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Book Overview

The book is based on real-life events that took place in the historically pivotal years 1967–1969, amid widespread students’ protests in Europe and America, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War at its height, and sociopolitical turmoil in Poland, resulting in several thousand Jews fleeing the country.

It’s a deeply personal and harrowing survival story of a Jewish teenager, Alek, and his mother, Zofia Brodski, in a small, isolated, and backward community in a communist totalitarian state, surrounded by discrimination, prejudice, and rampant poverty. Peoples’ lives are at the mercy of communist bureaucrats, the state police, the pervading presence of the Catholic Church, and the insane Marxist-Leninist ideology when lies became the truth and the prevailing doctrine.

It all culminates in an incredible and most unusual conclusion. For some inexplicable reason, the author happened to be “in the right place at the right time” when many of the events took place.



The US Review of Books

The Jew: Novel Based on a True Story
by Dominik Poleski

reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott

“We are Jews, and always will be, and we don’t have it written on our foreheads, and we don’t behave differently than anybody else.”

Teenager Alek Brodski and his mother, the poor widow Zofia, live in a remote Polish village in the politically fraught 1960s. Everyone knows everyone else’s business and knows that the two are the only Jews in town. When Alex, a loner who tries to avoid trouble, is set upon and beaten up by three boys, Zofia seeks justice from the fanatical Marxist police chief who offers only lies and evasions. Kindly Christian Maria Pavloska, who witnessed the incident, begins to help and counsel Zofia. Alex, intelligent and artistically talented but tormented by adolescent fears and fantasies, meets Ela, a young prostitute, when she speaks out to defend him from yet another attack. Ela returns to high school in hopes of seeing Alek and getting his help to study and improve her miserable life. Meanwhile, Zofia, having failed to get permission to emigrate with Alek to Israel, takes advice from Maria to help her son gain the social acceptance that he’ll need to become successful wherever he chooses to live.

Dominik Poleski was raised in Poland in the crucial time frame of this atmospheric story. His book is both a novel about a teenage boy grappling with political and philosophical upheavals forced on his nation by uncaring systems and a fictionalized memoir of the author’s own desperation and heartache as a young man who personally experienced the brunt of those systems. As a storyteller, Poleski writes in a practiced manner, using clear but stylish prose. As a memoirist, he frankly shares the intensity of the pain he went through. He has skillfully created two plot devices that give the story of Alek a pleasant, almost mystical denouement: a religious conversion and a youthful romance. A well-written historical novel, Poleski’s tale will resonate with thoughtful, socially conscious readers.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review


Pacific Book Review

Dominik Poleski’s story about growing up in a small town Poland in the 60s offers a smart and insightful window into a pivotal point in world history. Centered upon a troubled teenager Alek Brodski, Poleski sets his tale in Eastern Europe well after World War II, and also well before the Cold War’s end. With its rich detail, the reader walks away from this historical novel with a much better understanding of what it must have been like to be the only (known) Jewish family in a small Polish village.

Alek forges a close bond with his mother Zofia, mostly because he doesn’t have anybody else to turn to. It’s not until he begins an unlikely relationship with the young prostitute Ela that he finally finds somebody outside of his family bloodline to befriend. Escapism is one of the major themes running through Poleski’s book. One method Alek uses to attempt to escape his dark and desperate surroundings, for instance, involves taking walks through his village, peering into the first floor of neighborhood residences and imagining what their day-to-day lives might be like. Both Alek and his mom also attempt to migrate to Israel, in a manner of physical escape, after learning Poland might be loosening such emigration restrictions. Lastly, Alek escapes the isolation of being the lone Jew in town by converting to Catholicism, in hopes that an association with the church might finally bring he and his tightknit family the social life they so desperately need.

Although Poleski highlights his home country’s political situation throughout the story, this is not a strictly political work. Nevertheless, he paints a not too pretty picture of communism during this period. Even though it was idealistic, communism never fully delivered on its promises. Despite the Marxian belief that religion is the opiate of the people, the folks in Alek’s world are mostly deeply spiritual. Even before joining the church, Alek experiences deep spiritual doubts. The reader is also left to wonder if Alek’s conversion to Catholicism is truly sincere.

Poleski does a thorough job of creating detailed descriptions of the characters in his book. While the story is never less than compelling throughout, it’s these real life characters that leave the greatest lasting impression. This is also not one of those birth to death life stories. Poleski leaves off before Alek enters full adulthood, so much is left to the reader’s imagination regarding what happens next.

Akin to the best Russian literature of the past, Poleski brings us right smack dab in the middle of what is a fairly exotic lifestyle to most westerners. Even though this story is set in Poland, it describes a culture heavily influenced by the Soviet Union at that time. Through Alek’s eyes, we see a sad picture of many familial relationships. Most of the men drink too much, many physically and verbally abuse their wives and home is oftentimes the most dangerous place to be. The church doesn’t fare much better, as the town priest is portrayed as a womanizing, money-grabbing and untrustworthy spiritual guide.

While the story is many times dark, Alek’s character is this book’s most hopeful character. He’s smart, talented and willing to make life changes that improve his life. The reader hurts with him when he’s abused by town bullies, and then celebrates along with him when he begins his new spiritual journey. His mother Zofia is also admirable in her undying devotion to the welfare of her son.

As this work is based upon real observations Poleski made in his own life, this book is part biography, and part historical fiction. However, no matter how you want to label it, it is a book well with the time it takes to read it. It’s especially troubling to learn about post-World War II anti-Semitism (so soon after the Holocaust took so many Jewish lives, particularly Polish lives). Furthermore, such racism still plagues the world today, which may make you wonder if we’ll ever learn to simply live and let live. Excellently written and should be read by all generations.




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