Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748
Menachem Nachmanovich Dajcher
Menachem Nachmanovich Dajcher, called Mendel, a twenty-eight-year-old Jewish watch mender, artilleryman, and partisan. After becoming detached from his Red Army unit, Mendel lives simply and reclusively in the woods, joining first with Leonid and then with various bands of partisan fighters. He is a patient and honest man who broods uncomprehendingly over the brutal murder of his wife and the wholesale destruction of his village. His experiences have made him sensitive to the ubiquitous anti-Semitism of wartime Europe. For his knowledge of Jewish tradition and his wisdom regarding people and war, Mendel is respected by fellow partisans and is consulted on major decisions. He has an innate sense of responsibility for his actions, and he thinks that his intimacy with Line is to blame for Leonid’s death.
Leonid, a nineteen-year-old Red Army deserter and escaped prisoner of war. An educated Muscovite Jew who has been a bookkeeper, a thief, and a paratrooper, Leonid is tired of war and longs for peace. He is a moody young man charged with sadness, silent and trustworthy but susceptible to insolence and evasiveness. When a mission excites him, however, he commits himself to it passionately, even rashly. He grows dependent on his love for Line and is consumed with anger and jealousy when she drops him for Mendel. Leonid is killed in a foolishly dangerous move during an attack on a German Lager in Poland.
Emmeline, most often called Line, a young Jewish woman in the partisan band. Line is small and slight, with dark eyes and surprising strength. She is a serious and intense fighter who holds strong socialist, feminist, and Zionist convictions. Wise and clear-sighted, she is intriguing to others: Leonid becomes her devoted lover, and Mendel is haunted by her power and beauty until he, too, seeks her out. He realizes that he will never fully know her.
Gedaleh Skidler, a twenty-seven-year-old Jewish partisan leader. Gedaleh is a good-humored, vital, and impulsive soldier and tactician who acts freely, according to the exigencies of each new moment. Tall and thin, he is never seen without his violin, which once saved his life by deflecting a bullet and which he plays frequently and with complete joy. Gedaleh knows that the Gedalists’ prospects for survival are bleak, but he never loses hope or his ability to make quick, strong decisions in his band’s best interests.
Dov Yavor, the chief of the Jewish partisan community whom Mendel and Leonid encounter at Novoselki. Middle-aged and prematurely graying, Dov is a precise and hardheaded leader who has been weathered by war and riddled with lingering injuries. Unlike the other Jewish partisans, who hope someday to begin new lives in Palestine, Dov longs only to return to his native Siberian village, far from the turmoil and threat of war. Once the Gedalists are overcome by the advancing Red Army in Germany, his wish is granted.
Bella, Gedaleh’s companion. Bella is close to forty years old, a thin little blond who no longer participates in battle. She is critical, bossy, lazy, and slow-witted, but she brings a much-needed maternal presence to the partisan band, and Gedaleh finds her to be an ideal mate.
Pavel Yurevich Levinski
Pavel Yurevich Levinski, a proud Russian Jew from the Novoselki community. Pavel has bushy dark hair, a deep voice, and an athletic appearance, and he exhibits a tacit impunity in all he does. A former weight lifter, actor, and radio announcer, he loves telling stories and thrives on attention. His linguistic and theatrical skills help ensure the success of numerous partisan plots and activities.
Piotr Fomich, a deputy in Ulybin’s band who leads the Jewish partisans to Ulybin at Turov. Piotr is lighthearted and innocent, and he takes an immediate liking to Mendel. Although not Jewish, he chooses to leave Ulybin and join the Gedalists, and he stays with them, ironically, because of his deep faith in Christ.
Sissl, a woman in the Jewish partisan band. Sissl is sturdy, mature, calm, and trustworthy, but lacking in beauty and mystery. Mendel takes her as a lover, though she in no way thrills him. He eventually leaves her for Line.
Osip Ivanovich Ulybin
Osip Ivanovich Ulybin, the thirty-year-old chief of a band of Russian partisans that will not take on the Novoselki survivors. Ulybin is a dark, muscular man, a stern and coldhearted military tactician whose formidable authority is undermined only by suspicions of his alcoholism.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586
The novel teems with colorfully drawn characters from Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics, both Jews and non-Jews, each with his or her own national political and personal history. These figures represent a complex interaction of contradictory forces, with the Jewish partisans at the center. Fifteen or more named Gedalists are given highly individualized personalities; their backgrounds and views may differ widely, but they are bound together by a shared heritage of age-old persecution, and by a common language (Yiddish), combined with a knowledge, no matter how slight it is in some cases, of Talmudic culture. These elements color everything they do and say.
One of the ways in which Levi achieves such convincing representations of “real” people is by having them talk and think in terms of their own work or skills. Mendel provides a particularly vivid example of this approach. A former watch mender, he observes people in terms of gears wrongly meshed, of springs too tightly wound, and he sums up situations by comparing their dynamics with those of a working watch. Mendel weaves this practical approach to life into a philosophical context gleaned from the Old Testament.
Gedaleh’s points of reference are his love of poetry and music, particularly his violin, which, according to legend, once saved him from a bullet. He carries his beloved instrument with him everywhere and plays it in the most unexpected places. The violin is a symbol for him not merely of survival but of positive survival with a love of life. Gedaleh is the least theoretical of the group of Jews—a figure of spontaneity and a lover of simple pleasures.
As a leader, he does not plan ahead as does Ulyubin but relies instead on flashes of inspiration to flesh out a broad, overall plan. Gedaleh’s intense interest in other people and his contempt for bureaucracy and the rigid discipline of the Russian and Polish units is contrasted, sometimes satirically, with Ulyubin’s dry authoritarianism. This contrast also establishes the imaginative working style of the Jewish unit and the friendly, quarrelsome, and occasionally chaotic atmosphere of its camp.
Line, the daughter of revolutionaries who named her after Emmeline Pankhurst, is an activist like her parents. She adds a political edge to the narrative. A committed Zionist and Socialist, she often adopts a sharper attitude than her comrades. When Mendel, after the vengeful attack on the German town, questions the morality of paying for blood with more blood, Line tells him he is counting wrongly. The ten they killed have to be accounted not against the death of one partisan but against the millions at Auschwitz. Strongly feminist, Line always insists that she should receive the same training as the men and demands the same right to sexual freedom which the men take for granted.
Leonid is the least resilient of the partisans. Childhood neglect and sufferings in the concentration camp have left him embittered, robbing him of the will to survive. Only his attachment to Line keeps him going. When he loses her, he too is lost.
Piotr, the Christian who remains with the Gedalists, plays an important role in helping the Jews to define themselves. His gruff questions and teasing force them to try to explain the essence of the convoluted, paradoxical, and self-mocking style of their thinking and their humor. Oddly enough, the least convincing of the characters are the Italians, whom Levi has depicted with a degree of sentimentality and idealization refreshingly absent from his pithy depiction of the Jews.
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