Confronting the Holocaust: Three Israeli Novels
Most people in our time have the face of Lot's wife, turned toward the Holocaust and yet always escaping.
With all the restless probing into the implications of the Holocaust that continues to go on in Jewish intellectual forums in this country, and at a time when there has been such an abundance of novels—even some good novels—by American Jews, it gives one pause to note how rarely American-Jewish fiction has attempted to come to terms in any serious way with the European catastrophe. Alfred Kazin, among others, has argued that no one can really write an imaginative work about the Nazi terror because art implies meaning, and Hitler's whole regime represented an organized annihilation of meaning. It would in any case be an act of spiritual presumption for someone other than a survivor to try to reconstruct the hideousness of the experience from within. But, even standing outside what actually happened, we all have to live with this irruption of utter meaninglessness into history, which implies, finally, that we have to make some kind of sense out of it, as Jews and simply as human beings. This is what historians, social commentators, literary intellectuals, and others over the past two decades have tried to do in introspective or even argumentative essays; it is just this that the more serious American-Jewish novelists have been unwilling or unable to do in their creative work. Two possible explanations for this disparity in response suggest themselves. It may be easier to reason discursively about the inconceivable, to box it in with words, than to assimilate it imaginatively; and, for a variety of reasons, American writers in recent years often seem to have found that the essay, not the novel, has offered the most dependable and penetrating kind of illumination into the dark areas of their inner life and the deepest perplexities of their moral world.
Although in Israel the reflective essay does not have this kind of ascendancy over the imaginative genres, there have been other reasons why Hebrew fiction, at least until fairly recently, has done almost as little as American fiction in the way of looking into the wound of consciousness left by the destruction of European Jewry. (Survivors of the Holocaust living in Israel and writing in Hebrew must of course be excepted from this and all that follows.) Israeli writers, to begin with, have all been participants in a very different kind of major historical event—the rebirth through armed struggle of an independent Jewish state. It was not only that this latter event was more immediate, more palpable, more humanly comprehensible than the grim events in Europe that preceded it, but also that those terrible events raised certain disturbing questions about the values and the very existence of the Jewish state which, at least for a time, Israeli writers were not prepared to confront. During the 50's, Hebrew fiction came to be more and more a medium for wrestling with problems, both personal and cultural, but not this particular problem. In a purely descriptive sense, I would say that there is something strikingly adolescent about Israeli fiction of the 50's. In a number of the important Hebrew novels of this period, the major characters are all, in fact, adolescents; plot and dialogue serve as means for the characters (and the writer) to work out identity crises in a sustained effort consciously to come of age. As one might expect, these adolescent heroes and their retrospectively adolescent authors have little interest in anything that is outside the immediate circumambience of a self struggling for definition, anything beyond the youth movement, the army, the party, papa and mama's bourgeois staidness or old-fashioned Zionism, sweet Dalia or Shura and that moonlit night of first nakedness on the shore of Lake Tiberias.
I am not completely sure whether Israeli fiction of the 60's is getting significantly better (though I suspect that it is), but it has clearly gone beyond this stage. Israeli writers now more typically turn to the adult society in which they actually live, where the problems of self-definition are set in the complicating context of urban existence, professional responsibilities, and married life, where the characters have lived through enough to realize that what is most profoundly relevant to them is not always identical with what immediately impinges on them. Even the retrospective novel of adolescence, as we shall see, is now able to imagine its subject in circumstances that more firmly engage it in a complex historical reality.
As the Israeli writer in recent years has been better able to see his own condition entangled in a broad network of social, cultural, historical particulars, both the passage of time and the pressure of public events have pushed the European experience more toward the center of his awareness. The Israeli-Arab war seems to have been a kind of collective trauma for many sensitive young Israelis. Several of the most serious Hebrew novels of the 50's tried to work out the terror of an experience in which the sons of the pioneer-conquerors of desert and swamp were called upon to fight people, to kill in the name of the state. But as the sharpness of this experience now gradually fades, the raw edges of the deeper, darker trauma that preceded it begin to be exposed. At the same time, the events of the past four or five years have repeatedly focused attention on Israel's morally problematic relationship with Germany. The imminent end of reparations made many people in Israel aware of the extent to which the country's economy was dependent on these payments from Germany, for the horrors inflicted upon European Jews. The arms deal with Bonn pointed to an even more grimly ironic dependence of Jew on German for instruments of destruction. The prospect of diplomatic relations with Germany, finally realized last summer, introduced a note of inescapable conclusiveness to the official acceptance by the Jewish state of postwar Germany. And looming behind all these events in the early 60's is the figure of the mass murderer in his glass cage in Jerusalem, with all the storm of worldwide debate, moral and legal, about him, about his being there, about what he represented.
It is against this general background that, in 1963, the first important novel by an Israeli dealing with the Holocaust appeared, Yehuda Amihai's Not of This Time and Place. For the sake of accuracy, I should say that Amihai was born in Germany, from where he was brought to Palestine in 1936 at the age of twelve. The fact of his German childhood, his awareness of kin and earliest friends murdered by the Nazis, clearly determines the broad direction of the sections of his novel set in Germany, and yet the general attempt of the book to make moral contact with the destruction and its perpetrators is eminently that of an Israeli beyond the experience, not of a European Jew actually torn by it. Indeed, the peculiar structure of the novel—a brilliant but not fully worked out invention of Amihai's—provides a kind of diagrammatic illustration of the difficulties Israeli writers have in trying to imagine this ultimate catastrophe and how one can live with the knowledge of it.
The hero of Amihai's novel is a young archaeologist at the Hebrew University—quite obviously, a man dedicated to digging up buried layers of the past. Like the protagonist of virtually every Hebrew novel of consequence over the last ten years, he has gradually fallen into an unsettling sense of aimless drift after the challenging years immediately before and after Israel's independence. At the beginning of the book, we find him wondering whether he ought to stay in Jerusalem for the vacation and perhaps find some great, intoxicating love (he is married and vaguely loyal to his wife), or spend the summer in Germany confronting the murderers of his childhood companion, Ruth. The wife of a friend—we afterward discover that she is about to be committed to an asylum—tells him that he must do both these things at once. And so he does. That is, the novel splits into two alternating narratives, one continuing in the third person to report a summer of sensual abandon in Jerusalem with an American woman named Patricia, the other switching to the first person to tell the story of the same character's return to his native city of Weinberg for the purpose of “wreaking vengeance,” as he dimly and grandiosely puts it, on the Nazi murderers. The hero of the novel, to cite a mythic parallel that Amihai alludes to obliquely, is a kind of bifurcated Odysseus: he descends into the underworld in hope of encountering the spirits of the dead and learning from them his own future, and, simultaneously, he lolls in the paradisiac bed of Calypso, the alien goddess who keeps him from the responsibilities of home and people.
Amihai clearly means to suggest that both experiences—eros in the city of Jerusalem, thanatos in the town of Weinberg—must be exhausted to enable his hero to find some new point of anchorage for his life. But what actually happens in the novel is that the Jerusalem sequence is vividly and convincingly realized, while the German episodes, despite many arresting moments, occur in a hazy twilight region between memory and fantasy, history and self-dramatization. This attempt of the novelistic imagination to immerse itself in the aftermath of the horror ends up being a kind of earnest exercise in synthesizing the literature of nightmare—dramatic situations from Kafka; motifs from Rilke; and from Agnon, style (the aphorisms of the abyss), narrative technique (the expressionism of Agnon's Book of Deeds), and even symbolic plot outline (Agnon's Wayfarer Stopped for the Night, also about a man from Jerusalem who returns to a destroyed European home town in a futile search for the world of his childhood). Amihai intends his protagonist to discover both the old and the new Germany, but in fact his archaeologist of the self wanders about in a Germany compounded of symbols through which historical actualities are only intermittently glimpsed. One gets the uneasy sense that events happen only in order to be available as symbols: there is a roller-skating competition in Weinberg, to serve as the occasion for reflections on the pointless way our lives go round and round in the postwar era; a little German girl is named Sybil, to trigger a meditation on pagan prophecy and apocalypse; a cynical Indian appears in Weinberg solely to gather material for a book about Despair, and to pronounce bleak epigrams on that subject.
The Jerusalem sections of the novel also reflect Amihai's fondness for symbols, but in this case the unique city he knows so intimately affords him a very natural symbolic landscape. No one else has caught with such sharpness the bizarre, slightly mad life of the intelligentsia in Jerusalem, with its serious academic types, its bohemian poets and artists, its drifting cultists from home and abroad, sundry amateurs of Yoga, Zen, vegetarianism, and the Kabbalah. No one else has been so imaginatively alive to the uncanny suggestiveness of Jerusalem's stark location at the borders of the desert, the sky, and the enemy.
Joel walked along, carrying the bundle of Patricia's dress under his arm. With great happiness he felt the dress and with great happiness he felt the city, its houses and empty lots, and the no-man's land beyond them. He felt the shards and rubble, the rusting oil drums, and the barbed-wire fences in which flying pieces of paper were caught as the wind shifted. No-man's land served as a kind of strainer. A strainer of hatred, of the past, of distant history. It was also the place of mines, the maps for which had been lost, so that no one knew where they were buried. And behind all the hubbub, the buildings and the walls, with no transition, the desert stretched out. All at once a desert of many hills rising in heavy, silent folds all the way to the mountains of Moab.
In passages like this, Amihai does not have to “work up” his symbols because they are already there in his city: the freight of meaning in landscape and objects is as immediately felt as the palpable burden of clothing imbued with Patricia's physical presence. But it is significant that the sense of reality radiates out from an object associated with sensuality; this explains much of the disparity between the two halves of the novel and, as I shall try to show, is an orientation explicitly shared by other Israeli writers in attempting to create a credible world against the unthinkable background of the Holocaust. Where horror has deadened the nerve of response to reality, made it difficult to believe in the real world, it seems as though there is a natural movement toward the primal act through which the body affirms life, in an effort to recapture the sheer sense of being alive. “They wanted to stretch out over reality,” Amihai writes of his lovers, fusing the act of love with Elisha's miraculous resuscitation of the dead child in the Biblical story, “eye to eye, mouth to mouth, and to give it life again with their own breath.” But the miracle is not achieved, and Amihai's hero comes at some points to feel that the only fully credible reality is a purely sexual one: “The whole world seemed to Joel to be emptied, and covered over with canvas and tin and flimsy boards, like the world of stalls and stands in a fair. The last and only thing actual to him was Patricia's body. Not even her speech, but the sinking into her.”
This sexual submergence, however, means forgetting both personal and collective history. Early in the novel, we are introduced to one of the protagonist's friends, a survivor of the death camps who has had the tattoo of a mermaid superimposed upon the tattooed number on his arm—not in order to obliterate the grim blue figures but to leave them just barely perceptible through the lines of the mythological female form. As the image of the ambiguous tattoo floats in and out like an apparition through both halves of the narrative, Patricia is associated with the mermaid and the sea: she is seen as a bowsprit figure on an old ship, her favorite skirt is made of sailcloth, the pitch of ecstatic fulfillment to which she brings her lover makes him think of “waves, waves.” Amihai finally turns her into a mythic embodiment of all the allurements of otherness for his protagonist (with a redeeming touch of playfulness, since he seems aware of the comic aspects of our modern penchant for mythicizing experience). Patricia is American and Christian, she is imagined by her lover as a sort of female Davy Crockett, a creature of the Wild West, half lizard and half mare; she is Venice, the sea-city that is the antithesis of mountainous Jerusalem, or, alternately, she is the Jerusalem of no-man's land (the Hebrew equivalent literally means “area of abandonment”). The sea, however, remains the chief mythic sphere with which Patricia is associated, a sea at once attractive and potentially destructive to the man whose calling is to delve into the parched earth covering the dead past. As a physician friend dabbling in Kabbalah pointedly tells Joel, “Lilith comes from the sea.”
The thematic complement to this absorption of life by erotic experience in Jerusalem is the fantasy of sexlessness in the German half of the novel. The narrator dreams of becoming an “angel” (the Hebrew malakh also suggests “messenger,” a being with a single, appointed purpose) in order to carry out unswervingly his schemes of revenge. He looks at the display in a toy-shop window and compares the hesitancy of flesh and blood with the implacable fixity of the manufactured object: “All dolls, even the most perfect ones, have no sexual organs; they are angels.” The opposition between this fantasy in the town of Weinberg and the sexual actuality in Jerusalem sets up a dilemma that the resolution of the novel cannot cope with. Amihai's attempt at a denouement is to arrange for the destruction of the Jerusalem-Joel while the Weinberg-Joel comes home, having undergone some undefined catharsis, ready to resume his life, though tentative about himself and unsure of the future. The thematic development of the novel, however, suggests that there is no way out for this self divided by love and death. The only means by which Amihai's protagonist can enter into active relation with the European past, that grisly realm of mass-produced death, is to divest himself of his humanity, and this is no more possible for him than it is really desirable. But the other self, the one that revives its humanity by obliterating past and future in the sweet intensity of the sexual present, is also living a lie. The dark revelations of history from 1933 to 1945 are too radical in implication to be forgotten with impunity. This, in any case, would seem to be what is suggested by the incident with which the Jerusalem plot concludes: the dangerous buried residue of the past—an unmarked mine from another war—explodes beneath the neglectful archaeologist as he tries to untangle the knot of conflicts in his love for his mistress and his love for his wife.
During the past year, two more Israeli novels of unusual interest that attempt to deal with the Holocaust have appeared, Haim Gury's The Chocolate Deal and Hanoch Bartov's Wounds of Maturity. Each of the two novels is remarkably different from Amihai's, neither could be said to be “influenced” by the earlier book, but the extent to which Gury and Bartov share Amihai's moral problematics is equally remarkable. The authors of the two more recent novels are both native Israelis about the same age as Amihai: Bartov served in Europe with the Palestinian unit of the British army at the end of World War II; Gury is the author of a book-length account of the Eichmann trial and has translated Elie Wiesel into Hebrew. Of the two, Gury is closer to Amihai in his technical handling of the European experience, possibly because he, like Amihai, is a poet writing his first novel; the strategies he adopts to get a hold on his intractable subject are more typically poetic than novelistic.
The Chocolate Deal is set in the rubble of a large German city (Berlin?) in the months immediately following the war. Rubie Kraus and Mortie Neuberg, two old friends who in their separate paths of flight have managed to survive the Nazis, meet by chance in a dreary railroad station. Rubie has schemes of establishing himself through the help of a rich uncle, one of the prominent lawyers of the city; Mortie, knowing that the uncle and his family were sent to the death camps, tries to dissuade his friend from going in search of his relatives. It does not take us long to realize that the sketchy action of the novel constitutes a parable about the moral ambiguities of survival. Of the two returned refugees, Mortie is unfluctuating in his loyalty to his slaughtered fellow-Jews, but this loyalty proves to be, necessarily, a relationship impregnated with death. “There is no future in me,” says Mortie (whose name may even pun on the French mort). Living for him means the necessity for joining hands with the murderers and their accomplices—nature itself, the birds in the sky and the spring rain, seem to him silent collaborators with the planners of the Final Solution. Mortie dies mysteriously and symbolically about halfway through the book, just at the moment when Rubie is in bed with a German woman, the first woman he has had since the war. When the lights come on and the plot unfolds, she turns out to be his old mistress and a former servant of his uncle's; during the war she had apparently been a kind of Gestapo camp-follower, and she is now doubling as a streetwalker and as a servant to the German doctor who has usurped the house of Rubie's uncle.
Because Rubie wants money, he conceives a plan of blackmailing this German doctor into issuing false medical statements to influence the price of surplus chocolate that the American occupation forces have been dumping on the local market. His course of action clearly illustrates the other half of the dilemma of survival raised by his friend Mortie. The only way to keep one's loyalty to the dead uncontaminated, is to die. A Jew who wants to go on living in a world of murderers must end up cashing in somehow on the murderers' guilt—one thinks of Israel and the reparations issue—and thus must become implicated in the guilt himself. The weakness of Gury's formulation of the moral quandary generated by the Holocaust is apparent: like most parabolic fiction, his novel states moral alternatives too sharply, not leaving a sufficient middle ground of possibilities between the extremes.
The Chocolate Deal does, however, handle its subject with an imaginative richness scarcely suggested by this abstract of its moral argument. Gury has used his resources as a poet—in a more calculated fashion, I think, than Amihai—to create a world in which the metaphysical implications of the Holocaust will be everywhere manifest. The sense of time, after the breakdown of history, is dulled, confused; time speeds up, skids along erratically, stops dead, allowing no meaningful progression. Action itself then becomes arbitrary: one act will do as well as another; fantasy, accident, and choice are indifferent alternatives; the narrated event becomes (as in Amihai) the sketching out of mere possibility, not the report of accomplished fictional fact. In this univers concentrationnaire, place, too, is emptied of its distinctiveness so that one gray setting is almost interchangeable with another; and, finally, individuality is blurred, a character may have several, simultaneous identities (like Rubie's mistress) or may be a mere counter to which some future identity could be assigned. The bleakly elegiac prose and the disorienting generality of descriptive viewpoint in the following passage typify much of the novel:
Slowly, slowly, the ways turn to meet. Time passes, false healer, giving to the suffering the potion of forgetfulness to quiet them, to take them further away. Sending the lost to sleep the very extended sleep, till the last trumpet. A gap yawns wider and wider between the rememberers and those who are remembered, and there the rivers flow, and there are the seasons of the year, and there the cities dark-gray in the snows, cities of marble and gold in the sun. In the purple conflagrations. And there the privilege of those who move to demur to the silence, to dream, to go onward.
In this world of flattened dimensions where roads, rivers, seasons, and time all run together on the same plane of occurrence, even a hint of affirmation—“those who move to demur to the silence”—is partly withheld through a kind of syntactic reticence. A more precise syntax would imply an explicit and coherent ordering of existence in which Gury is unable to believe. His most distinctive stylistic trait is the verb followed directly by an infinitive, with the logical connection between the two suppressed, as at the beginning and end of this passage, or in sentences like “This time is dying away to be finished.” The disjuncture here between the process and the end-product of the process, between the happening in time marked by the temporal verb and the absolute state marked by the infinite verb, is the quintessential expression of Gury's post-Holocaust world—a present which scarcely dares think of the past or hope for the future, where one empty now crumbles into another, ceaselessly, to the unimaginable end of time, “the last trumpet.”
The Chocolate Deal suggests two ways out of this bleak prison of the present. The first, and more convincingly realized, avenue of escape is sexuality. Gury's protagonist, like Amihai's, plunges into the sphere of sensual otherness of an alien woman in order to revive the sense of life in himself, though the symbolic retreat from Jewish selfhood involved in the act is stated more extremely here than in Amihai because the woman in this case is directly connected with the murderers. But where Amihai imagines the act of love contracting life into the present, Gury sees in it a moment that par-takes of past and even future—always, however, in a personal or mythic sense, never historically: “On the other side of the emptied space [between their bodies] is his own private messianic era. . . . And now he is about to perform an act ancient as death, surviving beyond him.” It is significant that the one moment in the novel when memory comes fully alive is Rubie's recollection of a distant night of pleasure with his uncle's maid. At other points the past is caught obliquely in confusing fragments, or, in the one case of Mortie's account of his war years, it is rehearsed consecutively in the deadened, somnambulistic voice of the present. By contrast, the details of Rubie's sensual memory are unaffected by the passage of time: the glint of the August moon through the blinds, the chill touch of the brass doorknob that turned to the left, the suntanned body against the white sheets-through these sensuous particulars the past for once becomes present.
The other gateway from the present, but this time to an historical, not merely personal, past, is through an acceptance of the terrible paradoxes of survival while actively engaging heart and mind in the fate of those who were murdered and also of those who managed to escape. It is here that Gury is most reticent of all, perhaps because, with the kind of integrity he has, he is afraid that any affirmation of “the tragic necessity for commitment” may quickly degenerate into a slogan. This is clearly the alternative that it is most important to imagine and most difficult to imagine honestly. Though Gury concludes his novel on a note of commitment to the martyred ones, he manages no more than a thinly symbolic gesture. Earlier in the book, Mortie had told of meeting a certain Mr. Schecter at the end of the war. Mr. Schecter, a watchsmith (obviously, the man who is to remind his fellow-Jews of time and history), was genuinely concerned for Mortie, acted vaguely to tie him to his pre-war past. At the end of the novel, as Rubie stands over Mortie's grave—the whole Chocolate Deal, we suddenly realize, has been a projected possibility, not an action carried out—someone calls to him, portentously, “Reuben Kraus? Mr. Schecter is looking for you.” The intention here is surely admirable, but Mr. Schecter has been only a shadowy figure in the book, and I do not think this is one of those moments of achieved art that help us see into the dark places of our existential quandaries.
Hanoch Bartov's Wounds of Maturity is less original in technique than the other two novels, but it succeeds in throwing into sharper focus the perplexed problems of national values involved in an Israeli's attempt to relate to the grim past. Bartov's first-person narrator, the eighteen-year-old Elisha Kruk, begins his story with the words, “About the surrender.” He has enlisted in the Palestinian Regiment of the British army in hopes of redeeming his self-respect as a Jew by participating actively in the battle against his people's enemy. But his unit has not yet made contact with the German forces in Italy when the Nazi surrender is announced. This pattern of frustrated intention recurs in a series of memorable variations through the remainder of the novel. The company of Palestinian soldiers goes rolling north toward Germany, with the chalk-scrawled menace of Die Juden kommen! on the tarpaulin sides of their transport trucks—only to be halted at the border, where they are stationed in a small Italian town. After a delay of almost two months, the Palestinians get orders to move into Germany, but on the last night in Italy, their camp-site is inundated by a flash-flood, and when the self-styled avengers cross the German border, this is the figure they cut: “Along the sides of our vehicles we had stretched out lines and belts and had hung up our clothes to dry, and our bodies we covered with whatever had been rescued from the water. We looked like a traveling camp of gypsies.”
This is, of course, an old story in war fiction: it goes all the way back to the farcical frustrations of Fabrice del Dongo, Stendhal's aspirant to heroism at the tail-end of the Napoleonic Wars. But the familiar anti-heroic theme assumes a special gravity and morally problematic nature when it is associated with an Israeli's relation to the destruction of European Jewry. Bartov's novel makes one point particularly clear: the Holocaust raises larger questions for an Israeli than for an American Jew because it casts a long shadow of doubt on the new vision of Jewish identity implicit in the creation of a modern Jewish state. If the new Jew is, ideally, a kind of reincarnation of the rebuilder of Jerusalem in Nehemiah, “one hand performing the work, the other holding his weapon,” what is such a figure to make of six million of his people allowing themselves to be led off to the slaughter, and what good is his own brave posture of armed self-assertion as a response to Nazi monstrosities, for which any conceivable retribution through violence could be only the nightmare of a maniac? The point of the novel's vaguely melodramatic title is that the young Palestinian begins to discover through his encounter with both the survivors and the perpetrators of the Holocaust who he is—that whoever he may be, he is not the man on the Zionist poster out of Nehemiah, and not so different, perhaps, from Jews in other lands.
Bartov has an extraordinary gift for inventing dramatic situations that bring into high relief the contrast between what his Palestinian soldiers really can be and what they are expected to be, by others and also by themselves. The first of these scenes takes place in a pizzeria in Bologna, where Elisha Kruk finds himself hauled into the victory celebration of a group of wildly drunken Negro soldiers. When they finally understand that he comes from Palestine, one of them hails him in the style of an evangelist preacher as “the youth from the city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Lord Jesus our Savior.” Kruk, drunk himself, is prodded into a dizzying speech on the miraculous splendors of the holy city of Bethlehem, in fact a dirty little Arab town. The tipsy hallelujah cries that punctuate Kruk's fantastic oration set the keynote for the role of the Jewish soldiers as spurious redeemers. Later, Kruk and three of his friends will come upon their first actual refugees from the camps—a group of pious Hungarian tailors sitting in a basement at their Sabbath meal, singing the traditional table-hymns about the coming of the Messiah. At the entrance of the soldiers, the tailors leap up from their places, clutch the young men to make sure of their reality; they are ready to pack, in the middle of the Sabbath, and to be led by these Jewish men of war across the sea to the Promised Land. The Palestinians, of course, can only respond lamely—the authorities will arrange these matters, one must be patient and wait for official procedures—and so the tailors' cries of enthusiasm die in their throats.
Still more disturbing for the soldiers are the encounters in which their own image of themselves as a bold new breed of Jews is theatened. Kruk and his friends meet a handful of deported Ukrainian women, sitting by the roadside cooking their morning kasha. The soldiers are unable to convince the women that they are members of the “Jewish Army.” The women, in a kind of obscene coquetterie, take this claim as some obscurely ribald joke and answer with a knowing wink: “We've seen the Jewish armies; in chariots of flame they went up to heaven, in columns of smoke.” The ambiguous question of kinship with European Jewry becomes most agonizing when Kruk discovers an actual cousin in a refugee camp. His initial eagerness is dissipated in a moment as his cousin tells him nonchalantly, almost proudly, how he managed to survive by working in a crematorium. “More than anything else,” Kruk says of himself, “I was filled with the terror of belonging to him. More than the shock, more than the disgust.” Such inability to face the survivor, twisted as he may be by his experience, is clearly a more immediate problem for the Israeli than for the American because in Israel the survivor is everywhere.
The most crucial inadequacy, however, in the Hebrew soldiers' attempt to take hold of this unmanageable historical reality, is revealed in the fantasies of revenge to which a few of them give voice. The logical consequence of a Jew's learning to fight for himself, as others do, would seem to be that he should take bloody vengeance for himself, as others do. What will we say, wonder the angrier of the young men, when our children ask us some day why we failed to use this one possible moment of history to pay back a little for all the horrors that were done to us? “We are here as blood-redeemers. For one wild Jewish vengeance. Just once like the Tartars, like the Ukrainians, like the Germans.” Or, as the chief advocate for the course of revenge puts the case with more intellectual subtlety, possibly thinking in the Nietzschean idiom of Jabotinsky's Revisionist ideology, “One can free oneself from the fear of the bestial crime only by means of bestial retribution.”
But any retribution the young soldiers try to take is hesitant, bungling, and, of course, grotesquely inadequate. The one attempt at vengeance, moreover, almost carried out in the novel, provides the culmination to that series of revelatory scenes begun in the pizzeria through which the Palestinians are forced to face their own inner weakness, the uncertainty of their ideals. Elisha Kruk and his cynical (European) friend Brotsky have billeted themselves in the home of an SS officer who has fled, leaving behind his wife and grown daughter. From their room upstairs, Kruk and Brotsky hear two other Jewish soldiers break into the kitchen and attack the women. Brotsky sits listening intently to the struggle below with a “glassy smile.” Kruk, frightened by the reflection of himself that he sees in Brotsky's expression and unnerved by the women's shrieks, seizes his rifle, rushes downstairs, and angrily orders the would-be rapists out of the house. Bartov makes it clear that Kruk's deliverance of the Geman women is not a moral act—it proceeds from weakness, just as to join the rapists would have confessed to a different kind of weakness. Kruk, like Isaac Babel's Jewish soldier, might well dream of having “the simplest of proficiencies—the ability to kill my fellow-men”; but he knows, perhaps better than the Babel character, that he is compelled by his nature and upbringing to remain achingly human in a world that is for the most part callously inhuman. “In a single moment,” he comments on his response to the quaking vulnerability of the assaulted women, “all the anthems of hate were wiped away and I was once more Papa's son. Wallowing in purity. A human being. A crapped up human being. Now I know, that's what we are, condemned to go around with the divine image on our forehead like the mark of Cain.”
Bartov's protagonist, like Amihai's and Gury's, is at least temporarily pulled away from the world of harsh moral confrontations by an alien woman, in his case a sensually generous, high-class Venetian whore, appropriately named Felicia. She nearly succeeds in keeping him with her in Venice just when his company is receiving orders to move into Germany; and, later, when he tries to focus his hatred for the Germans, the memory of her vivid body intervenes and confuses him. It is clear that to luxuriate with Felicia and to violate the women of Germany are simply two different alternatives of alienation from self for the young Palestinian: he literally flees from Felicia's sun-drenched bedroom as he psychologically flees from the bestial darkness of the rape. In the end, Elisha Kruk has no choice but to go on with his old Jewish self, understanding now its terrible inadequacies, its confusions and cowardice—and, just possibly, its potential for moral sensitivity. Bartov concludes his novel by recalling, as does Amihai, the image of Lot's wife in order to suggest his protagonist's relationship with the Holocaust: “‘I will never turn my face back there,’ I whisper like an incantation over the bleeding memory, but my thoughts turn into pillars of salt.”
All these novels, Bartov's most explicitly, suggest the moral purpose that Hebrew fiction on the Holocaust is trying to fulfill: the writers do not seek to scare themselves or their readers with horror stories, but, recognizing the necessity to exist now in the presence of the ultimate horror, they want to see by its baleful light what a Jew can discover about himself, how he can go on with the difficult business of living unillusioned and yet reponsible. The novel is an ambiguously potent means to this end. Because it creates its own world, it can place us at the nexus of time, place, and event where a dilemma raised by history is totally felt, in this way overcoming the distance of abstraction and analysis inherent in discursive treatments of the same dilemma. But because the novel necessarily manipulates the elements of its own world, it may inadvertently contrive reality, reducing it to an overly simple scheme. Both the inherent advantage in the novelistic approach to moral issues and its potential weakness are present in the three novels we have been considering, but the general effect of each of the books is clearly to bring us a little closer to the imponderable realities of recent history and of our identity as Jews. It is not easy to think of another area of contemporary Jewish culture, either in Israel or America, where the written word and the imagined act have been used with such self-critical intentness, such freedom from moral posturing and institutional cant, or where such an unflinching effort has been made to look into the abysses flung open by the Holocaust in our individual and also our collective lives as Jews.