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The way it was: a review of Zvi Preigerzon’s When the Menorah Fades

It goes without saying that Ukraine is full of Jewish history. Writing about Jewish experiences before and during the Nazi occupation, the author Zvi Preigerzon crafts a narrative that also resonates with events today.

December 13, 2023 - Nicole Yurcaba - Books and Reviews

The Menorah building that houses the Jewish community centre in Dnipro. Photo: Mykhailo Hryshyn / Shutterstock

Born in the village of Shepetivka, Ukraine in 1900, Zvi Preigerzon was eventually imprisoned in the gulag for writing about the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. A prolific writer in Hebrew, Preigerzon’s novels like When the Menorah Fades capture in great detail what life was like for Jewish communities in small Ukrainian towns like Hadiach, the primary setting of the book. However, while the novel predominantly focuses on daily Jewish life before and during the Nazi occupation of Hadiach, it is also full of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions, songs, metaphors and Kabbalistic spiritual elements. These are interwoven to form a story of cultural, religious and personal survival in the face of some of history’s most cruel and brutal actors.

Preigerzon’s novel follows multiple Jewish families who exist in close relation with one another. The novel’s main star is Binyamin, a budding young scholar who the narrator describes as a young man “at the age of twenty-three” and “a man of muscle and many dreams”. Binyamin ventures to Vilbovka, a small village five kilometres outside Hadiach, for a summer which would forever transform him. The Second World War looms on the literal and figurative horizons, yet Binyamin finds Hadiach’s everyday happenings sweeping him headlong into the lives of various characters. This includes the quietly gorgeous Rachel Feigin, the daughter of the village’s former shochet and mother of the adventurous, boisterous Tamar. As their lives change like the shifting seasons, so too does Hadiach, especially when the Nazis arrive years after the novel’s beginning, changing the town and its residents forever.

Preigerzon based the novel on interviews with Hadiach’s surviving community members. Nevertheless, the novel is not merely an extremely detailed account of the intricacies and intimacies of community members’ lives and households. Ultimately, it is an exploration of Hadiach itself. Preigerzon’s narrator frequently personifies Hadiach, often portraying the village like a well-pampered feminine figure. Initially, these descriptions are affectionate: “The stars have come out. The Queen of the Night has enveloped Hadiach in her star-spangled robe. Dogs bark off in the distance, and there is the rustling of trees.” The narrator also describes Hadiach as “that mother of all surrounding Jewish cities”. Nonetheless, as the novel continues, Hadiach transforms into a place riddled with death, where “Older people who were too weak had their meals brought directly to their homes” and “…new graves were constantly springing up.” Hadiach’s downfall directly correlates with the decimation of its Jewish population, and Preigerzon’s description of the Jewish population’s struggle against oppression and antisemitism is resounding, especially when read by contemporary readers paying attention to the drastic increase in antisemitism across the globe.

The novel also offers insight into Zionism, a continual flashpoint in today’s discussions about the current Israel-Hamas war. Especially after Nazis occupy Hadiach, the novel’s characters contemplate their Jewish identity even more than they did throughout the novel’s initial chapters. Some characters pose that “the majority of the non-Jews were not enemies of the Jews” in the face of “enemies who had gone forth to do their dark work”. Assimilation becomes one of the novel’s key focal points, with the narrator acknowledging that “Assimilation, even of the forced kind, therefore did not have the power to resolve the Jewish question.” The narrator in turn acknowledges that the majority of the general population did not want to accept the Jews, and that a “wave of cruel antisemitism was strengthening the Zionist idea.” For the novel’s narrator, and for many of its characters, “Zionism had in fact ceased to be a mere idea—it was gradually being realized.” The observation echoes loudly, especially in the face of the current Israel-Hamas war, which has left modern Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews divided. More so, these observations also attest to Preigerzon’s own pro-Israel views, which his grandson acknowledges in the novel’s introduction: “Preigerzon’s heart was always in Israel.”

However, the power of When the Menorah Fades lies not only in its resonance with an inflamed socio-political situation which has once again captured the world’s headlines and ignited numerous global protests and geopolitical discussions. The novel possesses a narrative poesy and clever structural techniques that quickly envelop readers. In terms of narrative poesy, the novel is filled with quietly reverent and philosophical passages. The narrator’s descriptions of the natural world possess a markedly romantic tone: “Between the forest and the deep vault of heaven silence has arrived. As though bound by some invisible hand they stand there facing one another, with the ephemera of summer stretched out between them.” This reverence mirrors the affection with which the narrator initially observes Hadiach.

Making the novel even more otherworldly and philosophically engaging is the narrator’s occasional identification as “the author”. This breaking of the fourth wall – a technique in which a performer or narrator acknowledges or addresses the audience – encourages a deeper personal introspection into the lives of the characters, as well as Hadiach’s relevance. For instance, the narrator-author recalls, “When this author was still just a boy he too used to chew a few crumbs of sugar from the miniscule piece that his mother used to give him every morning and sip a bit of Broder’s tea.” Thus, the personal interjections craft a mystery and a magic entirely of their own as they blur the fine lines between fact and fiction. They also serve as an affirmation and further establish the narrator-author’s reliability.

Preigerzon wrote When the Menorah Fades completely in secrecy, and as one travels through Hadiach and lives for awhile with its inhabitants via these pages, one cannot help but wonder how the act of writing in secrecy influenced the novel’s development. Nonetheless, the English translation of this novel is an important contribution to both the Jewish literature and Ukrainian literature canons.

When the Menorah Fades by Zvi Preigerzon. Published by Cherry Orchard Books in 2020.

Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is Humanities faculty at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in the United States. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.

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