I decided to give the ‘classics’ a break (see my previous post to understand why My ‘Wokeness’ Has Ruined The Classics For Me) and listen to something altogether different on my daily commute – The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin.
I first read the book in the late eighties. My stepdad must have owned a copy of it, because it wasn’t something I would have picked up from the library. I also must have been bored, because I was about fourteen at the time, and though I was a reader, it wasn’t the coolest thing to do at that age. But I read it anyway and I remember being enthralled by the subject matter – the Holocaust/WWII. Now that I think about it, it may have been the catalyst for my lifelong interest into this topic (along with a history teacher who was a WWII veteran). Of course, saying the Holocaust is my favorite subject feels like the very worst thing to say, but some of my favorite books, and certainly the most inspiring books I’ve read, are Holocaust diaries and novels. They have become my go-to, hence, why I opted to add this book to my audiobook playlist.
For those who haven’t read it, The Boys From Brazil is about a Nazi hunter who discovers a sinister and bizarre plot to rekindle the Third Reich. I won’t add anything to that description because it’s worth the suspense to discover what that plot was (yes, no spoilers, even though the book is almost fifty years old). And here too, like the other classics I’ve been reading, the book was quite dated. Written in 1972, well before the advent of the internet and cell phones, Yakov Liebermann, the Nazi hunter (a conflation of Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal and Serge Klarsfeld), relies on newspaper clippings and returned phone calls to gather and disseminate information. It’s interesting and certainly makes you wonder what would happen if the story took place today. But since I remember those days (though I was born two years after the publication), it wasn’t such a stretch to set my natural desire to see the story through twenty-first century eyes and go with the flow.
It was different reading the book this time around though. It was less about the thrill, the science fiction, the story and more about the reality we face today. That’s the mark of a good author – they leave you thinking about what they wrote, even days after you finished the book. And I had a lot to think about this time. At one point, the Nazi hunter was faced with ethical dilemma that mirrors the actions of the Third Reich. His response to this (and to the person trying to persuade him otherwise) was:
“I say in my talks it takes two things to make [the resurgence of Nazism] happen again, a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that’s not true. It takes three things: the Hitler, the conditions…and the people to follow the Hitler.”
“And don’t you think he’d find them?”
“No, not enough of them. I really think people are better and smarter now, not so much thinking their leaders are God. The television makes a big difference. And history, knowing…Some he’d find, yes; but no more, I think—I hope—”
This passage made me stop and think, more so than it did when I read it the first time. The author, Ira Levin, was optimistic enough to write the last part (‘no, not enough of them’), but that was almost fifty years ago. Would he say the same now if he were still alive? And would I agree with him? Because sadly, I don’t think I do. I think we are dangerously close to his criteria for this social order. You take news stories these days with a grain of salt, as most of them are about ratings, but when you actually consider the current political climate and the social conditions, you can’t help but wonder where it’s all heading. You want to hope there are enough people out there to stand up for what’s right, to stand up for their neighbors, to fight for one another…but you wonder.
My husband and I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC several years ago and the exhibit that remains etched in my mind is one about the people who gave up their Jewish neighbors, though they had lived side-by-side for many years. Was it jealousy, the narrator asked. Was it hatred? They didn’t stand up, they didn’t fight. They just let them go. Is that where we are today? We can hope otherwise. After all, that’s the note that Mr. Levin left us with – Some, he’d find, yes; but no more, I think-I hope – even as he left the possibility for more open in the final chapter. But that’s life, isn’t it? The possibility for good and evil exist in all things. The possibility of a Fourth Reich exists (God forbid). But so does one of a united people, a united world open to fighting for one another. We just need to work towards it. We can’t just let things happen, we have to be intentional in our actions. We have to love and act and continue hoping, because ultimately, that’s what’s going to get us through times like the ones we currently live in – hope for something better.
And that, I think, was the true message of the book. It was a science fiction thriller that was heavy on the science fiction fifty years go, not so much today. But it was also a social commentary, a vision of hope that the atrocities of a past generation could never happen again.
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