"We hear the echoes of other Holocaust literature, from Jerzy Kosinski and Elie Wiesel through Cynthia Ozick."
-Los Angeles Times
"Admirably ambitious ...Attached to every instance of altruism, bound up with every amiable or affectionate or romantic impulse are the beast of prejudice and self-gratification. It is as if Moran had turned Schindler's List on its head. [Moran has] incontestable conceptual gifts."
-New York Times Book Review
"As in The Diary of Anne Frank, the blend of confinement, sexual awakening, and cruelty in this novel makes for a poent and unblinking coming-of-age tale."
-The New Yorker
"Gentle and unfliching emotional honesty...Moran is a sophisticated storyteller who subtly explores the way ordinary people, even children, are capable of both good and evil, betrayal and sacrifice. Though a tale of Holocaust survival, this is also the story of many friendships."
"A test of courage under stress and what good people feel they must do. Sensitive and evocatively written, this is an impressive debut."
"An unconventional debut subject: a childhood encounter with the shadow of Nazism ...Niki is believably sensitive and observant; and Sigi is especially vividly drawn -she isn't at all long-suffering or saintly, and there are streaks of irritability and cruelty in her that, oddly enough, endear her to us. The novel invites and absorbs. Commendable."
THE MAN IN THE BOX
I'M UP IN THE ATTIC, pushing old thoughts around. I'm rummaging. I'm raising a miserable dry dust and wishing my hands weren't getting so grubby. I'm wishing I had boxes for everything. If I could put the things I know into boxes, they would all be safely in their place at last, and no trouble to anyone. I'd stack the boxes in an orderly fashion. Then I'd take a good long look, and walk away, and never look again.
During the war we kept our Jew in a box. It was my father's doing. My mother and my grandma begged him not to. Think of what might happen to us, they pleaded. Think of the danger, and for what? My father didn't listen. He would not be moved. He made a plan for the Jew and kept to it, as long as he could.
Our Jew was very rare. And he was clever. You might think a fugitive would have crept up in the night, flitting from shadow to shadow through the sleeping village like a Gypsy out to steal some horses or children. But midnight creeping would mean roused dogs and sleepless old women peering through the shutters. Our Jew knew this. Our Jew came boldly in the middle of the day, straight up the road during the hour of lunch, when not a single soul in Sankt Vero could be bothered to raise his nose from his soup plate. Even the dogs were under the tables, grooling for scraps. Lunchtime: Everyone safely in his place. This was the natural order of things in Sankt Vero. So the Jew's knock on our back door resounded. It boomed even though it was only a tap. He had come unseen, and by surprise.
He came because of me, because of the thin white scar on the right side of my belly. He'd put it there himself, years before when I was little and laid out on our kitchen table, my father holding my arms and my granddad pinning my feet. The Jew had been one of the travelers who used the Sankt Vero Pass. He had broken his journey, staying the night in the one hopeful room my mother kept in her mild ambition as a Gasthaus keeper. He did not exactly have a peaceful sleep in the mountains. There was the matter of the whimpering child in the next room, tossing and drenched with a great fever, tender to the touch everywhere. A troubled child, causing the mother and the grandma, who were sitting up, great worry. Toward dawn, my whimpers turned to howls. Presently the Jew appeared in the doorway, shirttail out of his trousers, hair standing up oddly. He announced that he was a doctor and could he have a look? My mother nodded. He touched my stomach and I screamed and the next thing I knew I was being held down on the kitchen table. The Jew dripped a metallic-smelling liquid over gauze held in a wire mask that covered my mouth and nose. I was blinking against the fumes and the light for a moment. Then the world vanished. When I came to myself again it was as if no time at all had passed. And a moment later I was throwing up into a tin bucket by the side of my bed. But when I was able to lie back I noticed the cool clean sheets. I felt tape and gauze on my belly. And although it stung wickedly underneath the bandage, I felt emptied of whatever poison had tormented me.
After the kitchen operation, my grandfather used to always say to everyone he'd had to watch the Jew like a hawk in case he'd felt like clipping any foreskins for good measure when he was finished with my swollen appendix. You don't need either of them, my grandfather would say, laughing, but without the one you feel sort of naked, don't you? My grandfather also made a joke of the Jew because he was embarrassed, I think. The Jew, you see, wouldn't take any money for slicing me open, absolutely refused cash or kind. He even paid for his room. When he left the house and headed for his little black Citroen, I was watching from my window. I saw my father walk with him to the car and shake his hand. He held the car door open until the Jew was in and then closed it for him. My father seemed to bear a weight all the rest of that day. I thought at the time that he was troubled only by my close call, not by what the Jew had done.
It was hard to know what to think of Jews, even in those days, before the heavy propaganda and the heavy laws. It was unusual to see one. Our town of Sankt Vero in the Tirol had no Jews of its own. I knew from my schoolbooks (before they were changed) and also from the old magazines my grandmother had stacked and saved in the cellar (before she began burning them for fuel) that there were so many kinds of Jews, as different from each other as a Tiroler is from a Frenchman or a Turk, that it seemed stupid to lump them all together in one group. But people did...
AND THERE WERE SECRET JEWS, like ours. Who could tell he was a Jew? He looked like any Austrian; there are plenty with his exact shade of brown hair and blue eyes. I have hair and eyes myself just like his. My father has a bigger nose, with a sharper hook. Who was to say this Jew was a Jew if he didn't say so himself?
He said so himself when he came back to our house in 1943. He said they had rounded up all the Jews in Innsbruck and were taking them to camps in the East. He said he only escaped because one of his colleagues at the hospital hid him in the morgue during the roundup, and next day drove him to the foot of the Sankt Vero Pass in one of the hospital's ambulances. He walked from there. He had no star on his coat, which belonged to his colleague, but if anyone had asked for his papers they would have seen at once: Jude.
My father became very solemn and told me to leave the room. I did, but I crouched at the landing of the stairs so I could listen to them talk. The smell of coffee told me my father considered this an important occasion, for it was very expensive in those days and not made casually.
The Jew was saying fantastic things about young soldiers, fresh-faced like schoolboys and just as energetic, shoving along old women and little children and everyone with the yellow star down the alleys and streets to the railroad station. There was no shooting, but the soldiers were implacable. Everyone must go, they shouted. Everyone. A long, long train was waiting, with two locomotives coupled in front. There were only freight cars and animal cars, and the Jews were put into them and the doors were locked. The soldiers relaxed then, smoked cigarettes, sipped from their canteens, removed their helmets, joked and teased with one another. The Jew admitted he had not seen these things himself, for he'd been in the morgue. But he had it firsthand from a colleague who happened to be at the station that morning to meet his mother, who was arriving from Melk.
All right, it's a common story of the time. Everyone's heard it by now. Everyone knows these things took place. But in Sankt Vero, then, it seemed unbelievable. When the news arrived in the usual ways, a few days after our Jew turned up, it made many men in our village uneasy. Not over the fate of the Jews, but over the open exercise of such a terrible power. Everyone made jokes about Yids and affected dislike for them, but they did the same with other people they never saw, like Polacks and Italians. They made jokes. But this shipping of people like animals was something new, something excessive. The Emperor would never have allowed anything like this...
TODAY (PICK ANY ONE between February 1943 and May 1945), the Jew is telling me about tobacco. He misses it so much, the Monte Cristo cigars he used to buy at Glock's in Innsbruck, back in the days when his practice was flourishing. After his surgery hours each afternoon, he'd smoke one at the Cafe Central, sipping a coffee and reading the Presse. The Jew is starved for company. He is telling the things he remembers, which, after all, are not filed in alphabetical order. That is how we get, all in one go, from smoking a cigar at the Cafe Central to the wedding of his daughter at Schloss Mirabel in Salzburg (where they waltzed in the Marble Hall) to the time in his youth as a military surgeon when he'd amputated a man's nose in a tent in the Carpathian Mountains. The nurse, who had handled every sort of mangled flesh in her duties, simply refused to touch it. All at once, the Jew begins to weep. Sigi is with me, as she is most evenings when I go up to hear the Jew talk. She likes to sit next to me on the straw, her head up against my shoulder like a pet (which I'm not allowed to have). We're the same age, but I'm two inches taller. Sigi says to the Jew: Never mind, never mind.
BUT I'D LIKE TO SAY how it was back then, with the Jew in the box. I'd like to explain what happened. I'd like to start with Sigi.