'Devils Among Angels'

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“Devils Among Angels: A Journey from Paradise and Hell to Life,” by Samuel Marder. San Diego: Idea & Design Works LLC, 2013. 256 pages, $17.99 (hardcover).

“Devils among Angels’ by Samuel Marder is a unique combination of short stories, poems and nonfiction essays. Marder, a violinist for the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, was a 10-year-old violin virtuoso in Romania when the Nazis deported him with his family to a concentration camp in Transnistria.

Like many Holocaust survivors, Marder talked about his experiences as little as possible for many years. He felt compelled to speak out when prejudice began to rise again in the 1990s. However, as Marder started writing about his experiences, a funny thing happened. Instead of an autobiography, he wound up writing stories about the world that existed in the years before World War II. While the world of Central and Eastern European Jews has vanished forever, it is still alive in Marder’s memory. Through his stories, Marder brings the reader into the world as it was in his childhood with a humanity (and sense of humor) that transcends most nonfiction writing.

In “The Wandering Preacher,” Rebbe Zalmen is criticized by pompous and self-righteous congregants and defended by children and more tolerant adults. While answering a question from a young child, the Rabbi manages to change the criticism into praise. He does so without overt criticism, but by showing the congregation what a modest man he really is.

The story “Itzik the Watchmaker” deals with a humble craftsman who dared to ask God why the universe doesn’t run like clockwork. When angels and imps both try to find out why Itzik’s arrival in heaven is so important, we discover that “the devil’s helpers seem to be more inquisitive than the angels because of their propensity to gossip. It is difficult to understand why, but the desire to find fault often conjures up more energy than the search for good.”

One of the funniest stories is “Purim in Korolivke.” In this story, we find out about Shmaysl, a merchant who sells eggs, honey and horseradish. We find out about how the townspeople fool Shmaysl when he gets drunk during the holiday of Purim. While the story doesn’t turn out well for poor Shmaysl, the readers definitely benefit from Marder’s humorous account.

Marder’s poetry is more serious than his fiction. This is his opportunity to let out feelings, question God and delve into the Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Holocaust). Yet the poems are also cathartic for the reader, who knows what happened to the fictional world in the first part of the book.

Sandwiched between the stories and the poems are Marder’s essays. Starting with his childhood, Marder brings us up to the time of the war. We meet both good people and bad people, but the good people predominate.

Herr Schwartz, a German friend of Marder’s family, tried in vain to save the family at great risk to himself. Professor Nowak, on the other hand, shows how good (free violin lessons while Marder was displaced) and evil (anti-Semitism and a past atrocity) can exist in the same person. We learn about Marder’s friend who died at an early age, having never recovered from his time in the Warsaw Ghetto. And a chance encounter on a train gives Marder a unique perspective on the difference between the way people are treated in life and how they are treated at a funeral.

The final nonfiction essay, “The Man with the Roses,” celebrates the ability of even one human to make a difference. A veteran from Afghanistan who lost his legs makes artificial roses on a rush-hour bus in Miami. Instead of the stressful event such a bus ride can be, this man brings smiles to the faces of hardened people. With this essay, Marder reminds us that it really is up to us how we deal with setbacks.

Throughout all the stories, poems and essays, there runs a hopeful thread. Marder has certainly seen the height of human inhumanity. However, his post-war experiences, renewal of his violin studies and emigration to New York also taught him that human kindness still exists. I thoroughly recommend Samuel Marder’s “Devils Among Angels.”

— Samuel Marder will give two public talks in Bowling Green this month. As part of WKU Libraries’ Far-Away Places series, Mr. Marder will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble Booksellers. He will also speak at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Ivan Wilson Fine Arts Center at WKU. Both events are free.