‘The Land of Armadillos’

‘The Land of Armadillos’

Local writer’s interwoven stories look at the Holocaust through lens of magical realism

Ulica Kosielna ­— in English, Church Street — in Wlodawa  (Wikimedia Commons)
Ulica Kosielna ­— in English, Church Street — in Wlodawa  (Wikimedia Commons)
 The beit midrash, next to the Great Synagogue, in Wlodawa. (Jerzy Durczak)
The beit midrash, next to the Great Synagogue, in Wlodawa. (Jerzy Durczak)

There are many ways of telling the stories of the Holocaust.

There are many stories, of course — far more than six million of them, because each story is different, and each person who survived has a story, just as each murdered victim does.

You can make the stories bureaucratic and soulless, lines of people marched to their deaths, recorded in ledgers, their belongings catalogued. That’s the German way.

You can make them be about the concentration camps and ghettos, the heartbreaking stories of cruelty and inhumanity and pain and loss and fear with which we are most familiar. You can add the touches of goodness and humanity and courage that allowed some people to survive and compelled some non-Jews to risk their lives to help others.

Helen Maryles Shankman
Helen Maryles Shankman

You could make them “very simple, pure reporting, just like a tape recorder,” as Helen Maryles Shankman of Teaneck reports that her mother did. Or you can make them much more dramatic and passionate, as her father did.

Or you can tell them the way Ms. Shankman has in her new book, “In the Land of Armadillos,” which Scribner published this week. It’s a collection of eight intricately interwoven short stories, each able to stand alone but even stronger as it relates to the others. “They all take place in and around the town of Wlodaya, Poland.” How do you pronounce that? “When we were little, we called it Bloodville,” she said.

Ms. Shankman’s parents, Brenda and Barry Maryles, both survived the Holocaust. Neither was in a concentration camp or ghetto — he was in the woods or in bunkers, she was hidden, and her story — the story of Bloodville — is unusual.

Ms. Shankman grew up in Chicago hearing her father’s stories — her mother kept hers to herself until later — but “I wasn’t interested in them when I was a kid,” she said. “I was interested in differentiating myself. I moved to New York and became an artist.” But then she got married and had children, and “that connected me to my parents and their stories.”

10-3-V-Hi_res_Armadillos.coverimageOnce she had children, Ms. Shankman found that her artistic impulses shifted from art to writing — it’s much easier logistically to write than to create visual art because you need far fewer tools and far less space.

Ms. Shankman’s first published book, a novel, “The Color of Light,” came out in late 2013. It is a vampire story, set mostly in late-20th-century New York, but part of it is about the Holocaust.

From there, she bowed to the inevitable — among the stories she has to tell are her parents’, particularly her mother’s.

Ms. Shankman did a great deal of research for this book, which contains both history and “elements of myth, folklore, and magic realism,” she said. It’s a risky mix, and “at first I was uncomfortable about adding elements of the supernatural and the paranormal to the Holocaust, because it felt wrong,” she continued. “But at the same time it felt very right.

“And then I realized that every time someone survived, it was a miracle.

“The people in my parents’ stories were giants or magicians or ogres. The people who saved them in the forest seemed to me to be mythological forces. It was a very short leap from these mythical human beings I was hearing about, who could do such amazing things by making a phone call or jumping over a fence, to adding the paranormal.”

Her father hid in the woods with the partisans. Most of his family was slaughtered. His story was both more painful and less unusual than her mother’s. “My mom’s whole family survived together,” Ms. Shankman said. “It was remarkable. And they were protected by a German.”

Brenda Soroka and her siblings, still in a German DP camp, around 1953.
Brenda Soroka and her siblings, still in a German DP camp, around 1953.

That German was Willy Seeliger, a German official who set up housekeeping in a Polish castle whose owner had taken himself out of the country for the duration. Ms. Shankman’s mother’s father was a saddle maker, one of Seeliger’s Jews; he protected them as much as he could, for as long as he could. Eventually he lost his superpowers and the Jews he was shielding lost their lives, but Ms. Shankman’s grandfather had sensed the change and spirited his family away before then.

Seeliger was a good German, at least as far as her family was concerned, Ms. Shankman said (although he was not good to other Jews; there was real darkness in him as well, she added).

Seeliger is not a character in “Armadillos,” although he is part of a composite character, Ms. Shankman said. But it is the complexity of the relationships her parents described that fueled her imagination and resulted in her book.

“I was fascinated by the way my mother got this look in her eye when she talked about Seeliger,” she continued. “The idea of a German who wasn’t a bad guy was fascinating to me.”

Helen’s parents in Montreal, soon after their engagement.
Helen’s parents in Montreal, soon after their engagement.

It was that thought — that people are so incredibly complex that there is some good in some (although not all) of the pretty bad ones — that led to “In the Land of the Armadillos.”

“Two of the stories in the book are told from the viewpoint of Germans, and one from a Polish anti-Semite,” Ms. Shankman said. “One of them was influenced by the story of Bruno Schultz,” the artist and writer who was murdered during the Holocaust. “He was protected by a vicious Nazi, Felix Landau.” Mr. Schultz was one of “Landau’s Jews; Landau had Schultz paint murals on the walls of his children’s nursery.” During the year that it took for those murals to be painted, Schultz was one of Landau’s “pet Jews,” she said. “It’s fascinating. He was a member of the Einsatzgruppen,” a paramilitary death squad that was responsible for mass murders, “and at the same time that he was slaughtering Jews he was infatuated with some girl, and he wrote her love letters.

“I wanted to get into the psyche of someone who could do all of this — slaughtering Jews, protecting a Jew, and being in love with a girl. I am fascinated by the idea of what it takes for someone to decide to save someone’s life, at great risk of their own. What happened? Was it how they were raised? Did something radicalize them? Was it something else entirely?

“That’s what caused me to write these stories.”

Wlodawa’s Great Synagogue (Emmanuel Dyan)
Wlodawa’s Great Synagogue (Emmanuel Dyan)

After doing a great deal of research — some of it using German documents, filtered horrifically and hilariously through Google Translate — Ms. Shankman decided that although each situation and every person was different, the one thing that people who tried to save Jews had in common “was that they tried to save people they knew.

“It is easy to condemn and kill an abstraction, but the girl working in your kitchen or the guy painting your kid’s room — you have feeling for that person.”

As for the Polish farmers who saved Jews, “they were incredibly brave,” she said. “Incredibly heroic. My grandfather, who was a very good man, had nursed a non-Jewish farmer back to health — they were like brothers.” That was a favor that eventually was returned.

Ms. Shankman’s mother died in 2009, but Ms. Shankman’s uncle, her mother’s older brother, Philip Soroka, who lives in Montreal, has been able to fill in some missing details. Her father, who still is in Chicago, still tells his stories.

And Ms. Shankman keeps telling hers. After these eight, there will be more.

Information In the Land of Armadillos

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