The Pawnbroker

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Novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, 1961

Edward Lewis Wallant's 1961 novel, The Pawnbroker, presents a series of dreams (set in italics) that reemerge to trouble the title character, Sol Nazerman. The dreams constitute his memories of victimization in the Holocaust. Once a professor at the University of Kraków, Nazerman is now a suburbanite who runs a pawnshop in East Harlem, and he is haunted by images of the losses and tortures of his concentration camp past.

The adaptation of Wallant's book as a film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Rod Steiger in an Oscar-winning performance served to bring this narrative to a large audience. The strength of the flashback associative imagery allows the film to enlarge upon the novel's work on Holocaust trauma, as stated in the book Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History. The present calls the past to our attention through a process of associative memory; this effect is even more pronounced in the film whose abrupt associative editing graphically matched the images from New York's East Harlem in the present with those from Europe. Leonard Leff's "Hollywood and the Holocaust: Remembering The Pawnbroker, " published in American Jewish History (1996), provides great insight into the film's conditions of production. He emphasizes how Wallant's novel intrigued those in Hollywood looking for a script to address the Holocaust, even while they struggled with its commercial viability in a cultural context that had not yet witnessed widespread mainstream production of films about the horrors of the Holocaust. Taken together, the book and the film can be seen as playing a crucial role in a broader U.S. reception of Holocaust narratives.

Controversial in its setting up of a metaphoric parallel between the concentration camp and urban poverty, Wallant's novel stems from that moment in U.S. history in which many U.S. Jews saw their involvement in the civil rights movement as a way of responding to the concomitant evils of racial prejudice and apathy that sustained the Holocaust. For them the legacy of the Holocaust was a call to social action. Wallant made the link but never assumed that mere equivalence must be implied by the comparison; it is less an issue of weighing a major disaster of history against the crushing poverty and suffering of everyday life than one of becoming aware of both in their specificity and difference. Wallant initially presents Nazerman as a character who refuses to feel or to care about others. Trauma brings about the loss of empathy, as the self closes down. Nazerman becomes an emblem of how misrecognized or foreclosed traumas of the present might be obscured by not having worked through the traumas of the past, especially insofar as one might have to understand those traumas empathetically, as they affect others.

When Nazerman learns that his pawnshop is a money laundering front for a pimp, he must confront both his complicity in exploiting women for profit and his will to ignorance in refusing to piece together the clues he might have recognized buried in everyday procedures. Participation in prostitution crushes him, for his Holocaust memories include being forced to witness his wife service a Nazi soldier.

Besides the witnessing of his wife's sexual enslavement, other dreams recount horrific scenes of helplessness: his family's deportation in a boxcar so crammed with others that Nazerman cannot hold his young son up out of the filth below, an operation being performed on him by Nazi doctors and nurses who taunt him as they enjoy their experiment, and his shoveling a mound of dead bodies, fearing he will recognize his family members among the corpses. Wallant transformed documented accounts of Holocaust atrocities into personal memories; Nazerman's nightmares become a dream condensation of all the horrible scenes one imagines a survivor may have witnessed. Some of the dreams present a documentary, though highly subjective vantage point, while others take on a surreal dimension. In one he sees a child's body suspended from a hook as if a butchered carcass, the face first appearing to be his daughter, then other members of his family and of his acquaintance, victims from the past ceding their place to others of the present. Toward the end a dream of a peaceful family picnic scene before their arrest and deportation freezes: "Their faces all came closer; he would have liked to gather them all into him, to drink them, to breathe them. And then they stopped, every blade of grass froze, each of them was arrested in motion … All was silence; it was like a movie which has suddenly stopped while its projecting illumination continued. And he was paralyzed, too, forever out of reach of the dear faces, frozen a few feet short of all he had loved. And then it all began dimming; each face receded, the sunny afternoon turned to eternal twilight, dusk, evening, darkness."

The Pawnbroker captures this mournful dream of the traumatized Holocaust victim even as it constructs circumstances in the present to move Nazerman beyond the oppression of his dreams of the dead and his survivor's guilt. Wallant created a redemptive sacrificial gesture as Nazerman's assistant in the pawnshop, Jesus Ortiz, takes a bullet intended for Nazerman in a robbery Ortiz helped plan. The novel ends in tears of mourning and forgiveness: "he realized he was crying for all his dead now, that all the dammed-up weeping had been released by the loss of one irreplaceable Negro who had been his assistant and who had tried to kill him but who had ended up saving him."

—Maureen Turim

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The Pawnbroker

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