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I'm writing this a few miles from a street sign identifying "S. Maximilian Kolbe Parish." Father Kolbe was the Polish priest who earned his sainthood in a concentration camp, by volunteering to be murdered by the Nazis in the place of a fellow Catholic Pole. In my neighborhood, volunteering for extermination is the pinnacle of virtue. It's unclear how those who died without volunteering stand with He who allegedly died for Father Kolbe's flock's sins.
I pass the S. Maximilian Kolbe Parish street sign, thankfully within the safe bubble of a car, about four times a week. It's a reminder of how European-America still thinks about the Holocaust and the Jews' role in the salvation of people other than them. Not that Europe is much better. According to auschwitz.net, there's still a gift shop (sorry, 'exhibition shop') at the museum at Oświęcim. There's also a new traveling exhibit. "Get your tickets now," the website demands—and promises 'no gratuitous depictions of violence' so that 'visitors can safely explore this history'. Surely, the near-absence of living witnesses will help with this sanitation project. Holocaust Education in 2023: guaranteed to be poignant and not traumatizing.
Clearly, there's a lot we haven't learned about the Holocaust. Books for young people are supposed to clear up some of the remaining absurdities and mysteries. I can report with a twinge of hope that I've found a new young adult novel that does, and is a mystery besides: Aden Polydoros's second novel WRATH BECOMES HER.
In 1942 Lithuania, the Soviet troops have been cleared out by the Nazis, whom many Lithuanians greet as liberators. Then, the Nazis go after the Jewish Lithuanians. Some of them try to hide, mostly unsuccessfully. Polydoros does not spare the reader the gory details, nor does he sensationalize them. A small otriad ('resistance detachment') flees to the Rudniki Forest, outside Vilnius. They consist of seventeen-year-old Chaya, her slightly older boyfriend Akiva, a woman named Yael, and a boy, Kuni. When the Nazis find them, most are massacred. Somehow, Chaya's body finds its way to her father, Ezra, who hides in a barn. There, he combines mud and Chava's body parts to create the traditional folkloric defender of the Jews of Prague's medieval ghetto: the Golem.
Only, given Chava's gender, this golem is female. Her name is Vera. She's still a bulletproof clay superhuman with strength she doesn't initially comprehend and the drive to save her hunted people. Once she loses Ezra, shortly after her Frankenstein-like 'birth', she must find him again, too. She also has a mystery to investigate. The Nazis and a Dr. Brandt are involved in a secret project. Vera must learn what it is.
A phantasmagoria of allusions, the resulting historical-supernatural-mystery-thriller is as shaped by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the Universal Studios 1931 Frankenstein, and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner as it is by the legend of the Golem, and it's a fascinating, evocatively told, genuinely mystical, thrilling ride.
Vera's anti-Nazi violence is both retributive and disturbing. She struggles with it when it turns on people who aren't Nazi soldiers. Like Universal's Frankenstein's Creature (Boris Karloff), Vera encounters a little blonde girl—but this child is the daughter of a Nazi trooper who has killed other children and just been killed by Vera. "She pushed past me," Vera recalls. "I let her go… I was terrified that the same rage that had goaded me to kill her father might be turned against her in turn."
Wrath indeed "becomes" Vera, in the sense that it fits her well. However, Vera is increasingly unsure she wants to become Ezra and Chaya's wrath. She wants to become human, and humanity is more than wrath. Of course, Jews have been told since Shakespeare's Shylock that wrath, pique, and vengeance is all that we are, and that that's understandable, because shit has happened to us, and we're only human. Others get to be human without the "only." We want that too—and in Vera's quest, Polydoros captures that yearning perfectly, maddeningly, and beautifully.
Throughout Vera's quest, her wide-eyed wonder and horror generates questions of incredible vitality and universal interest that makes this book far more than the latest young adult Life Lessons TM milking of the Holocaust. You will want to root for Vera as she vows to "become the Jew that the Nazis couldn't kill" and empathize with her discovery of "the cruel truth" that she is "everything but my own person." She finds herself "like kin with the snow," that, "taking the soil with it," in Spring "would become a part of what [she] once was": clay, but also history.
WRATH BECOMES HER is not exclusively for young adult readers, but it is certainly designed for accessibility to them. The evocative language is never flowery or complicated. There is a notable avoidance of sexual violence, and in the dialogue, one near-reference to the question of golem sexual anatomy is cut off before the character is able to articulate it. Thankfully, Vera never becomes a femme fatale in the traditional Keats-to-noir sense. There is a glossary, though no foreign word disrupts the plot enough for readers to need the glossary excepting, once the book is finished, for recollection. There is also, at the beginning, a bolded content warning that directs the reader to Polydoros's website for a full account of "content and themes that may be disturbing for some readers." WRATH BECOMES HER is ready for your middle school book club—if your middle schooler can pry it from your captivated grip.
I want to end this review with the book's beginning. Polydoros dedicates WRATH BECOMES HER "to every reader who's ever wanted to punch a Nazi." I should hope this would make it a book that everyone everywhere must read.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, September 2023
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