February 9, 2009

Book review: "The Contract: A Life for a Life," by Joseph Kutrzeba

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The Contract: A Life for a Life
By Joseph Kutrzeba
iUniverse / ISBN: 978-0-595-45789-2

As the recent debacle over Angel at the Fence proved, we live in a curious time when it comes to artistic projects concerning the Nazi Holocaust of the 1920s, '30s and '40s; namely, as more and more of the general population comes to understand what happened during this utterly dark period of human history, there is less and less of a desire on their part to read yet another generalized account of the events, and with publishers more and more having to seek whatever new original takes on the subject they can find, leading unfortunately in some cases to certain authors simply making up stories with great hooks to them. But you can't just say either that the world now has "enough" Holocaust memoirs and that no more should be published; it's one of the most seminal moments in modern history, after all, a story that needs to be told over and over as many times as possible, precisely because it was silence that allowed these acts to occur in the first place. So how then as a reader should we feel about it all? Is it morally okay after reading X amount of such material to say, "I've learned all about the Holocaust that I'll ever be able to," and then skip the rest guilt-free? Or is it important to be constantly seeking out new material on the subject, precisely in the hopes of gleaning new insights we didn't have before?

The Contract: A Life for a Life, by Joseph Kutrzeba

I was thinking about all of this a lot this week while reading through Joseph Kutrzeba's The Contract: A Life for a Life, yet another in a series of surprisingly great books I've been receiving lately from print-on-demand publisher iUniverse (which for those who don't know, has recently been trying to shed the sketchy "authors, you're on your own" reputation it first picked up in the '90s, now with a whole team of PR specialists there actually doing a lot of hustling on the behalf of the absolute best writers in their catalog). Because I gotta tell you, it's a fascinating story being told here, and presents a unique plotline within the the world of Holocaust memoirs -- the tale not only of a Jewish teenager hiding in plain sight among the Nazis themselves during the war, wandering from one interesting situation to the next, but who even voluntarily converted to Catholicism in the middle of it all, a decision that was to have complicated repercussions throughout the rest of his adult life. But on the other hand, when all is said and done this is ultimately another Holocaust memoir, and ultimately contains mostly the same kinds of factual details already found in the several hundred other Holocaust memoirs that now exist; and as someone who's fascinated with this period of history, and who's already read dozens of these memoirs, I found myself at the beginning of The Contract asking how much it was really worth it to sit down and read this one too, no matter how guilty I felt for asking such a question in the first place.

In fact, the story starts out with quite the stereotypical bang indeed -- of our young Polish hero Joseph being loaded into a cattlecar right within the first three chapters, about to be shipped off to a concentration camp and near-certain death; but Joseph manages with an adult's help to actually slip out of the child-sized window at the top of the traincar, thus creating the first saved life referred to in this book's subtitle. (The story of the other saved life, by the way, serves as this book's climax, so I'll let its specifics remain a surprise.) Once Joseph does this, though, he's still faced with an overwhelming challenge -- parentless, homeless, wandering the Polish countryside with no food or money, constantly under the risk of being found out and put right back on that cattlecar. So what exactly does one do under such circumstances? How exactly does one even survive when faced with such challenges?

It's this question that fuels the majority of The Contract's storyline, as Joseph makes his way across eastern Europe under sometimes the most extraordinary circumstances -- tagging along with local gun-toting rebels in the rural woods at one point, faking a farmer's accent and expertise in fieldwork at another, eventually falling in with a friendly small-town Christian parish and its young liberal pastor, even volunteering for slave labor at a car-repair shop in Germany itself in the spring of 1945, so to get away from all the former Poles who were able to recognize him as a Jew merely from his voice and mannerisms. And this is a great aspect of The Contract, just the sheer entertainment value of Kutrzeba's surreal road trip through a living hell, and a big reason to read this story is merely to follow along with Joseph's thrilling escapades -- including not only everything already mentioned, but also a close call with the Gestapo, a nighttime hobo train ride with a group of drunk, nihilistic German foot-soldiers, his eventual liberation by the Russians and of course his post-war journey to America to start a new life.

But like I said, it's while staying at this country parish where the most important event of the entire book takes place, Joseph's voluntary conversion from Judaism to Christianity; and it was wise of Kutrzeba to make this the most important part of the book, too, because it allows him to explore all kinds of murky moral and ethical questions as it concerns those years, the one thing most missing from so many of these other "Judgment at Nuremberg"-style morally cut-and-dried looks at the Holocaust. Why didn't the Jews of eastern Europe put up more of a resistance to these atrocities, much like the slave population of Haiti had done to their oppressors less than 75 years previously? What are we to think of the Jews who voluntarily accepted positions of cruel fascistic authority from the Nazis over their fellow Jews, an aspect of those years that has been almost completely swept under the rug by now? Was the Catholic church a passive ally and abetter of the Nazis, because of their continual dogmatic insistence that "the Jews killed Jesus?" (For Eastern readers who might not know, Christianity actually started as a form of Judaism itself, until splitting off into its own religion roughly 1,900 years ago; ever since then, the two groups have had a relationship that could be called 'uneasy' at best.)

These are all fascinating questions, ones that Kutrzeba deftly examines through the salty, politically incorrect dialogue of all the minor characters on display here; and it's this aspect of it all that becomes the most compelling reason to read The Contract, versus all the other Holocaust literature that's now out there. Because the fact is that the 1920s, '30s and '40s were a time of massive moral relativity for Western society, a time of crime-committing antiheroes in mainstream fiction and of eugenics experiments within the legitimate scientific community, a time when most of society believed that there were no longer any black-and-white values in the world but rather an infinite series of grays; and as much as I'm a believer in moral relativity myself, I also acknowledge how much damage such a thing has caused the human race over the years too, and how it's precisely this "everything can be justified in one way or another" attitude that let the Nazis get away with the Holocaust to begin with (just like this attitude also let the Bushists get away with torture in the early 2000s; but that's an angry rant for another day).

In my opinion, this is the one thing most missing from so many Holocaust memoirs, and why it continues to be so difficult for us to understand why all these terrible things were allowed to happen in the first place; there are just too many people who wish to retroactively assign a cartoonish, simple-to-understand, "good guy/bad guy" mentality to these events, to picture every German citizen of the 20th century as some kind of inhuman monster and every Jew of the 20th century as some noble, selfless hero, simply because it's just too horrifying for most people to think otherwise. (And indeed, it's no coincidence that Western society so thoroughly embraced the squeaky-clean "Leave It To Beaver" moral simplicity of Mid-Century Modernism right after the war, or that "moral relativity" as a sociological theory has to this day never again been embraced by a majority of the population.) Thankfully Kutrzeba doesn't have this problem himself, and his own memoir is all the better for it, for his willingness to confront the moral ambiguity at the center of all these old events, and to look this ambiguity squarely in the eye.

So when all is said and done, I guess I've ended up answering my own question -- that it is indeed still important to keep checking out new Holocaust literature, that there are indeed new things to learn no matter how many accounts have already been written. When it comes to that, then, The Contract is a fine addition to the canon, and I applaud Kutrzeba for sitting down and writing out his story here in his twilight years in all its complicated, messy glory. For those interested in not only World War Two specifically but just the way that human minds work in general, it comes highly recommended.

Out of 10: 9.1

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:07 PM, February 9, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |