Brief Synopsis: Isaac, a young Jewish man from Poland, seeks survival and peace after facing extreme trauma and oppression at the hands of Nazis.
It is impossible for a book that is set in World War Two and features a Jewish protagonist to be truly pleasant to read. This kind of literature is essential to civilization, as it deals directly with mistakes that have been made in the past and attempts to pry out the remnants of humanity worth saving from the mess left behind. However, it is not fun or even ‘good’. Instead, it is difficult, heart-wrenching, and grotesque. There is nothing salvageable about genocide, except for the voices of those who have faced it and survived.
Isaac is loosely based on a true story. In the author’s note following the story, Robert Karmon talks about meeting the real Isaac, listening to his stories, and seeing the pictures Isaac chose to share. In the final lines he says “it has always been the memory of Isaac’s indomitable spirit that guided and inspired me over these years to finally create a world that could not have existed without him”. This is one of the biggest lessons from the novel: that every individual plays an important role in shaping the world around them and indirectly the entire world, whether their impact is positive or negative, and regardless of how small they think their actions are.
The novel begins with Isaac’s family being rounded up for execution along with all Jews in their small town. We get a glimpse of what Isaac’s life may have been like before this event, but this night is a turning point which determines the direction of the rest of his life, and therefore the portrayal of Isaac’s ‘before’ life is minimal. It’s as if the life Isaac led prior to this night belonged to some other person, another Isaac in another reality. Following this horrific introduction, Isaac finds himself to be the only survivor, and runs away from his hometown with no direction or supplies. The novel chronicles his journey across Europe for the next few years as well as his mental journey from adolescence to maturity.
It took me a long time to read this novel. Part of the reason behind this is that I have been having technical difficulties with my Kindle randomly deleting things, but another part of the reason it took so long is the weight of the story. This is not a story that you can just flippantly read and then go about your life as if nothing happened; this is the kind of book that makes you sit down and take a look at humanity and Western civilization in particular with fresh eyes, and wonder how much progress we have actually made in the last approximately 70 years. It’s a lot to think about. My generation and those younger than I learn about World War Two as history, but the fact is that the same issues that were present in the world in that era remain today. I am not going to get political here, but reader, I hope you take books like this seriously. The authors who create this literature are doing a good thing in causing us to look at uncomfortable times in history. It is not easy, it is often not enjoyable, but it is responsible, and working through the issues raised and themes presented takes time. If you choose to read this or any similar book, do not just let the words pass by. Pay attention to what is being said about not only the time the story is set in, but also the time that it is published.
I recommend this book if you want to invest a lot of time and thought in the central issues of World War Two, as experienced by one man.