Mar 16, 2014
Posted on Mar 2, 2012
Just about everybody in “Hope: A Tragedy” is grappling with the past. Kugel’s mother feels guilty for not having lived and suffered through the Holocaust—so she convinces herself that she has. Anne Frank survived the Holocaust only to discover that she was famous for having died in it. (When she showed up at her publisher’s office several years after the end of the war, he told her: “Stay dead.”) She has spent the decades since trying to write a book that would outshine her diary. Through Kugel’s mother’s obsession and Frank’s ambition, Auslander makes repeated digs at the centrality of the Holocaust in contemporary American Jewish life. As a Jew today, Kugel’s mother feels no need to identify with Judaism or the (Ashkenazi) Jewish culture of her origins. Instead, she is drawn to an event that devastated European Jewry, but that she was fortunate enough to have never experienced. Meanwhile, a cantankerous Frank complains: “I think never forgetting the Holocaust is not the same thing as never shutting up about it. I’d like to scratch Abraham Foxman’s eyes out.”
During the years Frank spent in other people’s attics—on both sides of the Atlantic—those of her (inadvertent) hosts who treated her best were German or German-American. They were filled with shame and guilt over what their parents or ethnic kin had done, and wanted desperately to atone for the crimes of others. Frank found herself feeling sorry for them. In a wry reference to the Torah’s view of inherited guilt, Auslander has her exclaim: “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons. What an abominable idea! Who said that?”
And then there’s Solomon Kugel. He had hoped—here, Jove would already be shaking his head—to find “a home unburdened by the past, unencumbered by history.” Stockton, “famous for nothing,” and the farmhouse he buys seem to fit the bill.
No such luck. Even without Frank reminding him of the past, he has his mother. And while Kugel dismisses her paranoid fear of another Holocaust, he can’t stop himself from wondering whether he and his family would find refuge in the event of a genocide. He asks his colleagues at work if they would help out “if something happened” and he and the family—with their dog—needed a place to hide.
In one of several thought-provoking asides, Kugel wonders whether forgetting the past entirely might be best—especially when it comes to age-old religious and ethnic animosities.
Kugel doesn’t have the luxury of being ignorant of his community’s past. Indeed, although Anne Frank is a real character in the book, Auslander clearly intends that she also be a metaphor for the past’s stubborn resistance to banishment. Your people’s history will remain in the back of your mind—your mind’s attic, as it were—whatever you do and wherever you go. And so it is with Kugel; he has come to know quite a bit about human depravity and Jewish suffering. Yet he decides—against Jove’s counsel—to hope for the best. And sure enough, that second Holocaust predicted by Kugel’s mother fails to materialize. But hope is a tragedy, so you know that it will require of Kugel a great sacrifice, one that may remove him from a world more than willing to forsake him, but that he is not quite ready to forsake. Kugel’s hope that he can transcend the past makes for a rousing act of bravura in the face of rampant indifference, cruelty, cynicism and pessimism, as well as a remarkable coda to an unremarkable life.
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