“I clicked on the most obvious icon, the Yad Vashem Shoah Names Database and typed in Jakub Rand. They all jumped out at me at once, an explosion of Jakub Rands, as if I had released their souls from the dusty white box that whirred innocuously beside me.”
The Book Of Dirt is the first novel by Australian author, Bram Presser. In 1996, Jakub Rand lost the will to live, mere weeks after his wife, Dasa died. Both were Jews, from Prague; both had lived in the Theresienstadt ghetto during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia; both survived a period in Birkenau-Auschwitz concentration camp. Ten years after their deaths, their grandson, Bram Presser sets out to explore his grandfather’s wartime experience.
With scant details to begin his search, Presser contacts relevant bodies to learn about Jakub’s role in a group that sorted Jewish artefacts and books, the Talmudkommando, for a Nazi project called the Museum of the Extinct Race, something that had been mentioned in an inaccurate Jewish Newspaper article. He visits family in Prague and discovers traces of his grandmother’s wartime activities of which he was unaware.
Presser includes an array of helpful items that lend authenticity: photographs, a Guide to Czech Pronunciation, a Glossary of Hebrew and Czech words, and several maps. His Character list assists with the many similar names, and it’s a novel in which the author and his extended family play starring roles. From a childhood memory of his grandfather running his fingers through a patch of dirt, Presser conjures into his story a golem. With so little fact to go on, the reader may well ask “What is fact and what is fiction?” The author’s Note on Historical Sources goes some way to separating the two. This is a moving tale of survival with some fascinating aspects.