Bernard Malamud's The Fixer: A Holocaust Novel Set in Czarist Russia
Special thanks to my colleague Dr. Eileen Watts, bibliographer of the Bernard Malamud Society and author of a forthcoming article in the Torah Umada Journal about thematic linkages between Malamud and Rav Soloveitchik, for her insightful comments and edits. All references are to the 2004 edition of The Fixer, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In his 1966 classic The Fixer, Bernard Malamud adopts a rather unconventional mode for a Holocaust novel, narrating the terrors of that blood-stained era through the story of the wrongful murder accusation and trial of the Jew Yakov Bok. Bok, modeled after Menachem Mendel Beilis, the famed Russian Jew who was wrongly tried on trumped-up murder charges, had fled the shtetl in search of economic opportunity and a secular lifestyle during the reign of Czar Nicholas II. Try as he might, Yakov struggles to find economic opportunity and escape his Jewishness. Disguising his identity, he illegally ventures into the non-Jewish district of Kiev in search of work, finding lodging in the home of brick factory owner Nikolai Lebedev, a member of the Ukrainian nationalist and virulently anti-semitic Black Hundreds group. Nikolai hires Yakov to manage the factory, but while at the Lebedev home, Bok is nearly seduced by Nikolai’s physically impaired daughter Zinaida, resisting at the last moment upon seeing her menstrual bleeding, which, according to Jewish law, rendered her temporarily prohibited to him.
Some time later, a young boy is found in a cave near the factory, and the death is blamed on Yakov, who is arrested in what closely resembles a twentieth-century blood libel. Yakov is tried on trumped-up murder charges, and is interrogated at length. After visits from his father-in-law and wife and a great deal of suffering and soul-searching on Yakov’s part, the novel closes with the protagonist being swept away to a courthouse for trial, surrounded by dense crowds of anti-semitic Russians and weeping Jews, some waving at Yakov and calling his name.
Malamud’s decision to cast Yakov Bok as a vehicle for confronting the Holocaust’s horrors is curious. True, it was natural for Malamud, born to Russian-Jewish parents, to focus on an event in Russian Jewish history. But that does not seem to sufficiently account for Malamud’s unusual tactic of portraying a Holocaust story through the lens of another historical era, no matter how ugly and virulently anti-semitic.
There is an additional element in The Fixer that is similarly perplexing. Throughout the novel, Malamud invokes multiple biblical references. Strikingly, Yakov Bok is an amalgamation of various biblical characters. His Hebrew name identifies him with the patriarch Jacob. This association is underscored in a scene in which Yakov fantasizes that he is engaged in a wrestling match with none other than the Czar himself:
They wrestled, beard to beard, in the dark until Nicholas proclaimed himself an angel of God and ascended to the sky. (227)
This scene clearly evokes Jacob’s famed encounter with the angel, who, according to a classic rabbinic tradition with which Malamud was almost certainly familiar, represented Esau’s guardian angel. In The Fixer’s context, then, the Czar implicitly represents not just the brutal Jew-hatred of Czarist Russia, but of antisemitic figures reaching back to the patriarchs. Just as the angel renamed Jacob Israel, the namesake of the Jewish nation, so too Yakov Bok is understood to represent the universal suffering Jew.
Indeed, Yakov’s last name, Bok, adds another dimension to Yakov’s standing as a symbol of all Jews. Bok is Russian for scapegoat. In the Bible, the Scapegoat was sent to a cliff’s edge each Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, and was understood to bear the Jews’ sins. Similarly, the suggestion is that Yakov is the scapegoat for all of Russia’s problems, just as Jews have been scapegoats for others’ problems from time immemorial.
Despite his first name, there are in fact even more extensive parallels between Yakov Bok and yet another biblical hero: Joseph. Both experience tensions with family members: Yakov with his unfaithful wife and his pious father-in-law Shmuel, and Joseph with his jealous brothers. Yakov and Joseph both find themselves cut off from their families and communities in a distant land, work faithfully in the house of a master while assiduously avoiding revealing their identities as Jews, and are, at various points in their journeys, tossed into pits and prisons.
Like Joseph, Yakov is propositioned by a female member of the master’s household, and, at the last moment, resists temptation by recalling his Jewish values: Yakov saw the menstrual bleeding, and according to tradition, Joseph’s father’s image flashed before his eyes. Both manage to survive in foreign countries. Goats play key roles in each story: Joseph’s brothers slaughter a kid and dip their brother’s multicolor coat in the animal’s blood; Yakov Bok is himself a (scape)goat. Blood, moreover, plays a key role in both narratives; as noted, it is the sight of Zinaida’s menstrual bleeding that leads Yakov to refuse her advances, and, according to the report printed in the local Kiev newspaper, the Russian boy of whose murder Yakov is accused “had been stabbed to death and bled white, possibly for ritual purposes” (68).
Finally, Malamud portrays Yakov as a Job-like figure who, for no apparent reason, suffers the devastating losses of his wife, health, freedom, warmth, food, and dignity. Indeed, Yakov grapples twice with the legacy of Job, both times dismissing his suffering as purposeless. He first insists:
Abraham, Moses, Noah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezra, even Job, make their personal covenant with the talking God. But Israel accepts the covenant in order to break it. That's the mysterious purpose: they need the experience. So they worship false Gods; and this brings Yahweh up out of his golden throne with a flaming sword in both hands. When he talks loud history boils. Assyria, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, become the rod of his anger, the rod that breaks the heads of the Chosen People. (237)
Later, when Shmuel tries to convince Yakov that the pain is worthwhile, Yakov angrily protests. Shmuel begins:
The true miracle is belief. I believe in Him. Job said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” He said more but that's enough.
To win a lousy bet with the devil he killed off all the servants and innocent children of Job. For that alone I hate him, not to mention ten thousand pogroms. Ach, why do you make me talk fairy tales? Job is an invention and so is G-d. Let's let it go at that. (256)
Malamud, then, instead of writing directly on the Shoah, pens a Holocaust novel set in Czarist Russia, featuring a protagonist who is an amalgamation of the biblical Jacob, Scapegoat, Joseph, and Job. And we wonder: Why?
We may cite the dialogue between Yakov Bok and his sympathetic lawyer, Ostrovsky, in formulating a response:
“You suffer for us all,” the lawyer said huskily. “I would be honored to be in your place.”
“It’s without honor,” Yakov said, wiping his eyes with his fingers, and rubbing his hands together. “It’s a dirty suffering.” (305)
This, then, is the solution to our quandary: Malamud tells the story of the Holocaust through the lens of Czarist Russia, because they are part and parcel of the same meta-historical process. The protagonist is a mixture of characters including Jacob, Joseph, Job, the Scapegoat, any medieval Jew accused of perpetrating a blood libel, and Menachem Mendel Beilis because in the end, they are all the same. In all generations, the Jew has been condemned to an endless barrage of pogroms. For Malamud, a man who did not begin his writing career until he was compelled by the traumatic events of World War II, that is the primary lesson we are to draw from the Holocaust.
This motif appears elsewhere in Malamud’s writing. In “The Jewbird,” a short story, a bird named Schwartz, who has been fleeing from antisemitic birds, finds refuge in the home of a New York City Jewish family, the Cohens. The bird, however, is mercilessly persecuted and nearly killed by the father. Here too, the bird is a metaphor for the universal wandering Jew, with the added wrinkle that self-hating Jews are no better - and, at times, even worse - than other antisemites.
Given this bleak outlook, we are left wondering: is there any hope? Does Malamud envision only persecution and suffering?
Malamud defiantly responds in the negative. As the novel’s title indicates, Yakov Bok concludes that while suffering is evil and purposeless, we must act to "fix it" by protecting freedom wherever we can. In contrast to his initial protests that he “never belonged to a political party” (97), Yakov reverses course, arriving at the inescapable conclusion that “there’s no such thing as as unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can’t be one without the other, that’s clear enough. You can’t sit still and see yourself destroyed” (335).
Bernard Malamud’s Holocaust novel is sober, clear-eyed, and refuses to paper over or diminish evil in any way. Indeed, it comes to grips with the apparently irrational, eternal fate of the wandering, suffering Jew. Still, Malamud leaves us with a dual charge that is especially important to bear in mind on Yom Hashoah.
First, even where the truth is uncomfortable and inconvenient, we are bidden to confront Jewish suffering head on.
Second, every Jew possesses a unique moral obligation to combat evil wherever we encounter it. Jewish suffering, in the tradition of earlier existentialist novelists such as Kafka (whose victim is aptly named Joseph) and Camus, may be absurd and inexplicable. That recognition, however, must not result in paralysis. Instead, as anti-semitism again rears its ugly head in today’s volatile world, we must continuously strive to “be political men” and actively work toward evil's defeat.
These, for Malamud, are the key lessons we must draw as Jews confronted with anti-semitism’s timeless malevolence.