Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Toni Strauss

Toni Strauss, née Rosenfeld, a Jewish woman who was divorced by her gentile husband when she was only twenty years old; they had been married three years. A dark, beautiful woman, she has had many lovers. A year after an elderly lover dies and leaves her a legacy, Toni decides that she and her son must return to her birthplace. She is short on education and academic knowledge, which leads her son to think that she is a stupid woman, yet people fall in love with her wherever she goes. Toni almost dies of typhus when they are in Buszwyn. Throughout the book, Toni experiences an ever-growing fear. It is an oppression that grows greater as she and Rudi near her parents’ village, just as her craving for coffee increases. In the end, she is taken by the Nazis, along with her parents, to the concentration camps.

Rudi Strauss

Rudi Strauss, Toni’s son by her gentile husband, August Strauss. Rudi loves his mother but cannot stand the way that her mind seems to be a jumble of thoughts clouded with fear. His connection with animals emphasizes the difference between his mother’s hypersensitivity and his insensitivity. After a drunken binge, he recovers to find that his mother has gone to see her parents without him. He follows, but a day behind, to the railway station. Along the way, he meets Arna and takes her with him.


Rosemarie, the dead owner of a tavern, murdered...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

There are only three major characters in To the Land of the Cattails, and in most of the book only two are present, Toni and Rudi Strauss. Their characters can best be revealed by relating their changes as the book progresses.

Toni Rosenfeld Strauss represents a character type who, before the pre-Holocaust years, envisioned herself as an Austrian first and a Jew only by a coincidence of birth, which she fully acknowledges but from which she dissociates herself. Although reared by traditionally Jewish parents, she eloped at seventeen with August, a handsome, intelligent, kind-seeming Austrian engineer who “remove[d] his mask” as soon as they reached the city, where he beat her, even though she was pregnant. Divorced by August when she was twenty and had a child, she was too guilty to return to her parents’ home, but because she is beautiful and could attract a series of lovers who gave her money, she was able to survive, even without an education. She has been tormented by memories of her parents for seventeen years and is torn between what she knows she should do for her son and what she does do. Despite her avowals of being a “non-believer,” she sees marked differences between Jews and non-Jews and determines that she must do what is best for her son—make him a Jew by going on a pilgrimage to her family and place of birth.

The allegorical pilgrimage is very dangerous and the goal is elusive, because Toni is not a dedicated pilgrim, as a result of her internal ambivalence about Jews. She sees her people as compassionate, kind, and intelligent, a contrast to the brutality, drunkenness, gaming, and coarseness of the “goyim.” Yet she also sees her people as physically small, weak, and timid, unwilling to stand up for their rights or even their lives, and she magnifies the flaws of a few and applies them to the whole. Therefore, she is proud that her son has Aryan features and can be physically and vocally strong in standing up for his rights while, at the same time, she deplores his father’s heritage of drinking, gambling, womanizing, and disliking Jews. Before Toni can witness her son’s change, she must first change—one purpose of her pilgrimage, although she does not know it.

With each group of people and each instance of increasingly violent anti-Semitism that the travelers encounter, they are tested for commitment, and the narrator records their reactions, almost as...

(The entire section is 993 words.)