Shtetl, by Chana Git­la Kowal­s­ka, 1934

Max Gross’s debut nov­el, The Lost Shtetl, imag­ines a Pol­ish shtetl called Kreskol which is so iso­lat­ed and remote from the world that it escapes the Holo­caust, Com­mu­nism, and inno­va­tions like elec­tric­i­ty or indoor plumb­ing. Bob Gold­farb spoke with the author about water­shed moments in his­to­ry, the nature of change, and his lit­er­ary influences. 

Bob Gold­farb: I’m struck by the fact that you’ve pub­lished non­fic­tion before, but your first ven­ture into fic­tion is a four-hun­dred page nov­el! It seems like quite a leap.

Max Gross: There actu­al­ly were oth­er nov­els that, in Philip Roth’s phrase, were buried alive.” I wrote a novel­la in my twen­ties about an Ortho­dox Jew­ish vam­pire. Blood is ver­boten in Judaism, so it’s a neu­rot­ic Jew­ish vam­pire. At the time I didn’t think it was so bad; so I sub­mit­ted it to a cou­ple of grad­u­ate MFA pro­grams. How­ev­er, I didn’t get in any­where. Look­ing at it again recent­ly I accept it was bad — but not that bad. How­ev­er, it would need a lot more work, and it was too mag­i­cal a premise.

One of the things I thought was impor­tant in The Lost Shtetl was that it be ground­ed in a kind of real­i­ty — maybe a real­i­ty that’s far-fetched, but still pos­si­ble. Every­thing has an expla­na­tion. There are no leaps to the supernatural.

BG: The book has received a lot of very favor­able atten­tion. For a first-time nov­el­ist that must be espe­cial­ly grat­i­fy­ing. Many nov­el­ists don’t hit their stride until they’re much far­ther along. Does that moti­vate you to try anoth­er one?

MG: I’m actu­al­ly already work­ing on the next one! I’m also very far along on a col­lec­tion of sto­ries — which there’s no mar­ket for. I’m only invigorated.

BG: I’ve read that you’ve always been inter­est­ed in the Holo­caust, and I won­dered what about it specif­i­cal­ly intrigued you.

MG: I believe his­to­ry is filled with water­shed moments, and the Holo­caust was one of those moments. It meant some­thing dif­fer­ent to be a Jew after that. It also meant some­thing dif­fer­ent to be a Chris­t­ian. And a human being. It was the main water­shed of the mod­ern his­tor­i­cal period.

In terms of its absence in so much of the book, it makes the nov­el a kind of ghost sto­ry. There’s some­thing miss­ing, but it’s hov­er­ing above you. Not know­ing this secret” about all of mankind, I hope, makes this book more poignant.

BG: See­ing the Holo­caust as a water­shed event in human his­to­ry is quite dif­fer­ent from see­ing it as a par­tic­u­lar place, time, and series of events. You take a wide-angle view, and what sounds like a sim­ple premise turns out to have a lot of ramifications.

Any one of them could be a book in itself; there’s the encoun­ters with moder­ni­ty, and there are the rela­tion­ships between Jews and Chris­tians. There are also the many motives of human beings: some want to make mon­ey; some like to con­trol oth­ers; some are kind; some are abu­sive. Yet, in a way, it’s also a Jew­ish joke: when you have a shtetl you’re going to have two rab­bis, with fol­low­ers who won’t ever set foot in the oth­er rabbi’s shul.

There’s also the ques­tion of what change means — is it good or bad? That points to the deep truth that all peo­ple don’t respond to all events in the same way. Some resist change, oth­ers go with the flow.

MG: I’m hap­py that that came across because those are the things I’ve been try­ing to tele­graph. I myself have great ambiva­lence about change and moder­ni­ty. In The Mag­nif­i­cent Amber­sons the­Joseph Cot­ton char­ac­ter — who is one of the first inven­tors of auto­mo­biles — is told very rude­ly by Tim Holt that auto­mo­biles are a use­less nui­sance. In one of the most poignant speech­es in cin­e­ma, Cot­ton agrees that they come with real costs and that it might have been bet­ter if they had nev­er been invent­ed. The real­i­ty is that it’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

About the Jew­ish joke — it’s always inter­est­ing to decon­struct a joke. Lord Jim, by Joseph Con­rad, is basi­cal­ly a joke. The title char­ac­ter is a cow­ard who deserts his ship. What makes it a great piece of lit­er­a­ture is how that joke is unpacked, expli­cat­ed and turned into a sto­ry of shame, redemp­tion, and heroism.

As for the mul­ti­ple ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the premise, I did con­struct all the chap­ters to be set pieces, like indi­vid­ual short sto­ries each with a dif­fer­ent top­ic. That was always an inten­tion of mine, though most peo­ple don’t pick up on that.

I believe his­to­ry is filled with water­shed moments, and the Holo­caust was one of those moments. It meant some­thing dif­fer­ent to be a Jew after that.

BG: You obvi­ous­ly love lit­er­a­ture, and I won­der if you’re a fan of Dick­ens. He has so many orphan char­ac­ters who are expelled from small towns, go into the big city, have mis­ad­ven­tures, and in the end they make their way. Your char­ac­ter Yankel seems like a Dick­en­sian boy.

MG: My copy of David Cop­per­field is right here some­where! Dick­ens is one of my three or four favorite writ­ers of all time. I loved David Cop­per­field so much that I cried when I fin­ished read­ing it. There’s so much pathos there, and it’s so fun­ny — his writ­ing is just so clever and wit­ty. I’m def­i­nite­ly a Dick­ens groupie.

When I start­ed the first chap­ter of my book I thought of it as like a Bashe­vis Singer sto­ry. The Yankel chap­ter, I thought, was my Dick­ens story.

BG: It’s very like a Dick­ens sto­ry because it’s so picaresque. Yankel finds him­self in so many bizarre set­tings and, like a Dick­ens char­ac­ter, he blithe­ly fits into the sit­u­a­tions where he finds him­self. His adapt­abil­i­ty is striking.

You make a pass­ing ref­er­ence in the nov­el to Brigadoon. There’s a cer­tain resem­blance: it’s a town which dis­ap­pears, and then acci­den­tal­ly encoun­ters moder­ni­ty. The dif­fer­ence is that in Brigadoon they’re try­ing to escape the out­side world, through a spell which will work only so long as no one leaves. In the shtetl Kreskol, on the oth­er hand, the sto­ry begins when some­one leaves.

MG: It’s men­tioned at the men­tal hos­pi­tal when they real­ize that Kreskol is real, and they call it a Yid­dish Brigadoon.” I actu­al­ly use the term a Yid­dish Brigadoon” a lot to explain to peo­ple what The Lost Shtetl is about. It seems like a good short­hand descrip­tor. But I must con­fess, I haven’t seen Brigadoon since I was a kid.

BG: That episode, when Yankel is in the men­tal hos­pi­tal, struck me as a kind of para­ble of how peo­ple are some­times labeled crazy” when they don’t fit a pre­con­ceived notion of what’s right or what’s nor­mal. It seems very plau­si­ble that some­one telling Yankel’s sto­ry would be con­sid­ered delusional.

MG: I put him in the men­tal hos­pi­tal because I thought that it was the most like­ly thing that would hap­pen in that par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion. But one of the main themes of this book is hoax­es, and the ques­tion of what is objec­tive truth. The reac­tion to facts — and the kind of rel­a­tivism towards truth today — is some­thing I find very disturbing.

BG: Peo­ple reject incon­tro­vert­ible facts sim­ply by say­ing that couldn’t have hap­pened.” They just don’t want to believe it. There’s a larg­er truth you por­tray: that unwant­ed news makes peo­ple sus­pi­cious, and then angry, because they don’t want that dis­rup­tion to their world.

MG: I think what’s hap­pen­ing now in Amer­i­ca, and in the world writ large. It’s part of an old pat­tern. There’s a very human desire to reject truths in favor of mag­i­cal think­ing, or just lies. It’s a part of moder­ni­ty that I had in mind when I was writ­ing this book.

BG: There’s an episode in the book where jour­nal­ists report on the dis­cov­ery of the shtetl. You your­self are a jour­nal­ist, and I won­der if there was a touch of satire there, imag­in­ing how they would fall back on cer­tain tropes as they try to explain what happened.

It’s easy to think of the lost shtetl exist­ing in a par­al­lel uni­verse, an unre­al place. Leonid’s back sto­ry, as a Holo­caust sur­vivor, tells us that this is the real world, our world, ground­ed in real­i­ty — and the events of this sto­ry are not impossible.

MG: That was def­i­nite­ly the most real­is­tic part of the book, lam­poon­ing my pro­fes­sion! There’s a very cir­cus” atmos­phere around jour­nal­ism today. One of the char­ac­ters I found the most loath­some, yet whom I admire, is the one who tracks down Pesha by doing the hard work that’s nec­es­sary in jour­nal­ism. He’s a rat — but a com­pe­tent, wily rat.

BG: You human­ize jour­nal­ists through the reporter, Karol, who shel­tered Yankel in spite of being told that his job was just to report the story.

MG: Yankel and Pesha are my two favorite char­ac­ters in this book, but Karol the Pol­ish cam­era­man is my oth­er favorite. I real­ly loved him.

BG: The char­ac­ter of Leonid Spek­tor is a fas­ci­nat­ing sec­ondary char­ac­ter. His appear­ance changes the tenor of the sto­ry a bit and gives a real­i­ty check. It’s easy to think of the lost shtetl exist­ing in a par­al­lel uni­verse, an unre­al place. Leonid’s back sto­ry, as a Holo­caust sur­vivor, tells us that this is the real world, our world, ground­ed in real­i­ty — and the events of this sto­ry are not impossible.

MG: It’s fun­ny — when the book went out to pub­lish­ers, he was the stum­bling block. Some thought that he took us too far out of the sto­ry. I’ll con­fess that in the first draft of the book, Spek­tor wasn’t in it. My esteemed moth­er, who is an edi­tor, said to me when she read that draft, Max, you wrote a book about the Holo­caust with­out the Holo­caust in it.” Mean­ing: I bet­ter talk about the Holo­caust. That was the sin­gle biggest change the sto­ry under­went before it went out in the world. Spek­tor was an impor­tant cat­a­lyst in my mind.

BG: You’ve touched on the idea of water­shed moments. I won­der how you per­ceive the cur­rent time in the flow of his­to­ry. The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, the rise of Chi­na, and U.S. domes­tic pol­i­tics sug­gest that this is anoth­er water­shed moment. Do you have thoughts about that?

MG: I’ve thought about that a lot. So many tra­di­tions have been upend­ed in the past few years — ideas about the nation-state, alliances, and our abil­i­ty to do things. To take care of our cit­i­zens dur­ing the cri­sis. The answers that we’ve seen in the last few years have not been espe­cial­ly hope­ful, but I believe the future is not yet writ­ten, and we have the capac­i­ty to shift. And it’s always pos­si­ble for things to get bet­ter. I did want this book to speak to this moment and to cur­rent anx­i­eties. I also believe that they’re not final. Noth­ing is.