Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Empire of Kalman the Cripple

I find myself connected to some book reviewers and the books they recommend—the older books, those books I don't know and authors that are unfamiliar. Several weeks ago I wrote down the name of an author and a book recommended by reviewer—new to me.

The author—Yehuda Elberg and the book The Empire of Kalman the Cripple. According to the short bio on the book flap Elberg descended from a rabbinical Polish family and was an ordained rabbi. Born in 1912 his twenties coincided with World war II. He actively participating in the Polish resistance throughout the war.

His books were written in Yiddish and Hebrew. The Empire of Kalman the Cripple, originally published in 1983, and translated into English in 1997, takes place in Dombrokva, Poland— a shetyl where Jews lived amidst a strong current of anti-semitism.

Kalman, crippled at a young age—unable to walk, drags himself around. He's astute and grows up to become a superior business man in a society where he's dealing with strong anti-Jewish sentiment. Yet, Kalman through his own machinations learns to deal with the people in charge and soon has a large shop that sells everything.

From there he spreads out—brings electricity to the town, builds a mill, and expands his business operations.

Bullying, unkind comments, physical torments all leave him with a spitefulness that he inflicts on others. Over the course of years he inflicts others with his bullying and malice, but then as he begins to amass more money he starts handing out kindness—and he changes.

Although he knows that some of his acts can never be eradicated, nor the harm that he perpetrated be forgotten by one woman.

He is building an empire and surrounding himself with people who see him as a kind man. Before he dies he makes out a will leaving his money to a number of people he's helped. He asks the young man who works for him and is like a son to him to take care of his empire, to keep it growing.

Kalman dies the year before the Nazis come into power—the empire will crumble.

The act that can't be forgotten or erased is a horrible act of rape against a woman he loved and who thwarts his advances.

It is only at the end of his life that Kalman relives the horror of what he did and his impotence in forgiving himself for the rape.
As a protagonist Kalman is a flawed character, molded by his disability, his father leaving when he was crippled,and the intense loneliness of his youth.

One wonders if Kalman, despite the changes, can ever be released from the enormity of what he did to another human being. Perhaps only God can truly forgive Kalman.

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