5.11.2018

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer



I picked this book up at a used book store in the Milwaukee airport back in January. I knew that I loved Jonathan Safran Foer's non-fiction writing based on my experience with Eating Animals but I didn't have a lot of knowledge of the topic or narrative style of this one. I will say, in terms of both, this book was a difficult read for me.

The story is really two. Foer switches between his personal trip to the Ukraine in search of a woman who saved his grandfather's life during the Holocaust, and a  second story line- a 'fictional' history of his family who lived in a small town that was taken out by Nazis. I put fictional in quotes because I think he tried to stay true to history but how is anyone to know really... he definitely took some creative freedoms with the plot. Because of the multiple narratives, the complex family history being told, and the fact that some chapters are entirely told through letters, it was a bit hard to keep up with the plot at times. Despite it being a more difficult read, I still feel strongly about Foer's ability to write non-fiction. He knows how to keep facts and history educational but also entertaining.

Jonathan Safran Foer


This book is that kind of sad where you want to put it down and just take to your bed. I personally love this kind of book but this is not the thing, my mother, for example, could ever handle. It's obviously sad in that it's about the Holocaust, but it's even more sad on a deeper level when he writes about the relationships between the characters. Foer uses the Holocaust as a landscape for this story, but it's really about love.

One of my favourite 'pieces' of the story focuses on a woman named Brod who was rescued from a carriage accident as a baby by an elderly gentleman  named Yankel whose wife had left him and whose son had died in a flour mill accident. Yankel is deeply concerned that he's going to get old and forget how to take care of Brod. He writes notes to himself on the ceiling "You are Yankel, you love Brod." He eventually dies and Brod grows up and marries a man they call the Kolker. The Kolker gets a job at the same flour mill where Yankel's son was killed, which is known for being an extremely dangerous workplace, and Brod is devastated. She drives herself crazy waiting for him to come home from work, begging him to quit his job, making him promise over and over again that he won't leave her alone. Eventually, a blade does hit the Kolker in the head and I love this scene where two employees come to tell Brod. Meg and I love a breakdown:

It was halfway into his second month at work when two men from the flour mill knocked on her door. She didn't have to ask why they came, but collapsed immediately to the floor. Go away! she screamed, running her hands up and down the carpet as if it were a new language to learn, another window."

As it turns out, the Kolker is not actually dead, but he did have to leave part of the blade in his skull and he was never the same. He begins abusing Brod. Foer writes her as a stereotypical abuse victim, blaming the blade and insisting she had to stay with him as he was her husband and he was just sick.

Every widow wakes one morning, perhaps after years of pure and unwavering grieving, to realize she slept a good night's sleep, and will be able to eat breakfast, and doesn't hear her husband's ghost all the time, but only some of the time. Her grief is replaced with a useful sadness. Every parent who loses a child finds a way to laugh again. The timbre begins to fade. The edge dulls. The hurt lessens. Every love is carved from loss. Mine was. Yours is. Your great-great-great-grandchildren's will be. But we learn to live in that love.” 

Beyond hard scenes to read regarding relationships, there are some VERY disturbing holocaust scenes written out in detail. I'm not really sure how Foer got through writing them to be honest. He writes full paragraphs where Nazis come through the town, line up all the Jews and hold guns to their children's heads, demand they spit on the Torah and then shoot their families in front of them. It's uncomfortable to read and I had to do so leaning against my boyfriend while he watched hockey, putting the book down every few sentences to just take a breath.

Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing... memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks- when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather's fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather's damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain- that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?"

Foer finds out at the end of his trip to the Ukraine with his grandfather that there had been an incident where his grandfather gets his best friend killed to save his family. All the men are ushered to the synagogue and asked at gunpoint to point out all the Jews in the town or risk having their families shot. Foer's grandfather pointed a finger at his lifelong friend Hershel to save his family and has kept it a secret all these years until this trip back to the Ukraine. Reading a about a man admitting this to his grandson is heartbreaking. Nobody can imagine being in that position, and nobody can ever tell him it was the right or wrong thing to do. He says to Foer:

You had to choose, and hope to choose the smaller evil."

After all the Jews were pointed out they were kept in the synagogue while Nazis set it on fire. Foer's grandfather fled from his town with his family. It's uncomfortable for me to even be putting this on the internet in a way.

I am not sad, he would repeat to himself over and over, I am not sad. As if he might one day convince himself. Or fool himself. Or convince others -- The only thing worse than being sad is for others to know that you are sad.” 

Elijah Wood as Jonathan Safran Foer in the 2005 film adaptation


I've watched a lot of movies involving the Holocaust, I studied it in school, I can tell you the facts about what happened. I feel like this book was so much more difficult for me because the events affected characters I felt like I'd come to know. I met a friend this year whose parents are both Holocaust survivors. She can tell me the same statistic I learned in school but it feels different coming from her, having affected someone I've grown to care about. When this is posted I'll be in Israel for my first time and I'm super glad I was able to finish this book before I left so I can have a deeper appreciation for the history I'll be seeing there.

I'm all alone, he said.
You're not alone, she said, taking his head to her chest.
I am.
You're not alone, she said. You only feel alone.
To feel alone is to be alone. That's what it is."

There's only a handful of people I'd recommend this to... Meghan for one (but she's already read it), other JSF fans who just want to read more of his work, or people who I know would connect with the subject matter, like the friend I mentioned above, for example. This isn't the kind of thing you just pick up off the shelf for a weekend read. As far as Jewish history books go, fiction or nonfiction, this one is about as good, personal, and educational as it gets. The only other one I've read in a similar vein that was as good is Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces. I had to read it for a lit class in University and halfway through the professor cut it from the syllabus and I e-mailed him begging to add it back on because I wanted to discuss it in a classroom setting. He did. I'm pushy. 

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