the time of the orphans

Laurent Sagalovitsch

(Buchet Chastel, 224 pages, 2019)


In 1944, Daniel Shapiro, a young and newly married American rabbi, joins the war effort as a military chaplain. Upon landing in England, he is at once dispatched to a Normandy beach, where he comes face to face with the bloody realities of war. He spends his first day reciting the Kaddish over the bodies of the fallen soldiers. Yet even this baptism by fire cannot prepare him for what is to come. Daniel narrates his journey eastward as he accompanies the Allied troops on their victorious march through France, across the Rhine, and deep into Germany. There they encounter the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps – a horror that none of them could have anticipated.

A telegram urges them to hasten to the prisoner-of-war camp near the town of Ohrdruf, recently liberated by the U.S. Third Army. As they approach, a suffocating stench permeates the air. Yet Daniel still expects to encounter a situation in which he can perform his religious duties and bring comfort to those in need. The army has provided him with prayer books, Hebrew calendars, and kippahs, but he soon realizes that what the frenzied crowd of skeletal and half-naked prisoners pressing upon him wants most of all is to be reconnected with their loved ones. He thus spends hours gathering testimonies and noting down the names of lost relatives.

Among them, solitary and mute, Daniel notices a little boy with an unyielding gaze. He is told the boy might have come from Buchenwald – and, since that is their next destination, he brings the child along in the hope of reuniting him with his parents. This little boy gives Daniel the strength to move forward, to extricate himself from despair and bring himself back to the light. Daniel realizes that his purpose might not be to ease an unredeemable suffering, but to be a witness, to serve as a repository of the horrors of war. When they enter Buchenwald in April 1945, Daniel’s increasingly inadequate attempts to comprehend what he is faced with collapses, as does his faith.

The Time of the Orphans is an evocative novel that immerses us in the sights, sounds, and smells that Daniel experiences along his harrowing journey, one that is as physical as it is spiritual. Laurent Sagalovitsch enlists his fluid prose and dedication to historical facts to probe themes close to his heart: the Silence of God, and the Holocaust. Sagalovitsch interrupts the flow of Daniel’s first-person account filled with descriptive details, as if to keep the surrounding chaos at bay, with letters from Daniel’s wife. Her amorous longing and everyday concerns highlight the contrast between the life he left behind and the one he now lives—a gap he may never be able to fill.

Laurent Sagalovitsch is a Franco-Canadian writer and blogger living in Vancouver. He is the author of several novels, including Vera Kaplan (Buchet-Chastel, 2016), La Canne de Virginia (Actes Sud, 1998), and a trilogy featuring a character named Simon Sagalovitsch who wanders between Vancouver, Paris, and Tel Aviv: Un Juif en cavale (Actes Sud, 2013), La Métaphysique du hors-jeu (Actes Sud, 2010), and Loin de quoi? (Actes Sud, 2006), Some of his novels have been translated into Spanish and Italian.