“The ongoing dilemmas of every human heart”
A review of
Quiet Americans: Stories.
By Erika Dreifus.
Review by Rebecca Henderson.
The real and lasting effects of war and genocide are more vividly portrayed in the personal stories of individual lives than in the timelines and statistics of history books. In Quiet Americans, her first book of fiction, Erika Dreifus explores the continuing impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families, while delving into her characters’ relationships with both their loved ones and their aggressors. Quiet Americans is a book of historical detail combined with the intimacy and emotion of everyday happenings in the days, years, and decades after tragedy.
Past and future, death and birth, memories and hope, the themes of Dreifus’s stories engage the reader on a level that connects the extraordinary events of a devastating period of history to the ongoing dilemmas of every human heart. How do victims of atrocity, whose deep wounds may no longer throb but have turned to jagged scars, handle the humanity of their attackers? When given a choice of doing good or turning away from an enemy in time of need, how do they retain their own compassion, while not excusing the wicked done against them—especially when millions of others weren’t given that choice? How do they honor their family members who endured unspeakable suffering, never forgetting the past that shapes them, but finding ways to live in the present, to enjoy the closeness of loved ones in this moment, and to rebuild a “normal” life for future generations?
The book opens with “For Services Rendered,” a story of the far-reaching impact of the physician-patient relationship between Dr. Ernst Weldmann and the wife of a top Nazi official. Often making the most of words left unsaid in the dialogue, Dreifus spreads out for the reader Dr. Weldmann’s choices before and after the war and how they affect both his patient’s family and his own. The moral complexities of the opening story set the stage for the rest of the book with subtle tension, painful memories, and the difficulties of rebuilding torn lives.
Next comes a trio of stories centered on the Josef Frieburg family. “Matrilineal Descent,” which takes place in the Black Forest village of Altheim during the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II, is the tale of Josef’s grandmother, mother, and aunt and the circumstances surrounding Josef’s birth and childhood. Though the tale serves well in its function of setting up the background of Josef’s family line, the voice of the narrator is obtrusive in a way that makes the story come across like a fairy tale, leaving the reader with less emotional involvement than in the latter two stories about the Frieburgs. “Lebensraum” picks up in 1944, after Josef has grown, immigrated to America, married his wife Nelly, and joined the U.S. Army. The title comes from the Nazi expansion policy of taking over the “living space” of Eastern European countries in order to use their agricultural land to feed Germans; Dreifus uses the term ironically to refer to the POW camp in Iowa (“in the country’s basket of bread”) where PFC Josef Frieburg is assigned as a cook and where he must supervise German prisoners. Nelly is pregnant with their son, Mickey, and the young couple faces decisions about the best way to build their new life in America, separated both from their extended family and from the Jewish community of their American port of entry, New York City. Now grown, Mickey becomes a key figure in “Homecomings,” the third story about the Frieburgs. It is Mickey’s thirtieth wedding anniversary gift to his parents that leads Josef and Nelly to Munich in the summer of 1972—their first visit to Germany since the war. In Munich, Nelly relives the pain of her father’s death at Dachau, her memories complicated by the kidnapping of Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village and by her anxiety over the imminent birth of her second grandchild.
The joy and apprehension of pregnancy are also central to the story “Floating.” In fact, five of the seven stories in Quiet Americans deal with pregnancy and birth, making this a major theme of the book. Dreifus uses the birth motif to show the undying connection between the generations of a family, the hope of new life in the face of sadness and death, and the frailty of human existence in a fallen world. The theme of memory dominates “The Quiet American, or How to Be a Good Guest,” the story of an unnamed young lady (one of Josef and Nelly’s grown granddaughters?) and her frustration with her guide’s handling of war history on a bus tour in Stuttgart, Germany. The final story, “Mishpocha,” follows David Kaufmann on his quest to locate his parents’ distant relatives among Holocaust survivor groups. The more involved he becomes in the search, the more his discoveries stir up questions rather than answers. One of those questions is the definition of family and how its scope can be redefined at pivotal points in our lives.
Dreifus’s clear, direct style and her subject matter bring to mind the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri. Both writers deal with immigrants to the U.S., the interaction of family generations, and the themes of pregnancy and birth. More than once I was reminded of Ashima in Lahiri’s novel The Namesake and her thoughts on living as a newly-arrived Bengali in America: “For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.” Dreifus and Lahiri both explore the out-of-sorts feeling, the interruption of ordinary life by the complications and demands of starting over in a new land, whether by choice or under compulsion. In Quiet Americans, Dreifus has made the extraordinary experiences of her characters accessible to readers who may feel they are far-separated from such events. As a good storyteller should, she shows that the feelings and experiences of the human heart are universal, regardless of the outer circumstances shaping each life.
Dreifus does an excellent job of taking the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust and presenting stories that add new complexities to the topic. The granddaughter of German Jews who moved to the U.S. in the 1930s, Dreifus has a connection to the stories that is deeply personal. Her commitment to supporting those who suffered is evident in her donation of a portion of Quiet Americans’ proceeds to The Blue Card, a fund dedicated to Holocaust survivors and their families in the U.S.