2018 - Winner
How are the horrors of the Holocaust to be remembered as its last witnesses pass? Bram Presser, grandchild of Holocaust survivors Jacob and Dasa, wrestles with this question in The Book of Dirt, weaving personal history and invention in ways that push the novel form to the limits, without ever losing sight of his urgent human project.
Although Presser’s family believed Jacob had taught children in the Theresienstadt ghetto, a profile published after the old man’s death claimed he had been conscripted to sort stolen Judaica for Hitler’s infamous ‘Museum of the Extinct Race’ in Prague. Incorporating archival research and photographs with gripping invention, Presser doggedly pursues the truth while turning over the limits of historical inquiry and story. Taking his title from the legend that sixteenth-century Rabbi Judah Loewe hid the heart of his golem (summoned from the Vltava River to protect the Jews of Prague) in a hollow book, the author offers a powerful metaphor for a project that weaves ‘the threads of rumour and legend’.
Deeply moving, complex, with an involving crowd of protagonists, The Book of Dirt is less an exhumation than a summoning of souls. With great heart and daring, Presser grapples with the novel form to break through what the book describes as the ‘great Perspex wall of Holocaust ownership, the barrier encountered by every member of the second and third generation who tries to make sense of what happened to their family’.