The premise of the alternate history genre is that changing certain key events will radically alter the course of history. In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), a faction of isolationist Republicans succeed in securing the party’s 1940 presidential nomination for Charles Lindbergh. He then goes on to defeat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the general election and adopts a pro-Axis foreign policy and an anti-Semitic domestic one. In The Man in the High Castle (1962), Philip K. Dick postulates that an attempt to assassinate Roosevelt in 1933 was successful. Therefore, the United States was unprepared for and loses World War II. By 1962, the United States is divided into three countries, one neutral, one pro-Japan, and one pro-Germany.
The premise of this alternate history novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is that a proposal made by Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes in the late 1930’s became law. He had offered to settle Alaska with European Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. The key event was that the nonvoting congressional delegate from Alaska, who opposed the proposal, died in an automobile accident. Millions of Jews accepted the invitation and settled in and around Sitka, a small town of fewer than ten thousand people in the Alaskan Panhandle. There was still a Jewish Holocaust, but “only” two million were killed rather than six million, and it is called “The Destruction.” Although it is not clear how these events followed, Nazi Germany defeated the Soviet Union in World War II. Presumably, the resources used against the Jews were applied against the Russians instead. Germany was itself defeated when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Berlin in 1946. The state of Israel only lasted three months before the Arabs destroyed it in 1948, so the Jews were granted a sixty-year lease on what is officially called the Federal District of Sitka and unofficially “Alyeska.” The lease is only a few months from expiring, so the Sitka police department is under pressure to close its open cases, and most people are making plans to stay or move to other countries such as Madagascar, voluntarily or not. By 2007, more than three million people, sometimes called the “Frozen Chosen” or “Sitkaniks,” live there, and Yiddish rather than English or Hebrew is the official language. Instead of the Palestinians, the Jews displaced a Native American nation known as the Tlingits, who lived in the land surrounding Sitka. However, there were only fifty thousand Tlingits, and, unlike the Palestinians, none of the other Native American nations were in any position to support them.
The main point-of-view character is Meyer Landsman, a detective in the tradition of Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Sam Spade. (There is a minor character in the novel named Spade, and the local crime boss is an even more obese version of the actor Sidney Greenstreet, who played the Fat Man in the best film version of The Maltese Falcon, 1930.) Having moved out of the house he shared with his former wife, for the last nine months Meyer has been living in the seedy Hotel Zamenhof when the night manager informs him that a dead body has been found in one of the other rooms. Although Meyer is off duty, he investigates. Known as Emanuel Lasker, the murder victim had a chess set in his room as well as two books on the subject. Meyer knew enough about chess to tell that he was in a complex endgame. He also knew that Emanuel Lasker was the name of a famous Jewish chess player in the early twentieth century and concluded that it was not the victim’s real name. The victim was also a heroin addict, as evidenced by needle marks and devices. He must have been a devout Jew at some point in his past, because he used a tefillin, a leather strap attached to a box containing passages from the Torah used in prayer, as a tourniquet. Lasker was shot in the back of the head, and the killer used a pillow to muffle the sound, so Meyer concludes that it was a professional hit. Meyer has the feeling, correctly as it turns out, that the arrangement of the chess pieces is an important clue.
Meyer’s father, Isidor, and uncle Hertz Shemets were both serious chess buffs, but their...
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