Book Review: “The Heavens Are Empty”

I’ve recently finished reading Avrom Bendavid-Vol’s The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town to Trochenbrod. If you haven’t seen this book about, it’s a non-fiction account of the history of the town that Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated centers on.

So, what are my impressions?

The book tells an interesting story. Trochenbrod, at least on the author’s telling, is an anomaly: an all-Jewish (well, mostly so–there are a few non-Jewish residents about, but only a very few) town that started, unusually, as a farming community in Tzarist Russia (now present-day Ukraine) and developed into a thriving commercial center.  After a period of decline in the years immediately after World War I, during and after which the town switched hands from the Russians to the Austrians to the Poles, the town came back, only to be taken by the Soviets during the early years of World War II before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. With the arrival of the Nazis to Trochenbrod, the town’s fate was sealed.

The idea of a real commercial town populated almost entirely by Jews–not shtetlach sharing territory with non-Jewish settlements, but a separate, Jewish-run town that started with Jewish farmers (itself an exceptional thing where Jews were mostly unable to own land)–in Eastern Europe is fascinating. The substantive narrative occupies only about 120 pages–not long at all. The book is supplemented by a photographic insert with photos of individuals who lived in Trochenbrod, of the site of the town (the town itself is gone except for the remnant of a street and two monuments), and of artifacts left behind.

The author also includes transcriptions of interviews/narratives from people who lived in and around the town–both Jewish and non-Jewish, including a long passage from the son of the Polish postmistress, who is the only non-Jewish child to have been raised in Trochenbrod. These are perhaps the most interesting bit of all, particularly if as a reader you are already familiar with how memories of those times tend to be refracted differently through the minds of the Jews and non-Jews who lived through the events of the Holocaust.

I think the book is great for a casual (non-academic) reader, and gives a little window into how life wasn’t quite like Fiddler on the Roof. Being a little bit geekier than the casual reader, I wish there had been a lot more direct citation and quoting of contemporary-to-the-town primary sources to allow for some tracking back through documents to find out more. I also think it would have amplified the text a bit–hitting the end of the author’s main narrative so soon into the book itself was kind of a let down for me, even though I knew there were additional treasures to be mined in the photographs and testimonial passages. Incorporating some of that additional material about interactions with the outside world–to the extent it was available–would have helped tie the narrative a bit more to the vicissitudes of the broader world in which the town was situated.

Instead, what we’re left with is not so much a history, but rather a memoir of the town–valuable in itself, but leaving so much more to be discovered.