Book Review: 'Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman'
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
One day, German writer and filmmaker Minka Pradelski was interviewing a Holocaust survivor. When the interview finished, he asked something of her: never to forget the town where he grew up, Bedzin in Poland. Pradelski was moved by the request, and now she memorializes the town in a new novel, her first.
Alan Cheuse has our review of "Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman."
ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: First comes the narrator, Tsippy Silberberg, who flies from her home in Frankfurt on a brief mission to Tel Aviv. An aunt of hers has died and left her some silver utensils, and she's come to claim them. Tsippy has a little trouble with her hotel reservation, but nothing really fazes her until she meets the loquacious Mrs. Kugelman, who haunts the seaside hotel and, like a Polish-born ancient mariner, barges into Tsippy's room and tells her, in nearly endless anecdotes, the story of her hometown, a place near the Polish-German border called Bedzin.
The poor, the rich and everyone in between from this Edenic location - the children, the doctors, the factory owners, Zionists and communists, peasants and educators - all come to life in Mrs. Kugelman's charming and persuasive vignettes about schoolgirl love, including herself when she was a little blonde girl in braids, Hassidim playing poker on Christmas, romances crossing class lines and ethnic lines in this place that momentarily seems to Tsippy, while Mrs. Kugelman tells her stories, like some fabled land of milk and honey.
You really should stop making your town so perfect, Tsippy says to Mrs. Kugelman. That's the way Bedzin was, the older woman says. Soon enough, time begins to darken and move towards September 1939, when the Nazis invade Poland, and this diminutive Polish version of "Our Town" turns into a fascinating mix of comedy and pathos, a narrative memorial about lives lived no more and a way of life murderously destroyed.
How Tsippy discovers her own ties to this lost town will come as a charming surprise. American readers, Jews or non-Jews, will find that Bedzin belongs to them, as well.
BLOCK: The novel is "Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman" by Minka Pradelski. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University.