Julie Gray uses the extensive notes compiled by her subject and life partner, Gidon Lev (whose birth name was Peter Wolfgang Löw), as a foundation for THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF GIDON LEV. In doing so, Gray has streamlined parts of Lev’s original narrative while working with him to fill in other, less fully told or altogether gapped-out portions of his life story. Gray includes numerous excerpts from Lev’s original account, repeatedly recounts his reactions to drafts of the manuscript-in-progress, and uses crossed-out words and phrases to mark Lev’s own contributions to the drafting process. This remarkable survivor’s story thus unfolds, in effect, in two different voices and along multiple temporal tracks, as the book toggles back and forth between the present moment of (collaborative) narration, Lev’s first, unedited version of his life story, and the past experiences, stretching back to the 1930s, that are presented over the course of the text taken as a whole. Those past experiences encompass Lev’s incarceration, as a child, in the Térézin (or Theresienstadt) Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic; the loss of many of his family members during the Holocaust, including his father and three of his grandparents; his subsequent liberation from the camp, temporary relocation to North America, and eventual emigration to Israel in 1959; and the breakdown of his first marriage and resultant fracturing of his family, his happy second marriage of more than four decades, and his second wife’s death from cancer, of which Lev himself is a two-time survivor.
By oscillating between the present moment(s) of telling and the other times and places being told about, the book highlights how understandings of the past are filtered through the interests, values, and priorities of the present moment of interpretation, suggesting that life-shaping events, in their original form, remain at least partly inaccessible. But that same oscillation also allows Gray and Lev to evoke startling contrasts, striking historical ironies, as they explore the way places and circumstances in the present carry legacies that need to be unearthed, scrutinized, and used to revisit one’s assumptions about what is—and has been—the case. The difference between the Prague in which Lev lived as a child when he was transported to Térézin versus the Prague encountered by contemporary tourists reveals one direction of change. But another direction is revealed by the contrast between the ideals that drew early Jewish pioneers to Palestine and that informed Lev’s work on kibbutzim, on the one hand, and the current-day realities of the West Bank, on the other hand, with the Israeli government now adopting methods of containment and control that invite comparison with the repressive measures to which Jews themselves have been subjected at various points in history. And yet another direction of change manifests itself in Lev’s evolving feelings about his mother. Having long harbored feelings of anger and resentment toward her, Lev comes to see his mother differently after reading for the first time, during his and Gray’s research for their book, her handwritten account of her own experiences in the concentration camp.
Further solidifying its status as an outstanding resource for engaging with the personal, political, and sociohistorical dimensions of the Holocaust, the book concludes with a brief afterword by Lev, Lev’s responses to questions that Gray posed to him during interviews, an informative, wide-ranging appendix on “Jewish History, Anti-Semitism, Zionism, and the Jewish Question,” and a list of suggested further readings.
Inventively structured and impeccably written, THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF GIDON LEV is a must-read book for anyone interested in Holocaust narratives. But it is also a compelling example of family memoir, a compact introduction to the history of Israel, and a personal history that adumbrates the larger story of the Jewish diaspora—not to mention an illuminating account of the writing process itself.
~David Herman for IndieReader