An Unforgettable Novel of Family and Courage
“The camp at Auschwitz took one year of my life, and of my own free will I gave it another four.”
So begins the much-anticipated new novel from Jon Clinch, award-winning author of Finn and Kings of the Earth.
Told in two intertwining narratives, The Thief of Auschwitz takes readers on a dual journey: one into the death camp at Auschwitz with Jacob, Eidel, Max, and Lydia Rosen; the other into the heart of Max himself, now an aged but extremely vital—and outspoken—survivor. Max is a world-renowned painter, and he’s about to be honored with a retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington.
The truth, though, is that he’s been keeping a crucial secret from the art world—indeed from the world at large, and perhaps even from himself—all his life long.
The Thief of Auschwitz reveals that secret, along with others that lie in the heart of a family that’s called upon to endure—together and separately—the unendurable.
The camp at Auschwitz took one year of my life, and of my own free will I gave it another four.
This was 1942. I was fourteen years old but tall for my age, and I’d spent a lot of time outdoors, so I lied and I got away with it. My father and I passed through that barbed wire gate and presto, I was eighteen. It was his idea, and if I hadn’t followed through on it they’d have been done with me in an hour, not a year. Maybe less than that. I was just a boy, after all. I was too young to be of any use.
That little white lie makes me eighty-eight years old now. I don’t mind. My Social Security card lies and so does my driver’s license, not that I drive anymore. You don’t drive in New York unless you’re some kind of a nut.
The last time one of the art magazines came around and asked me what I thought about some young Turk—it doesn’t matter who; I don’t even remember myself—what showed up in print sounded a whole lot like you ought to forgive old Rosen, since he’ll be turning ninety in a couple of years after all. Maybe he’s going blind.
Old Max Rosen.
Sympathetic, cantankerous, worn-out old Max.
King of the old-school representationalists.
The last believer in looking at things the way they are, and reporting back.
The clock built high into the station wall is painted on, a clumsy and heartless trompe-l’oeil that under ordinary circumstances wouldn’t fool a soul, but those who pass beneath it have too much on their minds to look closely. If any one of them so much as glances up, some mother raising her eyes above the scuffle and the crowd for just an instant, she sees an ordinary railroad station clock and is reassured by it—reassured the same way that she is reassured by the crisply lettered signs hanging overhead and by the gaily painted flower boxes bursting with pansies beneath each station window. Reassured that all is well. That the train has stopped at an ordinary station and that she and her family have arrived at an ordinary village. That the rumors she has heard can’t possibly be true.
Those who actually check the time are men, mainly. Two or three of them per car and no more, individuals who pride themselves on leading lives of regularity and precision. Shipping agents and clerks and shopkeepers, men of commerce, each fingering his vest pocket or raising his wrist to compare this public information with his own private store. Half past three says the station clock. Half past three will have to do, for these orderly men are surprised once again to remember that they’ve bartered away their watches in recent weeks or sewn them into the linings of their overcoats or otherwise set them aside. They shake their heads—what slow learners they’ve become!—and they move on. Keeping up. The clock says half past three. There is no time to waste.
Among those who don’t look up at all are the four members of the Rosen family. The parents, Jacob and Eidel. The children, Max and Lydia. Like everyone else in their car, they’ve been under way for three days or perhaps four. Not really traveling so much as waiting to travel, locked in the cars and anticipating movement and dreading it at the same time, for with each lurch forward the train has taken them another step toward a destination known only to itself.
Their journey began eighteen months prior and barely a hundred miles away, high among the highest ranges of the Carpathian mountains, in the resort town of Zakopane. It was the place of Jacob’s birth, which meant that he’d be a long time seeing how very beautiful it was. He’d need help, in fact. The help of a girl, which is often the way these things go. Beauty of any sort had never been much in his line to begin with. He’d been a hiker during his youth and early manhood, but strictly for the exercise. Although his friends knew the name of every peak and the song of every bird and the chatter of every squirrel, Jacob Rosen cataloged only the most difficult routes from one destination to the next. It was never a walk in the woods for him. It was always a test.
At home he’d stand in the corner of his father’s shop, drinking the last of the water from his canteen and watching the old man’s hands as he trimmed the hair of a vacationer from Warsaw or Krakow. Listening to the stranger rhapsodize about the fields of undulating crocuses that he and his wife had discovered blooming in some alpine valley just this very morning. Thinking that this great lump of a tourist, sitting beneath a crisp white sheet as if masquerading as a mountain himself, sounded like a man who’d never seen a crocus before. Worse than that. Like the man who’d invented them.
As years went by, Jacob’s father taught him what he needed to know about running the shop, including how best to endure men like these. He said you don’t want word getting out that young Rosen has no respect for the people who constitute his trade. A reputation like that would be trouble enough right there in the town, but imagine if people began telling tales back in Warsaw. Saying, visit Zakopane if you must, but get your hair trimmed before you go! Young Rosen would just as soon take your ears off! It would be the end of everything that his father had built in this life.
More years had gone by and the old man had passed away and the shop was in Jacob’s hands when Eidel arrived, Eidel Mankowicz from Warsaw, here for a month’s skiing with her parents and her three younger sisters. She’d never seen a place even half so beautiful. She couldn’t get enough of it. The truth was that she could barely bring herself to come indoors, and late one afternoon as Jacob trimmed her father’s hair she waited outside the shop, utterly rapt and completely indifferent to what was going on inside, caught up in the gathering of clouds over the high peaks, her face illuminated by the last rays of the fading light.
Inside, Jacob slipped and nicked her father’s cheek and Mankowicz said, “Perhaps you ought to turn on a light, the evening comes so early here in the mountains.” He was a hard man by the look of him, worldly but tough-minded, a lawyer perhaps. Someone with the means to bring a large family here to the limits of the Carpathians on an extended holiday. He was a hard man but he could see that this barber wasn’t going to turn on a lamp until the last possible minute, not while pretty young Eidel was standing outside his window with her face tilted up into the dying light. Not as long as he could still see her. Mankowicz was a man who understood the world, and he resigned himself to enduring another nick or two.
What was the harm? They were children. They wouldn’t be young forever.
Born and raised in the remote heart of upstate New York, Jon Clinch has been an English teacher, a metal worker, a folksinger, an illustrator, a typeface designer, a house painter, a copywriter, and an advertising executive.
Jon has lectured and taught widely, in settings as varied as the National Council of Teachers of English, Williams College, the Mark Twain House and Museum, and Pennsylvania State University. In 2008 he organized a benefit reading for the financially ailing Twain House—enlisting such authors as Tom Perrotta and Stewart O’Nan—an event that literally saved the house from bankruptcy.
Jon lives with his wife, Wendy—founder of TheSkiDiva.com, the internet’s premier site for women who ski—in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Jon Clinch, in his book, The Thief of Auschwitz, narrates the horrific, inhumane treatment of man against man, just because he/she was a Jew. We get a look into the barbaric Auschwitz, where the Rosen family was entrapped–Jacob, Eidel, Max and Lydia. The exposure of the atrocities will reach your heart with such grief and pain, and yet you will revel in the complex love that helped to sustain the family throughout the concentration camp. The family member’s stories are delineated in intimate detail and extreme agony.
The other half of the story is intertwined with the heart of an old man, Max Rosen, who survived the holocaust, and hs individual family members. He is an outspoken voice against such atrocities, as well as a renowned artist.
A twist in the story brings about the secret of German love of art and the artist. Once exposed, the issue takes on a life of its own.
Jon has delineated the story with the truth of Nazi Germany death camps against the human tenacity to survive in a way that captures your heart and causes you to pray that mankind would find the love of Christ toward one another. He draws you into the story through detailed conversations, verbal and non-verbal, between the Rosen family members, and how their love remained strong to the end. Their resolve to remain ‘whole’ created a stronghold to survive.
This is a story you won’t soon forget, if at all. It’s real and it’s a potent look of human atrocity versus the human spirit of love.
This book was provided by the author in exchange for my honest review. No monetary compensation was exchanged.