The price of resisting horrible truths about human nature

The price of resisting horrible truths about human nature

“Nothing Is Forgotten” and silence is dangerous in new novel

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

In his third novel, Peter Golden, 64, journalist, historian, and biographer, returns to his childhood home in South Orange. “Nothing is Forgotten” is set in the early 1960s, when optimism was in the air and mid-century moderns were rising in the affluent Newstead neighborhood. The novel introduces Michael “Misha” Daniels as a teenager attending Columbia High School, “a kid bored by school and obsessed with rock ’n’ roll” who lands a gig as a DJ for a local radio show. He enjoys an idyllic upbringing in South Orange and its sister suburb of Maplewood, described as “a pair of suburban Edens,” where Misha’s grandmother runs a candy store that his father has left for the upward mobility of accounting. 

Misha knows little about his Russian heritage, mostly because his grandmother has so often told him, “Misha ne sprayshivay,” or “Don’t ask.” When his grandmother is murdered in the store, he begins to dig and finally asks the questions that force him to confront the long shadow cast by the Holocaust. 

Local readers will enjoy the sense of place in the novel. The house where Daniels lives, located on Radel Terrace, features the details of Golden’s childhood home on Richmond Avenue. Congregation Beth El in South Orange, where Golden became a bar mitzvah, also features prominently in the story line. Sweets, the candy store, is a renamed version of the candy store that was Henry’s when Golden was a boy. Don’s Drive-In makes a few cameo appearances, as do South Orange’s Gruning’s Ice Cream and the Town Hall Deli. 

Although Misha is about 10 years older than Golden, he acknowledged that Misha’s character is highly autobiographical. Many of the details of his life reflect Golden’s upbringing, especially his sense of a bygone era when teenagers had “the freedom to go wherever we wanted on our bicycles or walking,” and “we spent the summer at the [Jersey] shore, and our parents spoke a different language.” 

But Golden is after more than nostalgia. “Nothing is Forgotten” explores how people slowly assimilate history that involves horrible truths and how others choose instead to resist, or even conceal it. It’s not about Holocaust denial — everyone in the novel accepts that the Holocaust happened. Rather, Golden spotlights something more banal, and more insidious: the human impulse to erase the ordinariness of perpetrators of atrocities, to resist the scope of the horror, to diminish culpability, to shift blame, to ignore inconvenient truths.

Like Golden’s previous novels, “Nothing Is Forgotten” includes a long cast of characters, twisting plotlines, and plenty of globetrotting that capitalizes on his training as an historian. 

Interacting with Russian characters, first in Munich, then in Otvali, a town in the Soviet Union, Misha begins to understand the incredible ease of his now-ebbing former life. 

He encounters Dmitry, who fled Russia for Munich when he got caught selling rock music. Discovering that Dmitry has risked jail just to play and listen to certain music, Misha realizes, “I would’ve given up deejaying and listening to music to avoid jail,” and concludes, “I felt disappointed in myself.”

The fear and loss permeating post-war life in the USSR also throws Misha’s innocence and exuberance (and that of South Orange) into sharp relief when we meet Yuliana Kosoy, his Russian peer, driving through the town of Otvali in 1964. She notices that “Loneliness seemed to be everywhere.” And she carries around scars Misha can’t even imagine. “Yuli had no family, just the man who had found a scrawny, terrified child hiding in the woods on an August morning twenty years ago…” 

In an interview with NJJN in mid-March, shortly before the publication of the novel by Atria Books, Golden, who lives near Albany, N.Y., wondered aloud why he never learned about the depth of the sacrifice of Soviet citizens during World War II until he was researching another novel in the early 2000s. He estimates that Soviet citizens bore as much as 40 percent of all the casualties of the war, and many of its cities were destroyed. 

He pointed out that of all the boys born in 1923 — who would have been 17 or 18 by 1941 — 80 percent of them were dead by the end of the war. “Once our [U.S.] soldiers came home, life went on and we started building suburbs like crazy and the synagogues too,” he said. “When the soldiers from the Soviet Union got done, they went home to rubble. It was a different experience. I wanted to capture the difference.”

As Misha follows the leads to his grandmother’s murderer, he is slowly digging out his buried family history. As he is learning some of the horror his grandmother lived through, and facts are just beginning to emerge about World War II in the news, it’s hard to escape the reality that everyone else is moving as fast as they can away from the atrocities of the Holocaust. 

A CIA operative wonders casually why Israel won’t “let it go” in a conversation about extending the statute of limitations for trying Nazi war criminals; a waiter in Munich comments about a televised trial of 22 former S.S. members, “The trial is for the bad apples…so the Juden stop accusing all Deutschen”; and the mayor of Dachau worries that erecting a memorial on the site will leave Dachau remembered only as the site of Nazi war crimes instead of as a medieval Bavarian gem. 

Even Misha himself falls victim: “I couldn’t conjure up a vision of the millions of innocent victims, and it was disconcerting, knowing that [the CIA agent] was telling the truth about the death squads yet feeling incapable of comprehending it.” 

One of the characters points out that it’s the faces of the perpetrators that scare him more than the victims because they look “so normal.”

And that is the warning at the center of this book: that as much as we would like to demonize evil and turn it into a caricature, it looks so ordinary that perpetrators can literally exchange clothes, and identities, with their victims. Sometimes they are caught in the act; sometimes they slip away, unnoticed. And silence only enables the masquerade.

Some of the themes Golden raises have uncanny parallels in current headlines. Consider Poland’s recent legislation to outlaw the language “Polish death camp” as well as any discussion of Polish complicity in the Holocaust or the recent anti-Semitic murder of the 85-year-old French woman who narrowly survived the Holocaust. 

To be sure, history is often so murky that multiple interpretations are necessary to find the truth. But in this novel, it is the effort to run from the truth that renders it murky.

Golden will be speaking at [words] in Maplewood and signing copies of his book on April 19 at 7:30 p.m. and at the South Orange Library on May 3 at 7:30 p.m.

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