BOSTON — It took a story about a partisan with a knife jumping out of a tree to convince a young Helen Maryles Shankman that “Jews fought back” during the Holocaust.
As she grew up in Chicago during the 1960s and 70s, Shankman’s survivor parents — the late Brenda and Barry Maryles — often told her “vivid stories” about wartime Poland.
Almost all of her parents’ friends had lived through the Shoah, and the author recalls thinking of them, “they didn’t know how to be American. My parents were not like the people in ‘Dick & Jane,’” she told The Times of Israel in an interview.
Shankman learned of her father’s life on the run in forests, and about her mother’s time in hiding, as well as the suffering of their friends. Her initial impressions of the Holocaust were of the “sheep to the slaughter” variety, and she was not enthralled. Then one day during a meal, Shankman heard about a Jewish partisan with a knife who jumped out of a tree, and her mind did a reset — there was also resistance and heroism involved in the Shoah, she realized.
“That was the first moment I understood that Jews fought back,” said the author, who began pelting her mother with questions about her hometown, Wlodawa, where armed Jews jumped out of trees and not everyone was coaxed to their deaths.
Shankman discovered that hundreds of Wlodawa’s Jews had slipped through the Nazis’ clutches, and “it felt like they were giants or magicians,” she said.
“Suddenly all of these survivors I knew became people instead of old black and white photographs in a newspaper,” said Shankman.
The writer’s newly published compilation of linked stories, “In the Land of Armadillos,” injects magical realism into the Wlodawa tales of her mother, who died in 2009. Set in 1942, “Armadillos” hinges on the Nazis’ brutal occupation of the Polish farming region close to Ukraine. The backdrop of persecution and genocide are only too real, but elements like a demented beast vanquishing Nazi riflemen during a mass shooting of Jews are the product of Shankman’s imagination and her extensive reading in the “fabulist” genre.
Best known for its proximity to the Nazi-built death camp Sobibor, Wlodawa is associated with the unprecedented escape of 300 Jewish prisoners from that extermination center in October of 1943. Up to a quarter of a million Jews were gassed at Sobibor, and archeologists continue to uncover their intimate possessions during excavations. About 11,000 of Sobibor’s victims were from Wlodawa itself, which was 70% Jewish before the war.
Shankman’s tales are told from the viewpoints of Germans, Poles and Jews, and most of them take place in the heart of Wlodawa. In “The Jew Hater,” a talking dog saves a Jewish girl and the dog’s owner, a notorious anti-Semite, who had been forced to hide the girl by partisans.
“I think nobody would hate anyone if they just had to spend a couple of weeks with them,” said Shankman of the story’s premise. As in other “Armadillos” tales, the author tries to “humanize” a hateful killer, in part by forcing him to show kindness.
“It caused me a lot of anguish to humanize some of these characters,” said Shankman, whose major villain, Commandant Willy Reinhart, murdered “not with hate but with indifference,” she said.
Closing the book is the story “A Decent Man,” where we glimpse the sadistic Reinhart’s self-delusional processing of the carnage he inflicted in Wlodawa.
“I wanted to take a man who felt nothing and make him feel everything at once,” said Shankman, whose 2014 “The Color of Light” brought an undead, Anne Rice-like treatment to the Holocaust, with Shankman’s leading vampire seeking to date a descendant of his murdered lover.
Reality, magic and memory
Shankman is one of several authors to fuse magical realism to the Holocaust, but she might be the only child of survivors among the more removed 3Gs — the grandchildren of survivors — who have dabbled in the genre, including Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer.
At 55, Shankman has one foot set in her parent’s generation of memoirs and histories, and the other in places like the opening scene of the X-men film (2000), where a boy uses his mind to melt a gate in front of the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers.
“I didn’t mean to do it, and I didn’t do it on purpose,” said Shankman of her fabulist approach to the Shoah. “It felt completely right. It was exactly how these stories wanted to be told,” she said.
Having interpreted the exploits of her parents’ survivor friends as “miracles,” Shankman — who is also a painter and mother of four children — blended facts with a dash of fantasy to spin out her cast of intersecting townspeople. Knowing that few people will “pick up a history book” about the Holocaust, she deployed supernatural flourishes to make the topic palatable.
When it comes to Shankman’s non-magical influences for Shoah writing, the 2008 book by Father Patrick Desbois, “The Holocaust by Bullets,” was a “validating” read for the author, who was drawn to the priest’s quest to locate mass graves of Jews murdered in Ukraine. Until reading the testimony of Shoah eye-witnesses interviewed by Desbois and his researchers, Shankman had “never heard anyone tell stories like my parents,” she said.
As Desbois trekked across Ukraine in search of evidence, intensive door-knocking uncovered “ancient Ukranians and Poles who are very upset [these killings] happened, but have no way to tell anyone,” said Shankman.
Like something out of her “Armadillos” tales, shriveled men and women directed Desbois to unmarked mass graves, filled in the year before death camps like Sobibor made the genocide less public. Along with town elders leading Desbois to these sites, so too does the occasional wizened goat, sensing “scars of land” that closed after swallowing thousands of Jews, noted Shankman.
One month ago, the author’s father unexpectedly passed away on the first day of Passover. Shankman and her siblings flew to Israel, where her parents had obtained a burial plot in Beit Shemesh, outside Jerusalem. The author’s connection to the Jewish state is deep, having spent time on a kibbutz with Bnei Akiva and almost making aliyah as a young adult.
With Passover preempting the sitting of shiva for her father, the family did not begin that process until Yom HaShoah — “strangely fitting,” said Shankman, whose brother read aloud the tribute she wrote for their father at his funeral. In simple words, Shankman recounted her father’s transition from sewers and forests in Poland to revival on the shores of Lake Michigan.
“The war took many things from the boy,” wrote Shankman in her tribute. “It took most of his family. At the end of it, the boy emerged from a hole in the ground with his father and one brother, and still, the boy was happy, because he was alive,” she wrote.
With “Armadillos” based mostly on her mother’s stories, Shankman will now turn to illuminating her father’s life, including the postwar “burden of memory that will not go away,” she said.
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