Book Clubs

Is your book club reading They Were Like Family to Me or In the Land of Armadillos? Here are some discussion questions to get it rolling, courtesy of Scribner.

1. The first passage of the book is a love letter that a man writes to his wife. It is followed by an entry in his diary, where he philosophizes about his former job in the Einsatzgruppen, shooting women and children. What did it feel like when you first realized that a Nazi officer was writing the love letter?

2. Knowing that Max is a former member of the Einsatzgruppen, “a cold-blooded killing machine,” how does that complicate our feelings about him when he begins to care for Toby? How does it complicate our ideas of good and evil, of villains and the righteous?

3. The first story, “In the Land of Armadillos,” contains short summaries of Toby Rey’s books. Max, his protector and admirer, doesn’t understand that Toby’s illustrated fables are thinly veiled metaphors. What do you think Toby’s story about Bianca the blue cockatoo and Aramis the armadillo means to say? What about the story Toby summarizes for Max, “The Thief of Yesterday and Tomorrow?”

4. Some of the stories feature characters typically despised for their acts in World War 2; Nazi officers, and Poles who collaborated with the enemy. Readers expect German characters to be evil, and Polish characters to turn their backs on their Jewish neighbors. In which stories are our expectations challenged?

5. Discuss how the eight stories are linked. Which characters appear in more than one story? Can you name them—and in which other stories you find them? Which event—or events—is shown from different points of view?

6. The overwhelming majority of people in Poland refused to help Jews during World War II. Why do you think that is?

7. At one point in the title story, “They Were Like Family to Me,” Stefan, who is now an old man, calmly describes a murder he committed during the war, while working for a German killing squad. Erich reacts in horror, and Stefan lashes out at him. “What else could I do?” he said roughly. “You couldn’t just say no. I had to think about myself, my father’s position. What would you have done?” What do you think you might do under the same circumstances? Do you think people today would act differently?

8. Though many of the events in the stories are based on events related by the author’s parents, the stories feature elements of magical realism—sometimes less, as in “They Were Like Family to Me,” and “The Golem of Zukow,” and sometimes more, as in “The Partizans” and “The Messiah.” Translated into art, magical realism would be the paintings of Marc Chagall. Some other Jewish writers working in this genre are Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Meir Shalev and David Grossman. Do you enjoy magical realism in literature? Do you think magical realism is appropriate when writing about the Holocaust?

9. Shankman wrote that she was uncomfortable humanizing Max, who has participated in some of the worst atrocities of the Holocaust. She explains, “Once we label someone a monster, we let him off the hook for the evil he commits. After all, monsters have no control over themselves. But if they’re human—if they have wives, children, jobs, hobbies, indigestion, ordinary workplace gripes—then they are just like us.” In some of the stories, Shankman explores humanity in people whose actions brand them as evil. How does that make you feel when you read their stories?

10. Pavel Walczak, in “The Jew Hater,” is the biggest anti-Semite in the district. He has given the Nazis the names of neighbors who are hiding Jews, and tells them where to find Jews hiding in the forest. Yet he risks his life for Reina, the little Jewish girl left with him by partizans. Do you think Pavel deserves to be redeemed? Is it possible to forgive someone who has committed such terrible crimes if they change their ways?

11. Knowing that Pavel is “The Jew Hater,” how does the title of the story complicate our ideas of good and bad, of villains and the righteous?

12. At the beginning of the story, “The Golem of Zukow,” Shayna doesn’t believe rumors about German atrocities, and doesn’t believe in her brother Hersh’s ghost stories, folktales and fables, either. Do you think she feels the same way by the end of the story? Was Yossel really a Golem? And what does this tell us about the power of stories?

13. The protagonist of “A Decent Man,” Commandant Willy Reinhart, is seen by the Jews as “A good German” and by his fellow Germans as a “Jew lover.” Time and again, he smooth-talks Nazi officers into leaving his Jewish workers alone, even as Jews are swiftly being eradicated from neighboring towns. At the same time, he’s enjoying all the privileges and riches that come with being a German in Nazi-occupied Poland. How do you see Willy Reinhart? Is he a hero or a murderer? A failed Schindler, or a selfish, greedy opportunist?

14. Hersh Mirsky, from “The Golem of Zukow,” tells Commandant Willy Reinhart a folk tale about a midwife who delivers a demon’s baby: “One night, a midwife was called to deliver a demon’s baby. An incredible coincidence, the demon’s wife turned out to be a stray tabby cat the midwife had been feeding. Though the demon’s cave sparkled with gold and jewels, the cat advised the frightened woman not to accept any food or presents no matter how hard she was pressed. Taking the cat’s advice, she was led safely home. Upon waking the next morning, she found piles of treasure heaped in every corner.” How does this tale resonate in “A Decent Man?”

15. Willy Reinhart, Commandant of the Adampol forced labor camp, and Haskel Soroka, his saddlemaker, are friends. Do you think it would have been possible for a German and a Jew to be friends in wartime Poland?

16. Early in “A Decent Man,” Reinhart witnesses a mass shooting. This is the first of many turning points in the arc of his story. Can you think of some other turning points?

17. Soroka the Saddlemaker is forced to make a choice no parent should have to make. When seven-year-old Reina is lost in the forest, he realizes that the family cannot go back to search for her, and that they must continue on to find a place to hide. Can you think of some other characters in the book who are forced to make difficult choices?

18. There are many acts of resistance throughout the stories, from small to monumental, by characters who are German, Polish and Jewish. Can you name some of them? What do you think the author wants us to take away from this?

19. Max and Hackendahl and Toby in “In the Land of Armadillos,” Pavel and Hahnemeier and Marina in “The Jew Hater,” the old man and the priest in “They Were Like Family to Me,” Shua from “The Messiah,” Zev Heller in “The Partizans,” Yossel in “The Golem of Zukow.” Discuss what happened to these characters in the past, and how it affects their actions in the present.

20. In “1987,” the story which serves as an epilogue, Julia, who is American, winces every time Lukas, who is German, attempts to make conversation. “She cringed. It didn’t matter that he was disconcertingly handsome, with green eyes fringed just now with long damp black lashes, or that he was pleasingly proportioned and dressed entirely in bohemian black. Every time he opened his mouth, he sounded like a Nazi.” Do you think this is a common reaction? Have you ever met anyone from Germany?

21. Ninety percent of Polish Jewry was murdered during World War 2. At the same time, there were more Righteous Gentiles in Poland than in any other country, by a wide margin. Why do you think that courage, compassion and responsibility were more present in Poland than in any other German-occupied country?

22. In “They Were Like Family to Me,” the priest tells Erich that he is searching for sites where massacres were committed because it is the only way he can think of to atone for his father. The children of Nazis divide into two groups; those who defend their fathers and say they were innocent, and those who despise their fathers’ memory and experience crushing guilt. Often, Holocaust survivors didn’t tell their children about their war experiences. German soldiers who worked in concentration camps or in the Einsatzgruppen didn’t tell their families what they did during the war, either. It’s as if both sides wanted to forget, to just move on. What do you think? Is it important for victims and perpetrators to remember and discuss their experiences? Why?

23. How does Poland figure as a character in the story? What elements of the Polish countryside, and of Polish folklore, appear throughout the book?

24. Shankman has said that she was concerned that people were experiencing “Holocaust overload,” that readers might feel that they already know everything there is to know about the subject. “As an author, that’s where my challenge lay. I needed to make people feel it, for the first time, all over again.” Do you think she was successful?

To anyone using these questions, I would love to hear what you think! Please post them as part of your review on Amazon or Goodreads!

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