Stories About Jews Killing Nazis

Irwin Shaw’s “The Inhabitants of Venus” is a story mostly set in a crowded téléférique — an aerial cable-car or gondala lift — at a postwar Swiss ski resort. The hero, Robert – born a French Jew, but now a U.S. citizen — hears a German insulting some American women. He resolves to punch the German, once they reach the top of the ski slope. But the stakes are raised when Robert catches a glimpse of his adversary’s face, recognizing him as a man who once tried to kill him for being Jewish.

Because they’re in a téléférique, Robert cannot at first see the German and, when he recognizes his face, cannot fight him immediately. This creates suspense, and also allows for the final twist: when the passengers get off the cable car, it turns out the Nazi has lost a leg during the war. Robert’s code of honor will not let him kill a one-legged man, and symbolically, Germany is shown as unrepentant but also maimed and absurd, no longer dangerous. Robert watches the Nazi ski away on one leg, reflecting “there was nothing more to be done, nothing more to wait for, except a cold, hopeless, everlasting forgiveness.”

The story wouldn’t have worked if Robert had actually killed the Nazi. Avner Mandelman’s “Pity” is another fine story where the Jew winds up not killing the Nazi — I’m wondering if it’s even possible to write a good story about a Jew killing a Nazi? Perhaps the psychological mechanism at work in such a story would be so transparent, the story would inevitably fail?

I think of the penultimate chapter in Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, “Vanadium,” which tells a true story. The company Levi worked for was doing business with a German company, and Levi realized that one of the German chemists involved, Dr. Müller, was an official Levi had encountered while he was a prisoner at Auschwitz. Levi wrote a letter to Dr. Müller, who sent him a reply which Levi felt to be inept and only half-sincere. Later Levi heard that Dr. Müller had killed himself.

At some level “Vanadium” wants to be read as a story of revenge. It’s as if Levi’s contacting Dr. Müller was in itself confrontation enough to destroy him. But Levi’s tone is calm and measured throughout, and a buried need for revenge is expressed through the structure of the story alone. We’re confronted here with the limits of what storytelling can accomplish.
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