Monday, September 10, 2007


Book Review

By Daniel Olivas

Edited by Chava Pressburger
(Atlantic Monthly Press)
180 pp.; $24 hardcover

I attended grades one through eight at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Los Angeles during a time of great unrest in our country – the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., police brutality against war protestors during the Chicano Moratorium. Yet one of my strongest memories is reading excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary. I remember being moved by the words of that remarkable little Jewish girl with large eyes who hid from the Nazis for two years. I also remember the horror of learning that the Nazis eventually found Anne and her family and that she died in a typhus epidemic that ran through the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s diary spoke to this Los Angeles classroom across the decades, across an ocean, across cultures, across religions.

And that little Chicano boy never could have imagined that someday he would grow up and fall in love with a Jewish woman, marry in a temple, convert to Judaism and send his son to a Jewish day school for eight years.

But what did Anne Frank’s story offer me and my classmates at that time? The nuns who set the curriculum knew. While it is pretty near impossible to comprehend the annihilation of millions, Anne Frank offered us a face, one child to whom we could relate. And of course the questions came. Who would want to kill this little girl? Will it happen again? Could it happen to us?

Atlantic Monthly Press now brings us the English translation of The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941 - 1942 which, as with Anne Frank’s diary, puts a face on the Holocaust through the words and artwork of a precocious teenager. Simply put, this book should be read by everyone.

Petr was a Czech Jew, born in 1928, and who died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz at the age of sixteen. His diary had been lost for sixty years but resurfaced in 2003. Petr’s sister, Chava Pressburger, edited her older brother’s diary entries which cover the eleven months before Petr’s deportation from Prague to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Also included are poems, an excerpt from one of Petr’s unfinished novels, articles from Vedem (a weekly magazine Petr started in Theresienstadt), as well as linocuts, sketches and watercolor paintings. There is little doubt that if Petr had survived, he would have developed into an accomplished writer and artist.

Petr’s entries recount the daily routine of a teenager attending school and spending time with friends and family. But interspersed amongst the quotidian details are observations that illustrate the tightening Nazi noose: “In the morning I did my homework. Otherwise nothing special. Actually, a lot is happening, but it is not even visible. What is quite ordinary now would certainly cause upset in a normal time. For example, Jews don’t have fruit, geese, and any poultry, cheese, onions, garlic, and many other things. Tobacco ration cards are forbidden to prisoners, madmen, and Jews.”

And there are poems with lines such as these: “Today it’s clear to everyone / who is a Jew and who’s an Aryan, / because you’ll know Jews near and far / by their black and yellow star.”

Yet, despite all this, Petr loved to play pranks and possessed a wicked sense of humor as shown by this observation written on April 20, 1942: “Every building has to hang out a swastika flag, except for the Jews, of course, who are not allowed this pleasure.”

Aside from his writings, Petr’s artwork is noteworthy for its detail and sophistication. There is an eerie 1943 watercolor entitled “Ghetto Dwellings” that captures a foreboding atmosphere that would be difficult to replicate in words.

Petr had a particular love for the linocut which requires great control over the tools needed to carve images into small pieces of linoleum, a process similar to making woodcuts. In one of his Vedem articles, Petr describes this art form: “As the entire linocut technique shows, a linocut is the expression of a person who does not make compromises. It is either black or white There is no grey transition.”

In another Vedem piece, Petr explains that even in the squalor and deprivation of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, creativity can thrive: “The seed of a creative idea does not die in mud and scum. Even there it will germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in the darkness.” Petr proved this to be true as he founded a magazine and continued to write and create artwork while in the camp.

Also included in this book are photographs of Petr and his family. There is one from February 1933 of Petr and Chava holding hands, walking toward to the camera, both dressed in thick coats, knitted caps and scarves to protect them from the Prague winter. The five-year-old Petr has a determined look in his eyes, lips tight with purpose, as he leads his younger sister along the city street. Petr’s face is the face of all children whose lives were cut short by the Nazis. And it is a face that implores us to remember two essential words: Never again.

[This review first appeared in the Jewish Journal.]

◙ BOOK READING: Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press). Edited by C.M. Mayo

WHEN: Wednesday, September 12th at 6:00 p.m.
WHERE: King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at New York University

Reading and discussion of Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, an anthology of Mexican fiction and literary prose with works by some of Mexico's best-known authors. With editor C.M. Mayo, writers Monica Lavin and Pedro Angel Palou, and translators Harry Morales and Daniel Shapiro.

Read more about this book and its many outstanding contributors by clicking here.

King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at NYU is located at 53 Washington Square South (between Thompson and Sullivan Streets)

For more information please call 212-998-3650 or visit:

This event is part of Celebrate Mexico Now, a citywide festival of contemporary art and culture.

"This delicious volume has lovingly gathered a banquet of pieces that reveal Mexico in all its infinite variety, its splendid geography, its luminous peoples. What a treat!" --Margaret Sayers Peden, editor, Mexican Writers on Writing (Trinity University Press)

◙ Ilan Stavans reviews The Art of Political Murder (Grove) by Franciso Goldman, which is a journalistic look at the 1998 murder of a Guatemalan bishop in the aftermath of the country's 30-year civil war. Stavans notes, in part: “At its core, the book feels strangely empty. Goldman doesn't make use of his wonderful descriptive talents, as he does in his fiction, and most of the principals drift in and out of sight without leaving a trace. They are parts of a clockwork he's committed to dismantling in front of our eyes, much like the boy who learns how things work by taking them apart: The effort is educational but the result is inoperable.”

◙ As noted earlier on La Bloga, Junot Díaz’s long-awaited second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books), continues to make a critical splash. Yesterday, in the El Paso Times, Rigoberto González reviewed the novel observing, in part: “Known as a master of the short story form, Díaz now can claim the same for the longer narrative. His writing is fast-paced and humorous; his characters and depictions of Dominican lives are complex and compassionate…”

And Susan Straight reviewed the novel for the Los Angeles Times: “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is panoramic and yet achingly personal. It's impossible to categorize, which is a good thing… Díaz's novel is a hell of a book. It doesn't care about categories. It's densely populated; it's obsessed with language. It's Dominican and American, not about immigration but diaspora, in which one family's dramas are entwined with a nation's, not about history as information but as dark-force destroyer.”

Keep checking in on La Bloga for more on Díaz’s novel…

◙ Over at Luna, a journal of poetry and translation, Rigoberto González reviews Blind Date with Cavafy by Steve Fellner (Marsh Hawk Press) noting: “Fellner’s deadpan delivery disarms the reader (The poem ‘Judgment Day’ opens matter-of-factly with 'The line is long.'), but he never fails to reel the true sentiment of his poems back in. And by the end of the book, though even the funnier lines don’t seem as funny anymore because the pain underneath has surfaced fully, the reader will come to appreciate and trust this ‘funny man’…”

◙ Social commentator and author, Mark Dery, offers this wry meditation on the “cuisine” of Taco Bell for

“I'm having a señor moment. Dinner tonight is the unthinkable: a Taco Bell Original Taco and Burrito Supreme, abominations that haven't profaned this chowhound's palate since I was a kid in Southern California, birthplace of fast food. I'm committing this foodie felony partly because I'm à la recherche du whatever: the goldenrod-and-avocado-colored memories of my '60s-'70s youth, when dinner out, more often than not, meant Taco Bell…”

I admit to being interviewed and quoted for Dery's piece. He also quotes the artist Perry Vaquez of whom I've written here on La Bloga.

◙ GOOD THINGS COME IN SMALL PACKAGES: OnePageStories is a new online literary quarterly that publishes fiction, memoir, and personal essay under 1,000 words. Its anniversary magazine, OnePageStories Journal, will circulate each fall (beginning 2008), offering the stories and essays from its website in print, along with contest winner profiles, interviews, photographs, and more. Professor Linsey Abrams, novelist and Director of the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York, inspired this project, and Irene Ramirez, Graphic Designer and Artist, made the endeavor possible. My connection? I have a little story included in the debut issue entitled “Mateo.” Check it out and consider submitting.

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro! --Daniel Olivas

1 comment:

C.M. Mayo said...

Thanks Daniel! I'm also talking about the book (and Miraculous Air) on Monday the 17th at a Washington DC think tank, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute. It's free, but RSVP. More at

About Holocaust memoirs. There's another very interesting one that you might also like, SALA'S GIFT.