The Entertainer and the Dybbuk begins in 1948 in Vienna, Austria amid the ruins of World War II. Freddie the Great is an ex-American serviceman who has decided to remain in Europe and is working as a third rate entertainer in third rate dives. His problem is that he isn’t a very good ventriloquist – his lips move. One night, he opens a closet door in his seedy hotel room and there, sitting on the floor, is a child with a faint glow about him. It is, in fact, the ghost of Avrom Amos Poliakov, a 12 year old boy killed by the Nazis. He explains to Freddie that he is a dybbuk, which is, according to Jewish folklore, the spirit of a dead person who takes possession of a living person in order to fulfill an earthy purpose. And Avrom has a very important earthly mission and Freddie owes him a favor - Avrom had saved his life during the war.
Little by little Avrom makes his presence known in Freddie’s act speaking as though he were the dummy and pretty soon Freddie has achieved some measure of success. Freddie no longer moves his lips, and can even drink a bottle of Perrier while the dummy speaks. The audience loves it. At first, Avrom is willing to go along with Freddie’s usual routine, but he soon begins to throw in facts from his life under the Nazis. And the audience continues to love the act. Freddie finally achieves real stardom in Paris, but now Avrom decides he can’t work on the Sabbath or Shabbes, so Friday and Saturday afternoon performances are cancelled. Yet they remain a success, so much so that when a reporter interviews Freddie, intrigued by his claim that his dummy is a dybbuk, Avrom willingly tells her his story.
Avrom and his younger sister Sulka had managed to elude the Nazis in Ukrainian for two years, but on August 22, 1944 the Nazis rounded up all the Jewish children for deportation. Avrom and Sulka escaped, but were hunted down by the SS. First they killed Sulka, and after a chase, Avrom was shot 6 times by SS Colonel Gerhard Junker-Strupp. The interviewer is amused, but doesn’t believe the story.
Avrom next tells Freddie that he had been killed two weeks before his Bar Mitzvah and he wants Freddie to find a Rabbi to complete it. Freddie figures that once he is Bar Mitzvahed he would be gone, but discovers that the dybbuk’s real purpose is to exact vengeance on Junker-Strupp now that Avrom is a man under Jewish law. And Avrom was not going to be stopped. It had taken him two years to track the Nazi down, and he had discovered the Junker-Strupp was in hiding as a Jewish Holocaust survivor, complete with a tattooed number on his arm. Given the zeal with which Avrom hunted his killer, the ending of this novel is not to be missed. And it is better than you might expect.
The Entertainer and the Dybbuk is a short but powerful book. It was Fleischman’s intention to honor the 1.5 million children killed during the Holocaust with this novel because “History is easy to forget. Does it matter in our contemporary lives if we toss aside what happened so long ago? If we forget – poof – history vanishes. The Holocaust vanishes. If we don’t know where we have been, how wise will we be in the future?” (pg 179)Avrom’s story is delivered in pure Shtick or what Fleischman calls “the tough Jewish sense of humor” in his Author’s Note at of the book. (pg 179) Don’t be fool by that. Even though there is much satirical humor and it looks like an easy book, Avrom’s story is heartbreakingly sad. He is a character that has stayed with me since I finished reading the book in much that same way he stayed with Freddie – hauntingly so. But this is an excellent novel and I would highly recommend it.
This book won the 2008 Sydney Taylor Book Award for older readers.
This book is recommended for readers aged 11-14.
This book was purchased for my personal library.
For more information on Sid Fleischman and his works see his website at Presenting Sid Fleischman
Sadly, Sid Fleischman passed away on March 17, 2010 at the age of 90. His obituary may be found at