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The Enemy Beside Me


The Enemy Beside Me

Sometimes a book can be difficult to read. Perhaps it’s because of the quantity of information presented, or it makes us uncomfortable or sad, or it shines a bright light on ugly human flaws that we'd rather not think about. But that book might need to be read over and over again to really experience it fully, discomfort notwithstanding. Naomi Ragen's 14th novel, THE ENEMY BESIDE ME, is just such a book because of the intense spotlight she shines on a country that to this day refuses to admit its part in the massacre of its Jewish population, and because of the amount of information she presents --- factual first-person accounts --- about those horrific events.

This is a book that Ragen says is very close to her heart, and in it she strays from writing about the Orthodox Jewish community. And while all her novels deal with serious issues, they are usually insightful peeks into a community that we don't know much about and observations about how women in those societies are treated. In THE ENEMY BESIDE ME, however, we follow Milia Gottstein, a Nazi hunter who works for her family's organization, The Survivors' Campaign, into Lithuania as she attempts to change that country's posture regarding their treatment of Jews during WWII.

As the novel begins, Milia gets an invitation from a Lithuanian professor to be the keynote speaker at an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day program. It's called "Our Neighbors, Our Friends." Right there, we see Ragen's dry sense of humor at play in creating a title for something as filled with sorrow and horror as any Holocaust program must be; it seems to have come straight from an episode of “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.”

That same evening, as Milia is relaxing in the home she shares with her surgeon husband Julius, she gets a phone call that changes her life. It turns out that Julius, her husband of over 30 years, is having an affair with the female half of a couple they see socially. This call leads Milia to rethink and reevaluate what she has done with her life.

"Read THE ENEMY BESIDE ME for the lovely story of a woman coming into her own, realizing her own worth and the value of what she does. But also be prepared for an eye-opening, heart-stopping, horrifying journey into a vicious, depraved time and country. Keep the tissues handy."

The story is about Milia, her husband and their marriage, and how meeting a handsome man who is practically Julius' opposite causes her to think about herself in a different light. But it's also very much about Lithuania and its reluctant --- or, more accurately, adamant --- opposition to openly admitting what happened in that country during WWII and how cruelly the Lithuanian "patriots" treated the Jews, who had been their neighbors and acquaintances for hundreds of years. At times, the facts we learn about what happened to the Lithuanian Jews are overwhelmingly horrifying.

What lifts us out of the morass of despair as we read about inhumane acts of torture and rape, and the murder of hundreds of thousands of people, is when the narrative returns to the present. We read about Milia and her growing admiration of Darius Vidas, the tall, handsome Lithuanian who invited her to speak at the conference he is organizing.

While Darius seems a bit shallow at the start of the novel, he is determined that his conference will be different from previous ones. He is set on featuring a speaker who will tell the truth about his country's history instead of glossing over the ugly parts or blaming others for the genocide. But he also believes that many of his countrymen acted kindly and protected the Jews. In fact, his own family has a story about a rich emerald and diamond necklace passed from his grandmother to his mother that was supposedly given to his grandparents by a grateful Jewish family after they were hidden during the war and spirited to safety. His mother keeps the necklace stowed away and never wears it.

The novel is filled with information --- so much of it fascinating and heart-rending. I am Jewish, and I have read countless novels about WWII and Israel, but I never knew that after the war, the Palestinian Jews who had fought with the British had to break those bonds. Ragen writes, "But once the war had been decided and the British started hauling survivors off leaky ships headed for the Jewish homeland, blockading Israeli ports, and using armed escorts to force people just out of Auschwitz into intolerable barbed-wire holding camps in Cyprus, all to please their new oil-rich Arab friends, the ties speedily unraveled." We learn that the British army stood "shoulder to shoulder with the rabid Arab enemy."

But that's just the beginning, as we descend into what would be Jewish hell if the Jews believed in Hell. In Lithuania, as Ragen so graphically depicts, a greater percentage of the Jewish population was slaughtered than in any other European country. Unlike many other countries, the genocide was exacted by the Lithuanians themselves, not the Nazis. Those Lithuanians who put on white armbands and called themselves "partisans" perpetrated the killings. But often other Lithuanians who came to the killing "fields" celebrated, laughed and drank at the spectacle --- because before the Jews were actually killed, they were robbed, tortured, maimed, raped, starved and frequently worked to death. Ragen writes that the Lithuanians were so vicious in their slaughter that even some Nazis were appalled.

Also, unlike citizens of other countries, the Lithuanians, Ragen informs us, still refuse to admit what actually happened in their country during WWII. They have statues of the "partisans" and name schools and streets after them. They revere them and refuse to believe that those same "heroes" committed such atrocities and were, in fact, perpetrators of a genocidal massacre.

When Milia goes to Lithuania to participate in the week-long conference, she and Darius begin with a speaking engagement for high school students. She reads a first-person account by a survivor from their town of what transpired, an account that was verified, notarized and factual. The students, the teachers and the administrators are furious at what they hear, and half of them storm out. But the other half stay and hear the tale of betrayal by "friends" and neighbors --- and about the violence. After the speech, which goes viral, the higher-up officials in Lithuania are furious with Darius and threaten him with dire consequences if Milia speaks at the final conference, where press from around the world will attend.

While learning about the horrors of Lithuania's past (and present), we also see the blossoming of the friendship between Darius and Milia. Even though Darius represents everything Milia hated about non-Jews --- he is tall, blond, Aryan handsome --- he is also kind, thoughtful, remorseful and intelligent. He hates what he learns about his country's past and sincerely wants to help the Lithuanians move forward, past the trauma and secrecy of the past, for the good of the country. After having been abandoned by her husband, Milia enjoys the respect and admiration she sees in Darius' eyes.

Of course, Ragen puts it all together both brilliantly and movingly. I cried not only when reading about the devastation and vicious cruelty in the treatment of the Jews, but also at the nobility of Darius --- whose admiration of Milia's strength and determination is almost her undoing. What comes to mind when thinking of Milia and Darius and people like them trying to bring the truth to the Lithuanian people is Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. It seems a Sisyphean task to get the Lithuanian elected officials, or even the everyday citizens, to admit what really happened and how their ancestors, great-grandparents, grandparents or even parents were involved. In fact, in their search for truth, Darius learns some very unsettling information about his own family. He wonders, had he lived during the Holocaust, if he would have risked everything to save the lives of the Jews. Ragen's handling of this question is quite touching.

Part of the chilling nature of Ragen's writing is how she describes Lithuania and its residents' idolization of those "partisans" who were complicit in the genocide. Darius and Milia are frustrated at the futility of any steps the government makes. There are parallels to what is happening in the U.S. and other parts of the world. In the beginning of the story, before Darius learns the extent of the Lithuanian complicity, when he naively believes that there were good people who protected the Jews, like his grandfather, he thinks, "And the current attempt to tear down all Lithuania's partisan heroes, uprooting their statues and wiping their names off street signs and plaques, also had to be halted." We in the U.S. could so easily substitute "Confederate" for "Lithuania" and hear those words spoken here. There's even a point, Ragen writes, when a Lithuanian official is upset at Milia's speech because she failed to consider "both sides" of the narrative. That phrase, "both sides," is also reminiscent of a horrible event and the official response here in the U.S.

The writing is superb and filled with metaphors, as we would expect from Ragen. After learning about the mass graves that literally dot the countryside, often hidden and paved over, she writes about the reasons that many young Lithuanians want to leave the country for "places with more opportunities; places where they could plant their hopes without having to dig through tangled corpses. Places where the dead were buried one by one, with prayers and flowers and granite markers."

In creating Milia, Ragen draws upon her own personality and belief system. Ragen commented to me that Milia even "lives in my house and enjoys my garden," and she lives in the same town in which Ragen resides. You can feel that connection as you read the novel.

Ragen's grandparents were from Lithuania, though they left before WWII. Her in-laws suffered through concentration camps and slave labor. She shared, "I visited Vilnius and other parts of Lithuania researching another book back in 2003. At the time, I had no idea about Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust and was stunned when we went out to see the mass graves in Ponary. I could almost see and hear the open trucks coming down that road with the entire Jewish population of Vilnius. Markers for mass graves are endless. It was horrifying."

Not only does Milia share traits with her creator, they share their desire for Lithuania to recognize and admit the truth. Ragen told me, "I really hope this book inspires change in the Lithuanian government and its people and that the victims are at long last honored and collectively mourned."

Read THE ENEMY BESIDE ME for the lovely story of a woman coming into her own, realizing her own worth and the value of what she does. But also be prepared for an eye-opening, heart-stopping, horrifying journey into a vicious, depraved time and country. Keep the tissues handy.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on September 29, 2023

The Enemy Beside Me
by Naomi Ragen

  • Publication Date: September 12, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 1250840902
  • ISBN-13: 9781250840905