As Williams Faulkner famously wrote, “The past isn’t gone – it isn’t even past.” Though the tumultuous events of the twenty-first century have been relegated to the history books, their legacy endures, most tellingly in the lives of the ordinary individuals whose lives those events have shaped. This fact is made poignantly evident in Criminal Democracy, a multi-generational family history and personal memoir by first-time published Israeli-American author Al Birch (aka Arie Livne).
This 61,000-word work begins by chronicling the tenuous calm that characterized Jewish life in 1930s Krakow, where Birch’s father grew up, before the savagery of WWII forever altered Europe and the world. With a careful eye for detail and a narrative style that borrows from the best historical fiction, Birch tells the true account of the lives and loves of his grandparents, Joel (his father), and other relatives, until the moment when the horrors of the Holocaust engulf his family and everything they know.
Drawing on historical documents and family oral history, Birch narrates the misery his forebears endured when they found themselves transported to Auschwitz. They cross paths with a historical chapter known to many: that of Oscar Schindler, in whose factory Joel was selected to work, a fortuitous turn of events that would spare him from the tragic fate so many others (including his wife Zocha) encountered in the concentration camps and cities-turned-battlefields.
From the ruins of war-torn Europe, the story moves to Israel, where Joel with his new wife Frida settle, despite the difficulties of living in the nascent nation in the aftermath of tragedy. Birch candidly describes his childhood, family life, and the ordinary trials and triumphs of growing up and getting older. As with his relatives, his own story often intersects with the national story of Israel and broader world events, and he offers his honest critique of Israel, a land he loves despite its deep-rooted political flaws. Eventually, Birch is uprooted again, when he and his family relocate to California, in a new country and culture he eventually adopts as his own. Later, he achieves some measure of closure with his family history in Poland when in the aftermath of the fall of communism, he returns to his ancestral homeland to try to reclaim long-lost family properties.
Birch is a certified accountant and experienced financial officer in the corporate worlds of both the U.S. and Israel. He has a talent for merging personal and family details with broader, overarching historical themes, while narrating objectively and truthfully to open up his own world to the reader.