They Were Like Family to Me by Helen Maryles Shankman is a collection of eight interrelated short stories. Most take place during the German occupation of a Wlodawa, a city in Poland. The collection has received very high praise, it mixes magic realism with vivid descriptions of people and events. The times were terrible.
As the title story opens, set not in the past but in contemporary Wlodawa, two men, one a priest, are looking at a map. An old man
approaches them and asks if they are Jewish. They say no and he tells them most of the visitors they get are Jews come to explore the past of the town under the Germans. Here is
their opening interchange
““Well. Obsession, really. I’m traveling around Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, trying to collect stories of what the Nazis did. Before the people who witnessed them are gone. Things that didn’t make it into the history books.” The old man’s lips compressed into a thin line. “The history books,” he said contemptuously, dismissing the entire genre. “All they ever tell you is what happened to the Jews. Never what happened to the Poles.” He added hastily, “It’s not their “Well. Obsession, really. I’m traveling around Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, trying to collect stories of what the Nazis did. Before the people who witnessed them are gone. Things that didn’t make it into the history books.” The old man’s lips compressed into a thin line. “The history books,” he said contemptuously, dismissing the entire genre. “All they ever tell you is what happened to the Jews.....The priest nodded. Encouragingly, the old man thought. “The first thing the Nazis did when they got here was round up anyone with a brain. The mayor, Jablonski. The superintendent of the schools, Wygand. The judge, Wiesneski. Slipowitz, who was something important in industry, I don’t remember what. Anyone who could think for themselves. They marched them all off to the forest and shot them. But do you see that in the history books?” The priest nodded sympathetically. “Terrible,” he agreed. “The Jews, that was later,” the old man continued morosely. “In 1942.”
The priest realises the man could be a very valuable source of information. He tells how he survived, as an orphan during the war. His best friend was Jewish, his family became like family to him. They fed him and he searched in the woods for food for them.
As the anti-Jewish activity picked up an order went out for all Jews to report. It was common knowledge they were to be shot. His friends hid in a cave in the woods.
I do not want to tell more of this wonderful story. I tried to imagine the tremendous guilt the old man carried all his life.
The closing reveals a deep irony. I greatly look forward to reading the other seven stories.
About the author
Shankman’s writing appears in The Kenyon Review, Gargoyle, Cream City Review, Grift, Jewishfiction.net, The Jewish Standard, The Times of Israel, and numerous other fine publications.
Two of her stories, They Were Like Family to Me and The Jew Hater, have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Winter Story Contest and earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers competition.
Shankman spent four years working in Tribeca as an artist’s assistant, followed by two years working at Conde Nast as a graphic designer, assisting the great Alexander Liberman as he did a radical redesign for Self Magazine. After Self, she returned to school to study classical technique at the New York Academy of Art, where she was awarded a Warhol Foundation Scholarship. Shortly after earning her MFA, she was invited to become a member of the First Street Gallery. Her artwork has been displayed in numerous exhibitions in and around New York City. She has painted many commissioned portraits, including one of Hillary Clinton that was presented to the White House while she was First Lady.
Her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts are Holocaust survivors. Many of the events in her fiction are based on personal family stories of Holocaust loss and survival.
From the author’s website