They Were Like Family to Me
A compelling blend of folktales, magical realism, Nazi barbarity, and family history, They Were Like Family to Me offers a series of interconnected stories primarily set in 1942 in the small Polish town of Wlodawa (six kilometers from the Sobibór extermination camp), as the Nazis systematically empty it and the surrounding countryside of Jews.
What might otherwise have been an unbearable recounting of inhuman atrocities Shankman transforms through a prism that is by turns forthright and tender, oblique and intimate, brutal and ethereal. Woven through the stories are talking dogs and horses, humans transformed into avenging beasts, a modern-day Golem sent as protector. How else to explain the unexplainable of the few Jews to survive the systematic slaughter at Wlodawa, in which “in three days, ten thousand lives vanished into smoke, like a colossal magic trick”?
Though each story stands beautifully on its own, it is the completed tapestry of interwoven details that finally reveals the entire picture and provides the full emotional depth of the collected stories; the sum is unquestionably greater than the parts. The stories describe characters and events from different perspectives, and each tells a piece of the full story.
Two characters recur somewhere in every story: Willy Reinhart, Reich Regional Commissioner of Agricultural Products and Services, and Haskel Soroka, Wlodawa’s skilled saddlemaker (and Shankman’s maternal ancestor). Reinhart, undeniably flawed but fundamentally “a decent man,” is determined to use his position, his talents, his legendary smile – “the smile threw its arm around your shoulders and called you friend” – to protect as many Jews as possible. Soroka, generous and well-respected, becomes Reinhart’s conduit to the people of Wlodawa.
The author’s greatest accomplishment is in leaving the horror to speak for itself, and instead giving voice to the enchantment.
*Editors’ Note: They Were Like Family to Me was originally published under the title In the Land of the Armadillos.