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Five Bullets by Larry Duberstein and published by Brimstone Corner Press is an extraordinary short novel about one man’s experience of the Holocaust from its beginnings in Europe to the end of his life more than 50 years later in the United States. 

Journal

Brimstone Corner Press, a small publisher based in New England, offers our first title, Five Bullets, an extraordinary short novel about one man’s experience of the Holocaust from its beginnings in Europe to the end of his life more than 50 years later in the United States.

 

"A Truly Wonderful Read"

Michael Justice

by Sheila Deeth

A wall separates Carl Barry from the people around him. It’s an invisible wall keeping the street’s grit and dirt on its other side, while revealing only the surface of the man. And it’s a wall that began in the hurts of World War II, in the peace of a private swimming place, and in the ceaseless death that hid behind gray smoke.

Larry Duberstein’s Five Bullets intertwines the stories of a young Jew from Prague and a successful but very private structural engineer in New York. But Karel Bondy and Carl Barry are the same, and passing years and pages reveal a story of tragedy and love, persistence and peril, all touched with truth to self and faithless hope.

Sweet romance, gentle humor, dialog that convinces completely, wonderful characters with space to grow from childhood to adulthood—though not all will be given the time—and a central tragedy like the elevator shaft of one of Carl’s unloved buildings; it all comes together in a tale that spans war, Holocaust, man’s cruelty to man, and the love that binds and unites us.

By the end of this novel, you too might look with damp eyes, wondering “if these were joyful tears for their love or tragic tears for all [you’ve] pretended not to know,” or maybe even tears for the randomness of it all.

Five Bullets brings to life the harrowing deaths of uncountable Jews, and the wounded futures of survivors. It holds loves and griefs of many kinds in glorious balance, makes history real, and allows the reader to see behind that wall, to the truth of true lives. It’s a truly wonderful read.

Disclosure: I was given a free copy and I offer my honest review.

Facing History and Myself: A Conversation with My Father

Michael Justice

by Annie Brown

By all accounts, my father is a brilliant writer with nine books under his belt. Despite this, I’ve somewhat avoided reading his books–finding it a little strange to discover our family revealed in print, even wrapped in the protective cloak of fiction. Despite his work’s critical acclaim, I have only read a handful of his books. When his most recent book, Five Bullets, was released, he mailed me a copy with the inscription: “Time to face a bit of history, world and family all at once.” This book was not exactly fiction; it was based on my dad’s uncle’s experience during the Holocaust.

Annie at 2 with her father

From my childhood, I have vivid memories of my Great Uncle Martin and, his wife, my Aunt Flora. He was a wizened and stoic man who generously put us up in his Lincoln Center brownstone apartment when we visited New York. My strongest memory is of him getting in his oversized American car, a Cadillac or an Oldsmobile, and seeing the whole steering column come booming down to his level, enabling him to peer over the dashboard as he drove us into Manhattan from Long Island. When I was young, I had no idea that his wife and children had been murdered in Auschwitz. I had no idea that he had escaped the concentration camp and fought with partisans in the woods of Poland. It can be mind-blowing when we realize how much we don’t know.

Uncle Martin  

Over the recent Winter Break, I devoured the 200 page novel. It was a fast read with accessible language. Because it was a mix of fact and fiction, I was excited to speak with my father to hear more about the book and why he wrote it. I asked him to talk about the book and—like the writer that he is—he penned me an answer.  Here are some excerpts from our conversation.


"Yes, he was a small man in a big car by the time you knew him. But much earlier, he was a powerful presence and to me a fascinating figure, because like you I was always taken with history. The War and the Holocaust were not very far back in the rear view mirror when I was a kid and here was this man who had been in the middle of it all. I would never have written the book if not for him. It was the only such story I have ever felt entitled to tell. I would not presume to so closely examine the life of a survivor on the basis of no more than my interest, my imagination, and research. One could write such a book, obviously, and I would never argue against any work of pure imagination, but personally I would not have felt the calling. Whereas Martin’s deep reluctance toward telling it himself, combined with the basic elements that I managed to worm out of him over the years, made it not only possible for me to take it on; it made it imperative. No one else was going to do the job."


As teachers, we know that the Holocaust is a powerful topic for our students and there is a rich body of literature already out there ranging from Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night (Facing History has a great study guide for Night) to the children’s novel The Book Thief that was made into a movie recently .  I asked my father what he was hoping to add to this body of literature and what he would you say to a critic who argued that the Holocaust has already “been done”.


"There are at least two answers to the question of what I would hope to add. The first is simply one more story, one man’s story—because to a critic who says the Holocaust has been “done”, I would say, with the Shoah Project, that it hasn’t been done until every actor has told his or her story. My conviction is that every story is worth having, and this was the story which happened to be entrusted to me.


The second answer is that while Five Bullets was rigorously researched and adheres religiously to historical fact, it is not a history, or a memoir, it is a novel. And though some might say that makes it less worthwhile, or less real, as an addition to the literature of the Holocaust, I would argue the opposite, that fiction can often do as much or more to define, distill, and deepen the experiences being addressed. To my way of thinking, fiction can be reality heightened. Hopefully, this novel achieves a measure of success at doing that, bringing home not just important information but also the complex emotions, the back-stories and the human aftermaths."


Working with Facing History, I have heard many survivors speak and tell their stories, but for most, there was a reluctance to talk about what happened.  Several years ago I had the pleasure of speaking with a survivor in her mid-eighties who was a young teen during the Holocaust. She revealed to me that she said nothing for over forty years and she never even told her son. Her son only discovered her past when she was asked to speak publicly and share her stories with school-children. She told me she didn’t want him to feel bad for her and she didn’t want to burden him. Generally though, the act of telling the story seems cathartic for survivors that do speak. I was curious to learn how open Uncle Martin was to talking about his past.


"The reluctance you cite is and has been very real, and goes a way toward explaining why this book had to be fiction. It’s also true that fiction is what I write. But if I were to simply pass along everything my uncle told me in so many words about his experiences, the book would have been a 10-page article, or maybe 20. This man could easily have gone through life without speaking one syllable about the nightmare he lived through and the losses he suffered. The first information I wrenched from him came when I was 8 or so and bugged him to explain the numbers tattooed on his arm.

Then there were bits and pieces—I was a persistent cross-examiner. But it wasn’t until the day I graduated from college that he told me the story of his “retreat” after the war to the village I call Borva in the novel. And it was decades later before he yielded up the gripping event that gives the book its title. I learned as much as I learned only because my desire to know it was as mighty as his desire to withhold it.

Sadly there was no catharsis for him, no pathway to it. When he related to me the incident of the five bullets, his teeth were gritted as fiercely as if it had happened five minutes ago rather than 50 years. For me, writing the book was somewhat cathartic, though of course the burden I carried was nothing against the burden he carried. Simply put, the Holocaust was foremost among those historical events that engaged me, enraged me."


This idea of being enraged by history intrigues me because it shows such a personal connection to the past to which, as a History teacher, I am somewhat numbed. To my father, who was born in 1944, the Holocaust happened in his lifetime and it affected his loved ones. Even though the book was based on stories from my Uncle, I knew my father had done a lot of research by reading and even travelling to eastern Europe, so I asked him to talk about the role of research in writing fiction.

Part Two

Even though the book was based on stories from my Uncle, I knew my father had done a lot of research by reading and even travelling to eastern Europe, so I asked him to talk about the role of research in writing fiction.

Research was essential and extensive. I needed to know everything I could about the places where events unfold: Prague, Terezin, Auschwitz, the forests of Poland. Likewise with the tenor of life year by year, where the story begins in innocence on through the relentlessly accelerating horrors of Hitler’s occupation, displacement, war, and mass murder. I needed to know more about the partisans, who were of so many stripes in so many places. There was one group, for instance, the Army Krajowa, who fought the Nazis for reasons of Polish nationalism while being every bit as anti-Semitic and dangerous to Jews. I had to go to all those places and contemplate what it was like to be there at that time: to be evacuated to Terezin, to live there in fear of disease, starvation, and death; to face certain death at Auschwitz-Birkenau; but then to escape and be liberated enough to fight back. How did that feel? So you go and breathe the air and study the sky and the forest, or the streets and the barracks, and you imagine your way into the character’s mind and heart. If you are good at it, the story will ring true.

In Facing History, we focus on choices made by individuals such as whether or not to pledge allegiance to the Nazi regime or choosing to join the Hitler Youth.  (Facing History reading: “Do you take the oath?”) Considering how they would have acted also helps students consider the choices they make in their own lives today. Thinking through moral choices helps prepare a student to stand up when a friend is being teased or to speak up when they see injustice. 

In a general assessment of the Holocaust, where the Nazis set out to murder millions of people and did so in the most inhumane ways, there is not a lot of moral ambiguity to sort through. But then there were millions of individual Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, etc., each of whom wanted to see himself or herself as a good person. What would they do? What would they refuse to do? How much did it pain them or haunt them? Five Bullets glances off most of those cases, though it contains a hint or two that such struggles existed. And the incident where Karel encounters a sick young Nazi by the rail track reveals that even he, in his bitterness and moral fury, can acknowledge they did exist. So that was one challenge: balancing my sense of what it is to be human and be somewhat at the mercy of larger forces against my genuine outrage at what the Nazis did. The question of free will, or the absence of it, sits squarely at the epicenter of any discussion of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

That incident with the young Nazi has echoes of the questions raised by Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower which explores forgiveness. (Facing History symposium activity using : The Sunflower). As universal themes, forgiveness, justice, and resistance are also important aspects of a Facing History unit. Facing History looks at the Holocaust in a holistic way rather than leaving the story at victimhood or leaving students feeling hopeless. Your book addresses all of these themes, but I wonder what your thoughts are. Do you believe there are universal answers to questions of what justice or forgiveness looks like or is this very specific to the individual?

The other day on the news I saw a mother whose son was murdered—terribly and for no reason—by an awful human being who had done nothing to earn forgiveness. But she stated that she forgave him, because she needed to do so to move on. Was this lip service? Could she really forgive him, once the news-people were gone? Could she really move on? Maybe. And maybe there were Jews who forgave the Nazis, or the German people, or the collaborators all over Europe. But it’s an emotional matter and the woman who lost her son is right in thinking that it would serve her well if she could genuinely forgive; it would weaken the emotional need for justice or revenge, which cripples the bearer. Forgiveness is a matter for individuals to sort out. The character in Five Bullets, Karel Bondy, does not appear capable of entertaining the notion of forgiveness. With the partisans, with the Russian Army, and afterward as a vagabond civilian, he sought a measure of justice, then tried to leave it all behind–but of course could not.

Speaking of partisans, your vivid portrayal of them fascinated me—I had no idea this would be a part of the story. I feel that the stories of partisans who took to the woods and took up arms are rarely told. Before reading Five Bullets, I didn’t have a good sense of what their experience might be like or who they might be. 

The partisans fascinate. They were relatively few in numbers—relative to the numbers fighting in armies—but few meant thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, in countless locations throughout central and eastern Europe. They were vital to the war effort, both in practical terms for the damage and distraction they achieved as guerillas, and in emotional terms for the inspiration their mere existence, their courage and talent for survival provided. They also provided shelter and protection for many who could not join the fight. I like to think I would have made it to the forest; that I would have done what I could from there. But you had to be more than smart and fast and brave and resourceful; above all you had to be damned lucky to escape the clutches of the ruthless Nazi goons.

So, who knows? But the partisans were valiant men and women, and I think their stories are as interesting as any that came out of those awful times. One of the reasons some of those stories have been dramatized—the Bielski brothers, for instance—is that in many ways they parallel tales like those of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, irresistible myths where the good guys live in the forest and foray out to strike down the bad guys. Not to confuse movies or myth with reality, though. As Five Bullets professes, their lot was hardly fun. They were cold, uncomfortable, hungry, and constantly threatened with death. I am not even sure the forests of Poland in the winter of 1943 were in Technicolor.

Reflecting on the story and our interview, what surprised me most was that all of the most thrilling and (nearly) unbelievable aspects of the story—escape, rescue, resistance, and revenge—appear to be firmly based in fact. The more mundane details are what my father had to construct. This is truly an astounding story. Reading it reminded me that everyone has a story.  My father felt compelled to tell this story. He wanted to give voice to his uncle’s experience. But, it is also important to my father as a Jew.

My father has never been religious, but he has a strong Jewish identity, rooted in Minsk via Brooklyn, New York. Partly due to his early experiences with gefilte fish (which was usually hidden in a potted plant or fed to a willing dog under the table) and partly due to the non-conformist streak in his personality, my sisters and I were never pushed toward faith. My father after making it through his token lines of the Torah during his Bar Mitzvah never really donned a yarmulke again. We grew up lighting candles and eating latkes for Hannukah and having a seder with cousins for Passover. Being Jewish was more about food and family. With my mother’s surname—Brown—I fly under the radar as a Jew. I almost feel guilty about that—like I’m not fighting the good fight. In some ways, I too feel compelled to wrestle with the Holocaust and I teach it each year to make sure the lessons are not lost and that the story does not go untold. 

Annie Brown

Annie Brown works as a high school humanities teacher, coach for new teachers and curriculum developer. Annie is a current member of the Los Angeles Facing History Teacher Leadership Team and writes frequently on topics in education.

Facing History and Myself: A Conversation with My Father
 

Chicago Center for Literature and Photography Reviews

Michael Justice

Karel Bondy lives with his family in Prague prior to the onset of the Second World War. He comes from a tight-knit community of Czech Jews. Carl Barry is a wealthy businessman in New York City, overseeing the construction of new skyrises. Carl Barry is Karel Bondy, although this change in identity occurs slowly throughout Larry Duberstein's masterful novel, Five Bullets. After settling in the United States, Carl Barry falls in love with and marries Clara Weiss. She a widow, he a widower. As he becomes closer to Clara, he pals around with her nephew Lewis. Lewis likes to asks questions and Carl enjoys answering them, sometimes with humor and sometimes with answers that are far from truthful. Lewis, ever astute, realizes his uncle is hiding something from him.

Duberstein arranges the novel to follow parallel tracks. In the first track is the pre-war life of Karel Bondy. In the second track is Carl Barry's postwar prosperity. Each track, in its own way, heads towards a collision course. For Karel Bondy, it is Czechoslovakia's sacrifice to Munich and the incremental indignities conceived by the German conquerors. His wife, Mila, retains her optimism, even as conditions worsen. First Jews endure restrictive legislation barring them from certain kinds of jobs and then restrictions become repression and then oppression. As head of the family, Karel keeps his game face on, despite knowing that the German's have far more sinister plans than ghettos and work camps.

Five Bullets is a portrait of the twentieth century. Even after enduring the inhumanity, brutality, and evil that characterized that time period, Karel does his best to retain his humanity. After seeking refuge with a Polish farmer, he leaves to fight with Russian partisans. Unlike the joking and coarse partisans, Karel remains taciturn, cynical, and bitter. When the War finally ends, he decides to settle scores. But we only come to this pivotal scene, when he confronts the SS officer that sent his family to their ultimate extermination, several decades into his new life as Carl Barry. Lewis receives much information from Uncle Carl, seeing him as a font of encyclopedic knowledge. But when it comes to his experiences in the War, it is like pulling teeth.

Then Uncle Carl decides to tell Lewis everything. He decides to tell Lewis the story of the five bullets and how he used them. Five Bullets reads like an intense mashup between Mad Men, Schindler's List, and Titus Andronicus. It is a gut-wrenching story of the Holocaust, an astute portrait of Mid-Century American from the Jewish perspective, and a nail-biting revenge thriller. Duberstein's fiction reveals what we as a species are capable of doing to each other, both on a global, political scale and within the mind of a single individual hellbent on re-balancing the scales, even if that means taking the law into his own hands. Coupling together the immigrant narrative with that of a revenge drama turns a simple story into something more sublime.

-- Karl Wolff

Small Press Reviews

Michael Justice

A tragic, hopeful, finely wrought novel about the possibility of possibility even under impossible circumstances, Larry Duberstein’s Five Bullets offers a heartrending examination of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

The book consists of two intertwined novellas. In one, Karel Bondy is a family man who watches helplessly as everyone he loves is murdered by the Nazi war machine. In the other, Karel reinvents himself as Carl Barry and gradually builds a new life for himself in America. Yet even as his new life comes together, Carl is haunted by the memories of those he lost as well as by everything he did to survive and, perhaps more to the point, to take revenge upon the officer who oversaw the systematic murder of his family. Throughout the narrative, Carl emerges as a curious creature, a man with a clearly delineated past and present that are at once wholly separate yet simultaneously inseparable.

Early on, Carl reflects, “When millions are killed, when an entire race of widows and widowers is created—such a time might call for a brand new category, and a new word to define those few who were not killed.” In essence, Five Bullets sheds light on the struggle to define that category, and Carl’s ceaseless effort to suppress his own memories of the past speaks in large part to everybody’s fraught relationship with history. We are made of memories both joyful and tragic, Carl’s story suggests, and we can only find ourselves when we pay due respect to the full emotional range of our experiences.

Haunting as it is compelling, Five Bullets offers an engaging, intelligent meditation on memory, hope, and survival. 

Marc Schuster, Small Press Reviews

Theodore Rosengarten

Michael Justice

“More people learn about the Holocaust from fiction than from anything else, and readers will learn more from Duberstein’s daring, elegant, introspective masterpiece than any other novel I know. Five Bullets is a new page in the career of one of America’s great anti-establishment writers.”

Theodore Rosengarten, MacArthur Fellow, National Book Award winner, Professor of Jewish Studies 

Kirkus Reviews

Michael Justice

A character study built around an appalling historical period and a testimony to the strength of the wounded spirit's ability to endure and live a meaningful, if not entirely happy, life. In the summer of 1936, Karel Bondy and his wife—Czechoslovakian Jews raising three young children in Prague—are happy and free. But their idyllic life is forever changed in 1943, when the Nazis sweep in and "relocate" the family to a holding camp in Terezin, and from there, the dreaded train takes them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Men are separated from women and children, and this is the last time Karel sees his family. We experience the horrors of Auschwitz through Karel's eyes and come to understand that some experiences are worse than death. Karel and a few others attempt escape and miraculously find themselves outside the camp. Survival instinct rules, and not everyone makes it, but Karel manages to live. Later, he resumes his life as Carl Barry in the United States, only to find the country surprisingly "forgetful" just seven years after the death of Hitler: "Seven years is not even time enough to go gray or get fat. Certainly not to forget." Duberstein alternates between Karel's life in Europe and Carl's in America, taking readers to the year 2000, when for a dying Carl, past and present begin to merge in a sensitive ending. Through it all, Duberstein treats readers to Karel's introspective, intelligent and ironic view on all that comes to pass. He's a memorable, complex character. One man, two lives. Duberstein (The Twoweeks, 2012, etc.) creates a powerful story of humanity and inhumanity in this tale of war, survival and healing.

Kirkus Reviews