I was working at the train station in Bensheim as a cleaner. And one night there was this boxcar. It was full of babies, taken from their parents,” Noa, one of the novel’s two main characters, sorrowfully tells Astrid, the other main character in the novel.
This stunningly grotesque, surreal, cruel image is the dramatic beginning to The Orphan’s Tale, Pam Jenoff’s most recent novel. While the discovery of the boxcar of little babies springs from the author’s imagination, it is a literary depiction of an actual historical event recorded in the archives of Yad Vashem as the “Unknown Children.”
“I pull back the door… There are babies, tiny bodies too many to count, lying on the hay-covered floor of the railcar, packed close and atop one another. Most do not move and I can’t tell whether they are dead or sleeping. From amid the stillness, piteous cries mix with gasps and moans like the bleating of lambs.”
Once again we confront the sledgehammering horror so aptly described by Irwin Cotler as an atrocity too horrible for us to imagine yet not too horrible to have happened – in the unnavigable darkness of Nazi Europe.
It was in part because of the need to write the scene of the boxcar of babies that Jenoff described The Orphan’s Tale as “the book that broke me.” But since there was no avoiding writing the scene, there was also no avoiding the emotional breakage that ensued for her.
And indeed, for the reader.
The Orphan’s Tale is a richly developed story of an improbable friendship between two women – Noa, a teenager when we meet her, and Astrid, twice Noa’s age – that is tested to ultimate limits by the hellish insanity in Germany and occupied France during World War II. From vastly different beginnings, their lives intersect at a sharp point of harrowing circumstance and self-sacrifice, the precarious fulcrum on which their lives ultimately balance.
Astrid is a famous aerialist, a trapeze artist who must teach Noa the art and science of the trapeze if both are to survive the war. Through the courage and benevolence of a circus owner, they are hidden among the many individuals who comprise the travelling Circus Neuhoff.
In this way, Jenoff weaves the second strand of historical truth into her tale. The Circus Althoff did actually shelter Jews during the war. Some of the characters in Jenoff’s tale derive their fictional lives from those lived by actual members of the Althoff circus during the war. Fifty years after the war, Yad Vashem honoured Adolf Althoff as Righteous Among the Nations. Jenoff has written that The Orphan’s Tale was intended to be a tribute to the courage of the circus people.
Jenoff relates the tale through the perspectives of her two narrators, Noa and Astrid. The unfolding story is never simply linear or chronological. There are two separate observation points from which events march forward. There are two moral compasses weighing decisions, which either mesh or collide as outside circumstances dictate. The reader is privy to the private thoughts and subjective observations of each woman. Their judgments and opinions do not always meet in an objective midpoint. But their relationship is strong, tested on the ground as it is in their aerial performances, where one failed grasp would surely lead to death.
Jenoff is masterful at creating and maintaining an ever-present atmosphere of foreboding that derives from being ceaselessly hunted. Noa, Astrid and the others hiding amid the clatter and clang of the circus are being pursued by the Nazis, and as we know, the Nazis and their confederates were remorseless. They sought their victims at all times, in all quarters and with all manner of brutality and indignity. Those being hunted, therefore, were never free of the fear and unease that accompanied the knowledge they were being stalked, without relent and without mercy.
Jenoff is uniquely qualified to apply her considerable writing skills to the ash-laden fields of World War II.
In 2013, she told the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, “I went to Krakow, Poland in the mid-90s as a diplomat for the State Department… basically to help American citizens over in Poland. It was right after communism had ended, and Poland had come out of the Cold War with all sorts of issues related to World War II that had never been resolved; issues about preserving the concentration camps, returning Jewish property, anti-Semitism, etc.
“I’m in Krakow by myself, and I’m in my early 20s, and this is pre-cellphones and pre-Internet, so I’m really cut off from my family and the rest of the world. And so, I did what I think any Jewish girl would do: I gravitated towards the surviving Jewish community of Poland. I was at the rabbi’s house for lunch on Saturdays; I went to services every Friday night. I did all those things. The consulate saw that I was close to the Polish Jewish community and they said, “All right, you go handle all this Holocaust-related stuff.” And so, for the next two and a half years, that became my job, working on issues related to the war.
“I came back from Poland very moved by my experiences there. All my books are very much inspired by my years in Europe.”
The Orphan’s Tale is heartbreaking and yet uplifting evidence of that inspiration.