A Hole in the heart of the World by Jonathan Kaufman ’74. Nonfiction-International. “L’écrivain ne peut se mettre aujourd’hui au service de ceux qui font l’histoire: il est au service de ceux qui la subissent.” Albert Camus, Discours de Suède, 1957.
I subscribe to this idea that history is best appreciated through the stories of individuals whose lives are impacted by forces not under their control. Policies are best understood through the prism of their effect on humans going about their business. In this profoundly moving work, Jonathan tells the story of five families living in eastern Europe from the outset of World War II and the Holocaust through the cruel reign of Stalin up to more recent times after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the Iron Curtain. In Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and Berlin, we meet the families whose lives have been altered by anti-Semitism. Jonathan has done the hard work of transforming hours of interviews with these survivors into flowing narratives. He has made artistic choices that keep us at the edge of our chairs – I think particularly of the high drama of Barbara’s story in Poland. Individuals are portrayed in all their complexity – I think of the urbane Klaus Gysi, who uses his charm and Communist affiliation to land on his feet time after time. The book is rich in detail and empathy; instead of dwelling on the insane leaders who instigated horror with such deceptive vocabulary as “cleansing” and “purifying,” we see lives: a mother separated from her child, a future rabbi saved by Raoul Wallenberg, and the cantor, Estrongo Nachama, “the singer from Auschwitz,” whose beautiful voice wafted across east and west Berlin via the radio.