New Jersey Jewish News
Newark-born author raises moral questions
In the aftermath of World War II, many members of the Nazi SS escaped justice by assuming false identities, and many of them made their way to Latin America, where they assumed new lives. The most infamous of these Nazis was Adolf Eichmann. With the help of the Vatican, the chief implementer of the Final Solution fled to Argentina, where he assumed a new identity and lived a normal life before his capture by the Israeli agents and his trial before a court in Jerusalem.
In 1968, a fictional play was performed on Broadway based on the Eichmann trial only with a twist. In The Man in the Glass Booth, the Eichmann character, as conceived by playwright Robert Shaw, made his way to the United States and assumed a Jewish identity.
Now, with a similar premise, comes the novel Not Me, in which the father character is also a successful Jewish businessman who may have been a former member of the SS.
This always interesting work of fiction is Newark native Michael Lavignes first novel. The plot centers around Mickey Rose, ne Michael Rosenheim, a famous comedian but unsuccessful father and failed husband, who is going through a divorce from his wife and suffering from a painful relationship with his son. Mickeys problems are made more complicated by his father, Heshel Rosenheim, who, suffering from Alzheimers, is spending his last days in a nursing home. A successful businessman who survived the Holocaust, Heshel is well-known as a contributor to and tireless worker for Jewish causes, as well as a strong supporter of Israel. The character of Heshel Rosenheim is the personification of the Jewish macher, a pillar of the community admired and respected by all who know him. As in many contemporary father-son relationships, however, there is an estrangement between the two Rose/Rosenheims. The cause of the divide ranges from Mickeys indifference to Jewish tradition to his sympathy for the cause of the Palestinians.
During a visit to the hospital, Mickey receives from Heshel a box that contains journals; it is with the receipt of this cache of notebooks that the novel takes a fascinating turn. After reluctantly deciding to read the journals, Mickey is shocked to learn that his father is really Heinrich Mueller, a member of the SS who was attached to the Budget and Construction Office. After receiving his silver deaths head for his cap, he had his rank raised to second lieutenant and was sent to do the books in Bergen-Belsen. Heshel writes in his journal that he liked numbers and found to his amusement, that he had also picked up a great deal of the Jewish dialect as well, simply from interacting with the few inmates he had impressed into service as bookkeepers.
As it becomes increasingly clear that the war is turning against Germany and Allied troops approach the camp, Mueller, anticipating the arrests that would follow defeat, starves himself, shaves his head, and, with a needle dipped in ink, tattoos a number onto his forearm. When the British liberate Bergen-Belsen, Mueller convinces them he is a Jew named Heshel Rosenheim the name of one of the Jewish bookkeepers. From Bergen-Belsen, Heinrich/Heshel makes his way to a kibbutz in prestate Palestine, and the journals reveal that he subsequently became a hero in Israels War of Independence.
Lavigne does not tells us how Rosenheim came to America nor how his hatred toward Jews underwent so radical a change. Rather the novel invites the reader to grapple with the moral conundrum faced by the son toward his father; Mickeys immediate response to the journal is rage. Can he forgive his father for lying? for his part as a perpetrator of the Holocaust? And what about Heshels contribution to the defeat of the Arabs in 1948 does his heroism mitigate the sins of his SS past?
Although from the first page Not Me holds the readers interest, as a Holocaust novel it lacks credibility. Unlike the Shaw play, which was close enough to the Eichmann character to overlook the implausibility of his Jewish disguise, Lavigne has created a character who, as far as I know, does not have a counterpart in the bloody history of the Shoa. Kapos, yes. Ghetto Jewish police, yes. Jewish informers, yes. Jewish collaborators with the Nazis, even that yes. But someone like Heshel Rosenheim, a character with all his baggage highly unlikely. Yet, as a novel that raises all kinds of moral and philosophical questions surrounding the Shoa, it is well worth reading.
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