The Caretakers, by Bernard Mathias. Translated by Freeman G. Henry. Viking: 221 pages; $17.95.
One of the few Jewish children born in Europe at the close of World War II, Daniel Jonasz is hailed as a sign of the power and regrowth of a people nearly wiped out by oppression. "It would be my task," Daniel recounts, "until the forest was renewed, to bear witness to the catastrophe."
In the midst of his idyllic childhood in the French countryside, Daniel's family suddenly moves to a tiny apartment above a Parisian synagogue. The family is happy to have moved to Paris, but the dark apartment itself is reminiscent of Anne Frank's hideaway. Ominously, Daniel's father, secretary of the synagogue, decides that his son must begin to learn discipline and faith.
Creative and rebellious, Daniel balks at his overwhelming expectations. He sees the traditional adults around him as cemetery caretakers rather than guardians of the faith. Their obsession with the recent past frightens and repels him and he feels sure that "somewhere, within the folds of their dark coats. . . death lay in wait." Paris, a city "without the least suggestion of an escape route leading to a valley or a wood" is, for Daniel, a prison camp.
Daniel's comparisons between Judaism and fascism do not end here. In his innocent and depressed adolescence, his yarmulke becomes a symbol of oppressive faith which, he vows, "cannot force itself on me." God is "an inflexible master," a lawmaker who, like the Nazis, has forced the Jews into living a meager and inescapable existence. The synagogue becomes "our gulag, and God was political obedience subserved by terror, the informant's terror: everyone spying on everyone else, everyone terrorized by the fear of being caught unawares. (And what if one of us decided to squeal?)" Daniel wonders if the Jews have always been easily taken in.
Bernard Mathias's writing is sensitive, very close to the emotions of adolescence, and the strain of being "different." The emotional and jarring chapter where Daniel views a documentary of the holocaust is a nightmarish stream of thoughts and images. Mathias has the gift of putting us into his characters' minds: we find ourselves looking through the eyes of the little boy, the frustrated adolescent. He gives the overused bildungsroman form a new shine.
Mathias wades, however, into some potentially offensive imagery when he brings together the contradictory worlds of oppressed and oppressor. Daniel's father behaves like a Nazi; the synagogue is a concentration camp. Interestingly, the play version of the book translates as "Blasphemies." What saves Mathias is his command of the child and adolescent's outlook that makes this transposition valid and understandable. Daniel comes of age in the midst of two worlds: the dark and traditional religion "of all the fathers, a thousand strong" and Paris--the bright city of rebellion. Mathias seems to ask us, "Could a child in this situation not feel oppressed?"
In the climax of the novel, Daniel goes with his class to see a documentary of the Holocaust. Horrified to see it on film, Daniel comes to realize that his family and the rest of the older Jews have lived through true oppression, imminent death, and poverty.
Later, confused and rejected by his family, he makes a pilgrimage to Sighet, his father's native village in Romania. By chance he discovers an old leaflet, a call to arms against the Nazis. It is only now that he finds pride in his ancestry: no, Jews are not easily taken in.