New Jersey Jewish News
See Karl Run
Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn is not the first Holocaust novel written for children but it breaks new ground in several ways: First, the eponymous heroes are two young boys, only one of them Jewish, but both trapped in Vienna during the Anschluss (Germanys annexation of Austria). Second, the novel, written originally in Yiddish in 1940, has not been read by any non-Yiddish speaker until this year. And third, it is the first book written in any language for young adult readers about events leading up to the Holocaust before there was a Holocaust.
The author was a major figure in Jewish literature, said Jeffrey Shandler, associate professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. He spoke to NJ Jewish News in his office in the universitys Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life. Glatshteyn wrote cutting-edge, high modern poetry, said Shandler. I read these poems in grad school nuanced, difficult, layered. This work was different. When I first found Emil and Karl in a library and began to read, the librarian had to close the library around me.
Glatshteyn, born in 1896, immigrated to America from Poland when he was 18, but he returned for a visit in 1934, Shandler writes in the books afterword. Seeing firsthand the discrimination and physical danger Jews faced across Eastern Europe, he returned to America to write two adult novels and the very prescient Emil and Karl.
He intended the book specifically for American students who attended public school during the day and mitl schules secular Yiddish schools in the afternoons and on weekends, Shandler said. I was fascinated, wondering what it was like to read this book as a Jewish kid living in the United States just as the war was beginning.
According to Shandler, Glatshteyns readers were Yiddish-speaking, mostly secular children of immigrants, and he wrote the book to get them morally engaged with what was going on in Nazism, what people their age and even younger were suffering. He wanted them to think about an issue that had consequences for everybody, a human problem, not an isolated Jewish issue. In his novel, not all the victims are Jewish, and not all the Austrians are evil.
The writers approach is sufficiently sophisticated that it would appeal to adults, Shandler said, but Glatshteyn structured his book like a classic childrens suspense novel. My guess is that his models were the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew. All of these books have 25 chapters, each chapter ends on a high point so you want to find out what happens next, and the kids have adventures but they end up going home to have dinner with their parents but not here!
The parents in Emil and Karl disappear early in the novel: Karls mother, a socialist, is carried off by three hulking men who drag her away as she spat in their faces and scream[ed] Murderers! Emils mother, a Jew, her hair half black, half white, her spirit broken by what she has seen, is taken away by a friend, who promises to return for Emil. It is soon apparent to both boys that no one will come for them. They take to the streets, hiding in cellars, occasionally fed or sheltered by a kind stranger but all too often abused by other children and the adults they encounter. Endearingly, their greatest fear is not the Nazis but their fear that they will be separated.
These children are coming of age as the adult world is in moral crisis, Shandler said. In a stable environment, kids can look to the adult world [for guidance]. Children bring a certain moral clarity and a certain naivete to the world, but in this setting, they cannot always know whom to trust. People can do terrible things. Their protectors live side by side with their betrayers.
My concern in translating was to find the right voice for someone reading this in English today, he said. There are no anachronisms, he explained, but kids today would find the language quaint, stilted, perhaps a little archaic. As a result, he had to translate not only across language but across time.
Glatshteyn, who died in New York City in 1971, had not written for children before but he understood his audience because he too was a secular, Yiddish-speaking immigrant. The key thing in his mind, Shandler said, was for children to focus on what [Emils and Karls experience] feels like. As a result, he includes little local color. He wanted kids to think of their own lives, Shandler said, to fill in details from personal experiences. There is a bleakness in the writing, empty spaces in the prose that effectively depicts a world going dark but makes the contemporary reader long for elaboration. In this book, Emil and Karl are coming of age but the rest of the world had yet to do so.
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