Bring Us the Old People
Ibergekumene tsores iz gut tsu dertseylin: "Troubles overcome are good to tell." Marisa Kantor Stark's first novel admirably follows this Yiddish proverb by chronicling a difficult survival and its costliness.
Narrated by Maime, a 92-year-old in a nursing home, the novel's fragmented structure crosses decades and continents: her devout upbringing in turn-of-the- century rural Poland, early marriage, and years of hiding in a cellar from the "Hitlers." A wrenching decision: Maime brings her parents to a roundup of elderly Auschwitz-bound Jews, a compliance allowing her to escape death. Maime and her husband build a business in Newark. After he dies, she lives independently until a household mishap prompts her nephew to bring her to the home.
The nephew's action mimics Maime's decision to bring her parents to the Nazis. The ricochet of time foists us into her disrupted consciousness, a past that consumes the present. As Maime declares, "What I remember is all what I am." Some of Stark's temporal echoes add a haunting aura of repetition. But other times they become strident. Maime, after describing toilet-bound fish, says of her nephew: "He took everything from me." Only one page later, she says of the Hitlers: "They took from us everything." The overt juxtapositions Auschwitz, nursing home, fish tank, hideout Gottenyu, it's enough already with the juxtapositions. Stark's metaphors work best writ small: her description of the cellar which stores Maime, onions, potatoes, "roots" driven underground and her star-gazing meditation on genocide's collapsing of time's horizon: "How can it be . . . that a person can bring their parents and the stars will keep shining . . . "
Throughout, Maime's voice rings with resonant Yiddish linguistic devices. Stark's deft homage to the mama-loshen "the mother's tongue" resurrects an earlier, disowned generation, and recounts troubles overcome in language profoundly told.
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