By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette — I would have never read Joe Leary’s book if he hadn’t pushed me.
When I first picked it up and saw those faces of the Jewish children on the cover, in a photo taken during the Holocaust, I knew there wasn’t much chance I would read his book.
It wasn’t like I was avoiding the issue. For a long period of my life I read everything I could find about the Holocaust. I was kind of obsessed about it.
As a young woman, I simply could not believe that normal people could behave like such monsters. I wanted to know more about a culture that could be convinced to do such terrible harm to others — especially innocent little children. I couldn’t understand how normal, everyday people were unable to see the humanity in those who were so much more like them than unlike them.
I figured if I learned all I could about such evil then someday, if I ever saw society veering into such an attitude of hateful separation, I might be able to see it coming and work, somehow to try and stop it.
Then, I saw “Schindler’s List” and watched the scene where the officer casually stood on his balcony shooting the Jewish prisoners for sport and I realized I could no longer watch such things.
I decided to keep my eyes on the heroes and protectors of humanity and continually remind myself of the good being done on the planet, rather than focus on something that inexplicably drew millions into the darkest era of human history.
So, no, I had no plans to read the book “Klara.” I had read the summery and that was enough for me. Instead I published an excerpt of the book last winter in these pages. Afterwards, when the author, Joseph Leary of Lewiston, gently pressed me for a review the book, I passed “Klara” along to another editor who thought they might like to review it. And then, I let the matter drop. Leary did not.
Every now and then I would get an email from Joe, politely asking if I had read “Klara.” Last August, when I told them I had passed the book along, he said he would drop another off. And he did. I told him I would try to read it.
As a writer, I appreciated his determination. And that’s actually what got me. I finally brought “Klara” home with me. Then I put it on my nightstand, next to my bed. Facedown.
Eventually, one night — simply because I had told Joe I would try to read it — I picked up “Klara” and tried to read it.
Almost immediately, I understood why Joseph Leary had worked so hard to get me to read his book.
“Klara,” got to me in a way I never expected. It’s the story of a man who lives in a Ukraine neighborhood in Chicago in the 70s and how he is brought to trial for crimes he committed against Jews during World War II.
“Klara,” is Leary’s effort to bring such a terrible story to life, but the center of the tale is infused with love. The heroine, Klara, a child that the Ukraine soldier rescued from extermination, is really the the story’s heart and her gentle beauty and loving ways are what grabbed me, along with the idea of one gentle beautiful soul save almost by coincidence, while millions of others perished.
Leary’s story immersed me in the questions that have puzzled me since I first learned of the Holocaust. Why did seemingly honest, good people join the effort to exterminate the Jews. How did the Nazis get so many of them to stand by. And how did they live with their actions after the war.
The piece is infused with decisions. Each of the major characters is forced to choose between courage or cowardice. And Leary examines their lives as an unfolding from such decisions. His careful, simple sentences and thoughtful storytelling took me to a place that I had never wanted to return. But my time spent with Leary’s story helped me see, in a manner I’d never quite seen before, that when faced with a life or death decision, forced to choose between your own life or the life of others, who among us can ever be certain how we will behave.
Not one really knows who they will choose to be in their defining moments, but Leary’s book gave me some insight into the ultimate test of character. In a world that seems to continually be dividing into assortments of “us against them” mentality, It surely reminded me of who I hope I’ll be if forced to choose.
Contact Features Editor Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263.
NOTE: To purchase a copy of "Klara" visit www.amazon.com.