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A Review of The Enemy Beside Me

Here is a book review of The Enemy Beside Me by someone who didn’t want to read any more books about the Holocaust, and was glad she changed her mind.
I hope all of you out there will read it too.

Celebrating Jewish Literature: Novels about the war and its aftermath

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I’ve written before about the times I’ve thrown up my hands and said, “That’s it! No more books about World War II, the Holocaust or their aftermath.” At one point, I even crossed off two of the books featured in this review from my “to ask for” list. Yet, when I hear good things about a book, it becomes difficult not to ask for a review copy, if only to see if it offers something new or interesting. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen and it feels as if I’ve wasted precious reading time on mediocre works. Fortunately, that did not happen with the novels in this review. All offer something to challenge or move their readers.

The Enemy Beside Me

Sometimes the Holocaust can feel like a family business, one passed on through the generations. That’s true for Milia Gottstein, whose grandfather and father ran the Survivor Campaign, an organization that seeks to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Milia certainly had not planned on running the organization after her father’s death. However, she changed her mind when she learned what happened to her grandfather’s family in Lithuania during the war. In Naomi Ragen’s The Enemy Beside Me (St. Martin’s Griffin), Milia is given an amazing opportunity. Although she’s been declared a Public Enemy of Lithuania, a country that continues to deny its responsibility for the many Jewish deaths within its borders, she’s asked to speak at a Holocaust conference in that country by Dr. Darius Vidas.

Darius has an ulterior motive for asking Milia to take part in the conference. He’s in the midst of researching a family story passed down to him from his grandmother: according to family lore, his grandfather rescued a Jewish family and received a beautiful necklace in gratitude for his help. Darius wants people to know about his relative’s heroism. However, not everyone is happy that he invited Milia; they’re afraid she will use this opportunity to condemn their country. Darius’ career is on the line, but he is confident that they will be successful in not only speaking to students across the country, but at the concluding symposium.

To complicate matters, Milia’s personal life is falling apart: her surgeon husband has left her for another woman. She knows he’s resented the effort she’s put into her work. Her efforts to bring Nazis to justice speaks to her on many levels – in part because she was named for an aunt who perished during the war. As for her trip to Lithuania, Milia distrusts Darius because she’s not exactly sure what he’s trying to accomplish. But as the two set out on their tour, they start to bond, especially when Darius begins to understand the true story of what occurred during the war. But speaking the truth in Lithuania is not easy and there may be a large price to pay.

The Enemy Beside Me works well on many levels. Ragen has created interesting, believable characters whom readers will come to care about. Yet, what really kept the pages turning is the novel’s compelling plot. I kept reading – finding it difficult to put the book down – because I wanted to know what would happen in both main characters’ personal and professional lives. The novel also explores varying ways of understanding history, including offering testimony about how poorly the Lithuanians were treated by the Soviet Union. However, it’s the testimony about the Jews of Lithuania during World War II, which is based on true incidents, that is truly heartrending. Those words can be difficult to read, but, as the characters in the book note, the only way to create a better future is to have a clear understanding of the past.

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4 comments on “A Review of The Enemy Beside Me”

  1. golda urmacher Reply

    I too have found myself tiring of reading about dead Jews!
    Why not put all that effort into the glorious lives of Jews who have accomplished incredible feats, discoveries, readings, and have lived to reap the rewards of their successes?
    But I have come to the conclusion that there is an importance in not only Holocaust stories of bravery, survival, and perseverance, but also in the realization of the stories that have been lost forever.
    Can you fathom the stories from each of the individual 6 + million Jews who perished.
    The 6 + million stories we will never read about, or the relatives we will never have known about because they were wrenched from us by a mad man, and his world support through generational church encouragement and supported anti semitism.

  2. Elka Reply

    I read it when it first came out- I couldn’t put it down. It’s an excellent and important book. In that vein, I recently watched The House of Rothschild, a film that came out in 1934. I urge everyone to watch it if they can. The story take place between 1780 and the early 1800’s and it might as well be taking place today, with the protests, the antisemitism. It is clear that nothing has changed, except now we have Medinat Yisrael and we fight back. It seems the world hasn’t caught up to that reality yet, however.

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