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Minka Pradelski is a documentary filmmaker who has dedicated much of her working life to analyzing the psychological effects of the Holocaust on survivors. She is also an honorary member of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. For her captivating debut novel, “Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman,” she draws on her specialist knowledge of the 20th century’s darkest hour and, expertly calibrating light and shade, uses it to unite two wonderfully original characters.
One of them, our narrator, Tsippy Silberberg, informs us at the outset that her recently dead aunt has left her a bizarre inheritance — an incomplete fish service in an old suitcase. Tsippy flies to Tel Aviv to claim it, but after checking into her hotel is forced to admit an insistent old woman into her room. Enter, quite literally, Mrs. Kugelman, a Holocaust survivor, who begins to regale Tsippy with tales about the Polish town she grew up in before war broke out and tore it asunder. Mrs. Kugelman believes that the more she recounts, the more her town can be brought back to life, to pre-war peace and prosperity, and preserved in another’s mind.
“Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman” is thus a frame narrative, a tale within a tale. We follow the delightfully idiosyncratic Tsippy to Israel and along the way learn of her bizarre addiction to frozen vegetables, her pyrophobia, and her sudden desire to get married and embark on a life of drudgery: “Out of the blue I started yearning for dishes spilling out of the sink and stacks of clothes to iron, and nothing seemed more appealing than the deafening screams of little babies.”
But as a narrator, broody, quirky Tsippy has only so much to say. The real star-turn is effervescent Mrs. Kugelman, who churns out one entrancing tale after another, the best of which are redolent of Isaac Bashevis Singer. She talks lovingly about Bedzin, home to cobblers, tailors, peddlers and con men, and generously furnishes us with rich local color, Polish sayings, Yiddish folklore and anecdotes about old school friends and first loves, all the time fusing the ordinary with the extraordinary. When the Nazis invade, the ribald yarns and tender recollections are flattened and replaced by brutal measures and terrifying deeds. Pradelski excels with sparse thumbnail sketches — Jews locked in a burning synagogue or herded into Auschwitz-bound transports — and at the end ingeniously merges the seemingly disparate histories of her two leads. Tsippy is shaken from her role as passive listener and is forced to re-evaluate who she is and where she came from.
Despite all Mrs. Kugelman’s telling, Pradelski’s book is never didactic. What’s more, we never tire of her storyteller’s relentless gabbling. “One more adventure story and that’s it,” Tsippy tells herself. “After that I’ll show her the door.” But she never does, because both she and the reader slip under Mrs. Kugelman’s spell. “Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman” is one part spry farce, one part moving meditation, and a book that keeps the reader enthralled by that somewhat quaint yet still supremely effective narrative approach, tale-telling.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.