When a novel is set in wartime, there is blood in it, and if it is World War II and Jews in Europe, likely a lot of it, much of it curdled. Memoirs of that era are near certain to be terrifying, inciting morbid curiosity about the gradual, chilling diminution of standards of humanity.
For Jewish people, these memories go beyond as a statistical foundation for calculating casualties of war. When you add up the numbers, all sides lost. For us they go beyond that, combining systematic vilification with the threat of physical and cultural extermination, tragically at the hands of once tolerant and accepting countrymen. What successive generations have done with survivors’ memories remains rooted in the imperative ‘Never again!’ - never to forget - and that which must be remembered is frequently a nightmare more tolerable as Stephen King than as newsreel swastikas.
On Saturday, Linda Kass drove from Seaside to Apalachicola with her husband, Frank, and her 93-year-old dad, Ernie Stern, to sign “Tasa’s Song,” her first novel, at Downtown Books. First they walked around, had tea and chocolate downtown. Frank, who recalled the Old Soda Fountain from a fishing trip some years back, bought outrageous bumper stickers there, and a t-shirt and hat at John Lee’s place. Stern was pleased with the deck shoes he got at Apalach Outfitters. The waitress at the Owl Café made the dinner there exceptionable.
Tasa’s story, which reached publication through She Writes Press, has the relaxed air of telling during the teen years, a blend of diary entries, letters, emphatic passages, no labored, irrelevant descriptions, of a girl from a rural section of Poland, lands first ceded by the Germans to Russia, and later fought over as enmities shifted. Tasa and her extended family, most especially her best friend and cousin and eventual boyfriend Danik, reckon with the threat of Hitler as so many Jews did at the time, with a mixture of bewilderment, disbelief, despair and opportunism. Because the Rosinski family has land holdings, and close, affectionate ties with their Polish neighbors, they are able to find safety, and relative security, beneath a barn owned by a workman who built the family the home they are fleeing.
Kass rooted her novel in the circumstances of her mother’s life during the war, under the Soviets, who unlike the Germans did not orchestrate systemic persecution. In that sense her mom was fortunate, living a life as carefree as might be imagined during such a threatening time, isolated from the big cities of Warsaw and Lodz where ghettoes, and eventually deportation to death camps, was the fate of a lot of Polish Jews. Tasa is able to enjoy pranks with her school chums, laugh at teachers, even fall in love, making sense of the period she is living through with the detachment not reachable by a hunted fugitive.
As the first-generation daughter of two Holocaust survivors (her father fled to America, and later Ohio, from Vienna with his parents at age 15, when in 1938 Germany peaceably absorbed Austria into the Third Reich), Kass’ fictional story is compelling and emotionally satisfying for reasons other than the deep relieving trauma so often retold.
“My mother was not a wiolin prodigy, she didn’t fall in love with anybody. To me a memoir is someone writing about myself,” she said. “This is a book about survival, it could be any war, where people are persecuted and they continue to be persecuted. This is one human being’s experience in the war. This is not a history book; this is one person, not necessarily a real person.”
What makes “Tasa’s Song” exceptional, and an enriching read, is Kasa’s reluctance to employ the all-encompassing lessons of history’s hindsight to hand readers the outraged moral template of perpetrator vs. sufferer. Instead, in paralleling her mother’s experiences without adopting them entirely as a true life testament, she frees herself to create a world of teen angst love, of awakening to the higher feelings inside us beyond clenched-teeth survival. Tasa’s is a world where music is not the liturgy accompanying victims to their deaths, but a source of strength and inspiration in the heart of a naïve, cheerful, sheltered teenager.
In this way, Kass has fashioned a work that achieves a victory over the wrenching of the soul wrought by Holocaust henchmen. Tasa does not ponder a world where the enemy walks past every window, hides in every shadow, a foe whose wintry breath has the power to ice the heart. Rather, ‘Tasa’s Song” is a celebration of the fullness of the human spirit, of the ties of friendship and love, of duty and sacrifice, of trust and conscience, that bind us even when the world around us unravels.