I’ll admit there was probably no way I wasn’t going to love Annette Gendler’s 2017 memoir Jumping Over Shadows. I’m a sucker for cross-cultural romances, and for international dramas liberally sprinkled with phrases in foreign languages–especially when those languages are French, German, and Hebrew. And I can’t remember ever reading a novel or memoir of Jewish life that failed to hold my attention. Even so, I think I’ve got enough remaining objectivity to say with confidence that Gendler’s memoir is something special.
Her story begins in 1980s Munich three weeks after her father’s death, on the day she meets the man for whom she will one day convert to Judaism. We follow her courtship with this French-Russian-Polish-German Jew at the same time as she ruminates on another love affair: that between her father’s Aunt Resi and a Bohemian Jew, an affair that ended in marriage…and then divorce, in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The question, of course, is whether Gendler and her beloved will manage to overcome not just their cultural and religious differences but the abiding shadow of the Holocaust.
It’s quite rare to read about what it was like to be a Jew in post-World War II Germany, probably for the simple, sobering reason that there are so few of them left. Gendler frequently visited Germany’s Holocaust memorials with her Jewish boyfriend, and she mentions as well visiting some of the synagogues that had escaped destruction in Kristallnacht and been restored by a Germany eager to demonstrate its welcoming spirit to the Jewish community. “[T]hey struck me as the most fitting memorials of all,” she writes, “gleaming but empty synagogues.” When Gendler and her beloved travel abroad, they find that other Jews have difficulty comprehending how any Jew could still live in Germany. And speaking German to one another in public becomes something of a delicate matter, to be adjudicated on a case by case basis. While visiting the French village where her mother-in-law was hidden from the Nazis? Probably not.
Another rare perspective offered by Gendler’s work is that of her father’s family, who were non-Jewish Germans who had been living in Bohemia for generations by the time of the Second World War. When Germany was defeated, it was part of the accord worked out by the war’s victors that all Germans be deported from the surrounding territories and resettled in Germany. Gendler’s memoir recounts the tearful good-byes of her father and grandparents as they boarded the freight train car ordered to bear them away from their home in Reichenberg. Once all the Germans were back in Germany, it was thought, the German government would have no way of justifying a claim to any of the surrounding nations.
Despite such sobering subject matter, Gendler’s memoir is not grim. It’s matter of fact, not only about the tragedies that lace the histories of both families, but about the intriguingly various reactions that the members of their families exhibited to adversity, reactions that at times took on a tinge of moral ambiguity. Everyone in Gendler’s memoir is profoundly human. And is deemed worthy of affection for it.
This is another unique quality of Gendler’s tale: her voice. Perhaps because of the grave topics broached in the historical portions of the book, Gendler is more down-to-earth than many raconteurs of their own love stories. She doesn’t indulge in lengthy portrayals of what must have been at times overwhelming emotion, both positive and negative. On the other hand, even with thirty years of hindsight, she remains gracious with her twenty-some-thing self and doesn’t dismiss her younger self’s concerns in a surfeit of ironic distance. The narrator is universally generous with her characters. And what few details of her emotional life she selectively reveals leave us pleasantly hungry for more.
This is a work to be savored. Like a slice of Haselnusstorte. Recipe included.