Style and Technique
Englander uses absurd circumstances in a horrific time to illustrate the interaction of Jews within their community as well as the reactions of others to Jewish people during the Holocaust. Even though he does not mention the Nazis by name, he does state that his story takes place during the Holocaust.
By placing his story in Chelm, Englander connects his work with all the classic Yiddish stories of the foolish inhabitants of that fictional city. He makes Mendel a direct descendant of a well-known character in the Chelm stories, Gronam the Ox. This creates continuity for readers who are familiar with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shalom Alechem stories. He also offers enough examples of Gronam’s faulty logic for any reader to understand the premise on which Mendel’s education has been built.
Even though Mendel is somewhat simple, he is a more worldly character than most of the others in the story. He gained his worldliness from his exposure to the world outside the ghetto while trading for food and from his experiences as a Mekyl, when he did not strictly adhere to Jewish law. Mendel’s drinking, an activity uncommon for strictly religious Jewish people, enabled him to fit into the drinking crowd in the dining car, so the Rebbe chose him to be the group’s undercover agent. Thus, Mendel is able to explain the purpose of the trains and provide a possible method of escape for his fellow Mahmirim.
Englander depicts the Rebbe as a learned person, whose knowledge is derived from Jewish law and is applicable in any circumstance. By showing the universality of the rabbi’s wisdom, the author subtly refutes the implication throughout the story that Jews are materialistic, clumsy, and ignorant.