There’s a scene in The Street Sweeper (Doubleday Canada) where a black oncologist, a white Jewish historian and a skinny, black street sweeper carrying a menorah are engaged in conversation about a Holocaust survivor.
The story of how this unlikely group got together forms the basis of this bold and absorbing novel, the third by Australian writer Elliot Perlman, a former lawyer.
“We are far more connected to people than we realize,” Perlman says over the phone from Melbourne. “We are connected in ways we would be astonished to find out and in ways we seldom realize. And we are connected to people around us through ways that we might not be aware of.”
The novel flips back and forth between several characters in different countries and different decades – including prewar Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, the displaced persons camps, postwar Chicago and present-day Manhattan.
It follows two main plot lines. One is of the unusual friendship between a black janitor, Lamont Williams, and a Holocaust survivor, Henryk Mandelbrot. The other follows Adam Zignelik, a Jewish-Australian historian in Manhattan, who is nervous about losing his teaching position at a university.
The Street Sweeper begins in present-day Manhattan, outside the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where Lamont, an ex-con, is talking to Mandelbrot who is being treated for cancer.
The idea for this novel came when the author was living in Manhattan just across from this hospital.
“Manhattan, they say, is the microcosm of the world; well, this hospital is the microcosm of New York. It has every conceivable ethnic group, socioeconomic group and racial group. People from all over the world come to be treated, to work or to visit.”
While waiting at a bus stop near the hospital, Perlman would often start thinking about all these people of different backgrounds gathered together outside, sharing cigarettes and stories with each other.
“I wondered what if an unlikely friendship blossomed with people who would otherwise never have a chance to meet. That was the beginning of the long journey of writing this novel, which took 5-1/2 years.”
One morning, on one of his first days on the job as a janitor at the hospital, Lamont finds Mandelbrot left outside in a wheelchair to get fresh air. Annoyed by the cigarette smoke, Mandelbrot asks Lamont to take him back to his room. Lamont, who wants to make it to his six-month probationary period without incident, is understandably reluctant. He works in Building Services, he says. It’s the job of Patient Escort Services to handle patients.
But seeing as that there is no one from Patient Escort Services around, he decides to do it himself.
So begins their friendship. Lamont visits Mandelbrot after his shift, and each day Mandelbrot tells Lamont stories from his wartime experiences, beginning in the Warsaw Ghetto and ending in the crematoria of Auschwitz, where he was a Sonderkommando.
“The Sonderkommandos were made up almost entirely of Jews who were forced, under the pain of immediate death, to work in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz,” Perlman explains.
Perlman did extensive research for this book, interviewing more than 15 people and visiting Poland and Auschwitz six times. It was there that his guide introduced him to the last surviving Jewish Polish survivor of the Sonderkommando.
“I was able to interview this man to get his story. The last time I went was in 2008, and he had just died. I consider myself lucky to have his story, the wartime experiences of this survivor, that formed the basis of Mandelbrot’s experiences.
“Mandelbrot is desperate for people to know what happened to him and to his people,” Perlman says. Mandelbrot finds that few people care anymore, not even his own grandchildren.
“You need to remember!” Mandelbrot keeps telling Lamont, who takes an unexpected interest.
The preservation of memories, is a major theme in the novel. “Memory is critically important for us as a species so that we lessen the chances that we repeat the dreadful mistakes of the past,” Perlman says.
Perlman’s grandparents were Russian and Polish Jews who fled Europe in the 1920s to escape the harsh economic conditions and antisemitism.
His step-grandmother, on the other hand, remained in Europe and was a survivor of Auschwitz, where she witnessed the hanging of four women for their role in the October 1944 uprising, a real incident that plays a major part in the story Mandelbrot tells Lamont. Perlman dedicates his book to these women.
Perlman also pays tribute to his great-uncle Rafal Gutman, who lived in Warsaw at the outbreak of the war. When the Jews were herded into the ghetto, the Nazis approached the community leaders to appoint someone to make a list of the order in which people were to be deported.
“My great-uncle was offered this position by the Nazis but was reluctant to do it and he committed suicide.”
During one of his trips to Poland, Perlman went to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and found the last official record of his great-uncle’s life.
“This may sound banal – it was a 1939 telephone directory that had his name, home number and street address.” Perlman then tracked down the address, “and I became the first member of my family to step on the spot that used to house my father’s uncle before he was taken away. So when I needed a character [during a scene in prewar Warsaw], I decided to give that character my great-uncle’s name.”
While the Holocaust forms the heart of this book, Perlman points out it’s not just a Holocaust novel.
“It’s also a story about civil rights, it’s partly a love story. It’s a story about history and memory and social justice, resistance, courage and unexpected kindness.”
The narrative does not follow a linear, chronological path and jumps around, sometimes on the same page, between continents, characters and eras. This may jar some readers.
A paragraph that takes place in the Warsaw Ghetto may be followed by a paragraph set in a Jewish deli in postwar Chicago or a bar in present-day Hell’s Kitchen.
This, and The Street Sweeper’s occasional historical digressions, do not take away from its literary merit. It is layered with overlapping plot lines, powerful themes, moving descriptions and enduring characters. A very inspiring read.