The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant

The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant is a recent republication from the 1960s. It is an excellent portrayal of a Jewish man who survived the Holocaust and came to America.

Here is a summary of the book from the publisher:

For most of us, remembering the Holocaust requires effort; we listen to stories, watch films, read histories. But the people who came to be called “survivors” could not avoid their memories. Sol Nazerman, protagonist of Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker, is one such sufferer.

At 45, Nazerman, who survived Bergen-Belsen although his wife and children did not, runs a Harlem pawnshop. But the operation is only a front for a gangster who pays Nazerman a comfortable salary for his services. Nazerman’s dreams are haunted by visions of his past tortures. (Dramatizations of these scenes in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film version are famous for being the first time the extermination camps were depicted in a Hollywood movie.)

The book is extremely dark, but considering the subject, this is totally understandable. The characters are very raw and jaded. Wallant brings forth the depth of the characters in his prose. Sol is to be despised for his behavior toward his customers and employee, but also pitied for what he went through at Bergen-Belsen.

Not only are the characters raw, but the situations are as well. This is especially true in Sol’s interactions with Tessie (another survivor of the camps) and the climactic scene in the pawn shop. Wallant captures the emotions of the survivors as they try to plod through life after experiencing such horrors in the camps – family members and others being murdered and raped.

Sol plods through life with no real purpose in it anymore. He barely tolerates his pampered sister and her family – he financially supports them, but cannot stand them. I think Wallant captures the thoughts and feelings of a man who has no wish to live because his reason for living has been stripped away – and yet Sol continues on.

Very dark, but a good read.

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