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Ludmila Ulitskaya: Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Interpreter)

This novel is based on the story of Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew. He worked for the Gestapo to help some his fellow Jews escape the Nazis but then converted to Catholicism and became a monk, under the name of Brother Daniel. He then emigrated to Israel, living in a Carmelite monastery there, where he lived till his death in 1998. Ulitskaya is at pains to point out that this is not a biography. Though Daniel is real, she points out that the real Daniel and the character of her novel are not the same and that most of the other characters are fictitious. Her style is to use what she calls documents. Most of these are various letters (definitely not in chronological order) between the various characters. They even include a few letters from Ulitskaya herself to, presumably, a real person, in which she describes her approach and how she initially thought of using real people but then abandoned that idea in favour of fictitious characters. However, the documents also include diary excerpts, newspaper clippings and other such documents.

We gradually build the story of Daniel through his letters and the letters of others and a talk he gives to a group (spread out over the book). He had grown up in Poland as a Jew and it had never occurred to him, as it never seemed to occur to others, that the Germans, whom many of them admired, would invade Poland and attempt to wipe out the Jews. We gradually learn about how he and his brother planned to go Palestine but got caught up in the German attack on the Soviet Union. He joined the Gestapo with the aim of helping his fellow Jews escape (in which he was partially successful). He was exposed and then escaped. He managed to hide out with a group of nuns (next door to a police station) and, after the war, joined the NKVD, again to help people. He eventually did reach what was by now Israel but, by this time, had, under the influence of living with the nuns, converted to Catholicism. This caused him all sorts of problems, as the Israelis, though they had the Law of Return, allowing any Jew to become an Israeli citizen, were not happy with someone who had effectively renounced Judaism, even though he was ethnically a Jew. His issue went all the way to the israeli Supreme Court, where a compromise was reached, which allowed him to stay. He joined a Carmelite monastery but continued to make difficulties, both for Israel and his Catholic colleagues and superiors, not least because of his views on syncretism, which he strongly favoured. Indeed, he worked hard to bring both different branches of Christianity together as well as different religions, something which obviously upset a lot of people.

While Daniel is the focus of the story, we meet several other characters, whose life touches Daniel’s, though sometimes only peripherally. In particular, we met Ewa Manukyan, a Polish Jew, who was in Emsk, Poland, and who was one of those helped by Daniel (or Dieter, as he then was.) Her mother, Rita, was and remained a committed Communist. Ewa was illegitimate – she only found out who her father was much later – and was born in 1942. Her mother, according to Ewa, focussed entirely on her partisan activities, both during the war and then afterwards, in the Soviet Union. Ewa is highly critical of her mother and they really do not get on, not least because Ewa blames her mother for neglecting her and her brother. Indeed, the mother-daughter issue is a running theme throughout this book, though we do see Rita’s side. Ewa has now emigrated to the US, where she meets another Jewish woman, Esther, who was in the same community and knew Ewa’s mother and Ewa when she was a baby. The two women become close friends. Other characters, from Daniel’s brother, to his young assistant, Hilda, to Isaak, Esther’s late husband, whose diaries we read, and a whole range of other characters populate this novel.

Clearly, Ulitskaya had a profound admiration for this man, which is why she wrote the book, though it also seems that she is interested in three other things. Firstly, she wishes to show the sufferings of the Jews, primarily at the hands of the Nazis, but also at the hands of the Soviets and, indeed, by Władysław Gomułka during the 1968 Polish political crisis. Secondly, it is clear that, to a certain degree, she agrees with Daniel’s syncretist ideas. She certainly seems to admire them. To be fair, there are several atheists in the book, either by general conviction or, in the case of some of the Jews, who feel that the Holocaust proves that there can be no god. Thirdly, she wants to show Israel if not as a land of milk and honey, as a safe haven for Jews and a wonderful place overall for them to go. For me, these issues raise a few concerns. This book approaches hagiography in its treatment of Daniel. I have no doubt that the original was a very wonderful man. Stories of wonderful people, who have few if any flaws or where the flaws are held up for admiration, do not make for great literature. Interesting biography, maybe but not a great novel. Secondly, her treatment of Israel essentially ignores the plight of the Palestinians. Daniel has some Arab Christian parishioners. He even takes a house that had been abandoned by a Palestinian family following the Nakba. There is a mention of the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, though more from the point of view of those who might have been involved than from the Palestinian point of view. However, on the whole, the Palestinians, except as a problem for Israel, are barely mentioned. Given her focus on the terrible suffering of the Jews, ignoring terrible suffering caused by Jews seems to be somewhat hypocritical. Overall, there is no question that Ulitskaya has written an interesting book which raises some interesting questions but its flaws mean that I found it generally something of a disappointment.

Publishing history

First published in 2006 by ĖKSMO
First English translation in 2011 by Overlook Press