like Appelfeld, capable of transforming history into art. Some survivors have been less successful in separating themselves from their camp experience. In Operation Shylock Roth gives these survivors a fictional voice in the character of Apter, a man whose life remains filled with tales of continued victimization. The veracity of Apter's stories in which people "steal from him, spit at him, defraud and insult and humiliate him virtually every day" are somewhat beside the point. Their authenticity is unimportant for Roth, who believes the stories are "fiction that, like so much of fiction provides the storyteller with the lie through which to expose his unspeakable truth." In this novel Appelfeld's and Apter's stories of the Holocaust are teaching tools for Roth, allowing him to demonstrate that truth and fiction are not antithetical, that fiction can be an important source of the truth, even when the subject is as grave as the Holocaust.

—Ellen Gerstle

Daniel Walden