Yankev Glashteyn’s book Emil and Karl is one of those startling and breath taking books that everyone should read.
Originally published in Yiddish in 1940, Glashteyn wrote this book after he visited his ailing mother in Europe prior to the outbreak of World War II. The book is prophetic on so many levels and clearly captures the traumatic tone of the times – for Jews and non-Jews alike.
The story is set in Vienna in 1938 and follows the lives of two 9 year old friends, Emil and Karl. Emil is Jewish, his father has disappeared and he is left alone after his mother can no longer cope with events. Karl, an Aryan, is also alone after his mother, a Socialist, is forcibly taken away.
The book begins with:
Karl sat on a low stool, petrified. The apartment was as still as death. He looked at the pieces of the broken vase scattered on the floor. Several times he reached out with one hand to pick up an overturned chair lying beside him. The chair looked like a man who had fallen on his face and couldn’t get up. But each time Karl tried, he could only lift the chair up a little bit, and then if fell down again. It was even quieter in the kitchen and the bedroom – so quiet he was afraid to go in there.
The narrative recounts the lengths to which Emil and Karl went in order to survive in this tumultuous and torturous time. The book contains some horrifying moments, near death experiences and accounts of tremendous abuse. However, it is also filled with insights into extreme kindness and sacrifice. Glashteyn carefully treads this balance with humility and honesty.
By far my favourite character in this book was Hans, an activist who disguises his intentions by feigning madness. His role in this text is to touch on the insanity of this period and to illustrate the great lengths which many people were forced to go to in order to survive.
There are many things which will stay with you from this text … the fragility of life, the horrors of war and ultimately, the comfort of friendship.
Although it is primarily a young adult book, this is a must read for everyone.
Review from the New York Times.