Sheep, sex and Nazis

Sheep
Photo by Gisela Giardino

Maybe it's growing up with British tabloid headlines, but I wish Sam Apple had chosen "Sheep, sex and Nazis" as a title instead of "Schlepping through the Alps". The phrase is his own description of the world he chronicles, and is closer to the spirit of the book than the actual title which had me expecting a light-hearted travelogue in the vein of "Round Ireland with a Fridge".

Sam's the editor of The Faster Times and he got in touch to offer his sympathies after my run-in with Facebook. Since anybody who likes my blog obviously has excellent judgment, I googled him and was intrigued to see he'd written about his experiences as a young American Jew following a wandering Yiddish-singing shepherd around Austria.

I started reading unsure what to expect, but what struck me was the honesty of his descriptions. That quality sounds unremarkable, but is amazingly hard to achieve because people are so contradictory. Whenever you're telling a story rough edges get rounded off to make it flow, even if it's just omitting certain details. He manages to capture an intimate portrait of a few people he got close to, and through them of a whole country with a lingering dark past, without simplifying details to make answers to their dilemmas seem easier than they truly are.

He flies to Austria to learn more about Hans Breuer, the last shepherd to wander through the Austrian Alps with his flock. Hans' father is a non-practicing Jew, and Hans himself has become obsessed with the rich Yiddish culture from pre-war Europe, taking it on himself to memorize and perform the old songs wherever he can. Sam's family came to the US from the old world before the Nazis came to power, and he's aghast at Austria's post-war response to the Holocaust. The heart of the book is his attempt to pin down that collective failure by understanding individuals, and his honesty forces him to acknowledge the less noble sides of his own quest, Hans' faults and even the human side of the single open anti-semite he tracks down. These nuances mean you can't help but see parts of yourself in all the characters, and realize that people much like us committed and covered up horrors that are hard to imagine.

If you've ever enjoyed Orwell, I recommend you pick up Schlepping. As he put it, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle", and Sam's obvious struggle to be true to the reality of his subjects brings the book into the same league as "The Road to Wigan Pier" in its insights on a crucial topic.

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