Eat, Drink and Be Merry - Just Don't Mention the Holocaust

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A postcard of the Rosenblatt Hotel & Country Club, Glen Wild, N. Y.
A postcard of the Rosenblatt Hotel & Country Club, Glen Wild, N. Y.Credit: Courtesy

“Summer Haven: The Catskills, the Holocaust and the Literary Imagination,” edited by Holly Levitsky and Phil Brown, Academic Studies Press, 416 pages, $60

Three years ago, in an attempt to “rebrand” the Catskill Mountains, the Catskill Park Resource Foundation sponsored a contest that elicited more than 3,700 possible slogans, including the uninspiring winning entry: “The Catskills – Always in Season.” Thousands of better submissions appeared on Twitter, including “Closer than the Adirondacks” and best of all, to my mind, “Borscht Belt 2.0.”

Only weeks ago The New York Times slapped the headline “Borscht Belt” on a review of a book about the Catskills that devoted less than 20 percent to the Jewish Catskills. The mountains were, of course, made famous by others than Jews, including the 19th century’s Hudson River School of painters – but from about the late 1930s to the late 1960s it was the Jewish Catskills that gave these mountains their cachet.

Too many books have been written about the so-called Jewish Alps to list here. But in “Summer Haven: The Catskills, The Holocaust, and the Literary Imagination,” Phil Brown and Holly Levitsky, editors and contributors, have given us something entirely new: an anthology of some of the best writings on the Catskill mountain resorts, bungalow colonies and smaller kuchaleyns (“cook for yourself”) during the Holocaust era and the immediate post-war period.

Through works of new and older fiction and memoir, writers ranging from Art Spiegelman to Isaac Bashevis Singer, some of whom grew up in the “Jewish resort culture,” give us their impressions or imaginative representations of how hotel owners, refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe, Holocaust survivors and ordinary American vacationers dealt with (or didn’t) the horrific contradiction between the enjoyable respite from the heat of the cities (mainly New York) and the mass murder of Jews in Europe.

Based on Brown’s prodigious research and innumerable interviews, some of which he did for his book, “In the Catskills: A Century of Jewish Experience in ‘The Mountains’” (2004), the editors begin with a brief, and by now familiar, history of the rise and fall of the Jewish Catskills: The post-war flowering of the Jewish Catskills was destined to be short-lived because it depended on what turned out to be temporary conditions – anti-Semitism in the mainstream hotel business; upward mobility among second-generation Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe; and the high cost of air travel, which was a luxury available only to the more affluent middle-class.

This “explanation” for the short heyday of the Jewish Catskills is repeated often in “Summer Haven,” but this is only a minor irritation in a book that contains many riches. Among them is Thane Rosenbaum’s short story “Bingo by the Bungalow,” which imagines a resort populated only by clashing Holocaust survivors living by the bitterly ironic motto “Leisure Macht Frei.”

We get an image of a communal world which provides not just Holocaust refuge, but “Holocaust renewal” – an apparent oxymoron that Rosenbaum explains in a moving and intellectually provocative reflection: That so many Holocaust survivors chose to spend their summers in the Catskills dancing, playing mahjong and pinochle, and laughing at just about anything comedians in the casino said, was a powerful indication that they were following the Jewish injunction to “choose life.” You could almost hear the survivors whisper in a kind of Yiddish Morse code, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat,” or “Deal me in. Given what I just escaped, I like my odds in any other game I’m allowed to play.”

Glen Wild shul. Credit: Courtesy of the Catskills Institute

Also included is an excerpt from I. B. Singer’s novel, “Enemies: A Love Story,” which allows us a fascinating, if complex, peek at the difficulties of coming to terms with the damage done by the Holocaust in the many fractured lives, and poisoned and convoluted relationships of survivors. Yet, even while knowing the impossibility of a return to normalcy, Singer’s survivors laugh, make love, and seek at least temporary respite from that knowledge in the mountains.

Unfortunately, this excerpt is followed by sociologist Sandor Goodheart’s “analytical essay,” which, by using jargon like “dissociative personality disorder,” “registry mechanism” and the “Lazerean complex,” turns Singer’s “complexity” into “complication” and confusion.

Well-selected passages from Martin Boris’s novel “Woodbridge 1946” and from Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir “Maus II” share, as do most other pieces here, the central theme of loss – not just the immeasurable loss of sanity, or youth, or family in the Holocaust, but also as the Catskill resorts deteriorated and finally withered away, the loss of “the Mountains” as a haven, a Jewish pilgrimage, or in Phil Brown’s words, a “new Jerusalem.”

The success of this book lies in revealing more clearly this double loss. It was also ingenious of the editors to juxtapose the work of Spiegelman and Boris, because their books are so radically different in form and content that they highlight the diversity of materials written about the links among the Catskills, the Holocaust and literature.

'Summer Haven' contributor Holli Levitsky's mother, Sylvia Levitsky, with her brother in 1931 at a kuchalayn in Sullivan County.Credit: Courtesy Holli Levitsky

Eloquent juxtaposition of genocide and pleasure

Two important phenomena impelled Brown and Levitsky to put “Summer Haven” together. Both editors were involved as advisers in the making of director Andrew Jacobs’s 2008 documentary “The Four Season’s Lodge,” a film about survivors who, already Catskill veterans, founded a bungalow colony sometime in the 1970s and, despite many problems, kept it going until 2008. The second factor was their rereading and reconsideration of Reuben Wallenrod’s 1946 novel, “Dusk in the Catskills.”

The “pioneers” who created the Four Seasons Lodge wanted a safe space – free from the anti-Semitism of the outside world and from the American Jews not comfortable with talk about the Holocaust. Though many in the group did not try to hide their concentration camp tattoos by wearing long sleeves in every weather, many did try to shield their children from the horrors they had suffered. It was only as the lodgers grew older that they began, with any frequency, to reminisce and open up about the Holocaust. Talk of the Warsaw Ghetto, or Lodz, or Auschwitz might carry across the card table.

Perhaps with time, as Jacobs suggests in his essay here, “the pain had lost some of its sting.” Or maybe there was a realization, conscious or otherwise, that their memories now had a shorter shelf-life, especially as their numbers began to shrink in the 1990s and as older grandchildren put loving pressure on them to tell their stories. Jacobs’s documentary, a collage of edited interviews with over 100 people, probably gets closer to the truth about the lives of Holocaust survivors in the Catskills than some of the literary re-imaginings collected in “Summer Haven.”

Summer at the Levitt Hotel in the Catskills.

In their introduction and in an essay on Reuben Wallenrod’s novel “Dusk in the Catskills,” the editors tell us that the author, a writer-in-residence at Rosenblatt’s Hotel during the mid-1940s, wrote about the people populating the Catskill resorts and their experiences “in a fashion unparalleled” by other writers, and that his novel, which is set during the war, is “central” to the story of their anthology. Wallenrod’s “eloquent juxtaposition of genocide and pleasure,” according to Brown and Levitsky, make for a jolting, if eye-opening, experience.

So it comes as a great disappointment that fewer than three pages of the novel are excerpted here. Surely we could have had more, especially since several essays were too long and even irrelevant. Moreover, neither the excerpt nor the analysis by Brown and Levitsky, or the retrospective reflection by Wallenrod’s daughter, sustain the editors’ claim that the novelist recorded the life not just of a hotel but of a people.

Perhaps it is different in Wallenrod’s book, but with what Brown and Levitsky do say about and give us from the novel, it appears as if “Dusk in the Catskills” focuses almost entirely on hotel owner Leo Halper’s zirrissenheit – the sharp inner conflict he feels between stories of the atrocities committed against the European Jews and his intense enjoyment of the Catskills; the unbearable tension he experiences between his obsession with newspaper and radio reports about Jews dying in Europe and watching Jews dancing, laughing and flirting in his casino and overeating in his dining room. We learn nothing, however, about what these Catskill Jews might have been thinking or feeling.

Instead, Halper’s suffering is private. And while Wallenrod’s novel is public and openly expresses “sorrow and sympathy in its lamentation,” we still must wonder whether the book really represented (or even included) what Holocaust survivors, refugees and American Jews were saying.

Rosenblatt’s Hotel.Credit: Courtesy of the Catskills Institute

What did they talk about with each other; what might they have dreamed about in the dark? We must also wonder whether the novel was widely read. It was, after all, published in Hebrew in 1946, during a time when, as the author’s daughter puts it, “the Holocaust was not a strong preoccupation with the American Jewish community.” (The English translation followed more than a decade later, in 1957.)

The editors argue that Wallenrod’s novel and other literature of the same genre, some of which they include in “Summer Haven,” demonstrated that “Jews of all traditions made room for the Holocaust” in their hearts and minds, and “wove the catastrophe deeply into the basic fabric of their communal life,” to quote historian Hasia Diner.

Indeed, Brown and Levitsky argue that Jews in the Catskills believed that what they said and did were monuments to the devastated world of European Jewry. Perhaps. But the anthology does not demonstrate this in any substantial way. The editors themselves say that the “social climate of the mountains addressed a lighter side of life; an abundance of pleasures in the form of food, sex, dancing, humor. Surrounded by carnality, it would not have been seemly to speak directly and publicly about the state of European Jewry.”

'Summer Haven' contributor Phil Brown at Cherry Hill Hotel, 1962, first year as full-time busboy.Credit: Courtesy Phil Brown

Allusions to the Shoah

Two questions, say Brown and Levitsky, are the major focus of their book: How did the Catskills, the landscape and the resorts, provide a haven for the refugees and survivors? And how did Jews in the mountains react – what did they say and do – when knowledge about the horrors experienced by Jews in Europe continued to emerge?

No doubt the Catskills provided a sanctuary. There is credible substantiation for this in published interviews, documentaries and memoirs that add to the hard evidence presented in “Summer Haven.” These same materials, especially the interviews, many done by Phil Brown but none of which appear here, would undoubtedly tell us something about how Jews in the Catskill mountains reacted to the atrocities suffered by Jews in Europe.

But most of the excerpts from literary works in this collection deal only obliquely, if at all, with an important question asked by Hasia Diner in her valuable book “We Remember With Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence, 1945-1962.” Did Jews, refugees from Europe and Holocaust survivors, only begin talking about the Shoah in the 1960s, as some historians contend, or did they, soon after WWII, begin to trade stories about their experiences among themselves, and just as importantly with the greater American Jewish community?

In a very appealing excerpt from Harvey Jacobs’s novel “Summer on a Mountain of Spices” there are allusions to the Shoah, but they are all variations of sentences like these: “Politics and the war were big items,” but “it was too soon to talk of the Holocaust, of the graves of babies.” Reflecting on what he wrote about his summer in the Catskills in 1945, Jacobs says, “while there was the sense of impending elation over victory on the battlefields, there was hardly any talk about the Holocaust.”

Thane Rosenbaum, in a retrospective look at “Bingo by the Bungalow,” is also explicit about how little talk there was about the Holocaust in the post-war period. The survivors, he wrote, “had only recently crawled back from the dead. They would have to be given some immunity from further death – at least for a while. In the meantime, the awful truths learned in the death camps and inside the squalid ghettos were not welcome at the dinner tables or the card games, and certainly not in front of the children.”

“Summer Haven” is a product of exceptional work by Brown and Levitsky, and it will remain an important contribution for having brought together in one tome scholarship, literature, memoir and reflection about the Jewish Catskills during and after WWII. The book demonstrates that survivors and refugees, their relatives and other sympathetic Jews, may well have seen their treks to the Catskills as Jewish pilgrimage, even as a monument to the destruction of the Jewish world in Europe. Still, how much they talked about the Holocaust among themselves or within the wider American Jewish community remains an open question.