Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Day After Night by Anita Diamant

In conjunction with a focus on the Jews’ suffering during the Holocaust, a writer or filmmaker often raises the question as to whether hope is still possible after such experiences. It’s not a question that goes away, because since World War II there have been other holocausts, which we now usually call genocides. The writer Anita Diamant was intrigued to learn about Jews “escaping” in 1945 from a camp. But the camp was a detainee camp, not a concentration camp. It was in British occupied Palestine, the land that is now Israel.

The League of Nations had charged Great Britain to make Palestine a home for Jews in 1922, but by the end of World War II, Britain refused the flood of Jewish refugees coming to Palestine from Europe. There were some 250,000 of them who made their way secretly by ship from Europe to Palestine. Many were immediately sent back to Europe, but some were kept in camps on the island of Cyprus. Others were held in Atlit detention camp in Palestine, south of Haifa. It was from this camp that members of the Jewish underground movement against British occupation organized the “breakout” of 208 refugees to a nearby kibbutz. When the British soldiers caught up with them, the kibbutz refused to give them up and local school children and residents came and demonstrated in front of the camp in a gesture of solidarity for the refugees’ plight. In the face of the adverse publicity, the British relented and these refugees were allowed to relocate in Palestine.

There are some ironies in how the British ran Atlit, circumstances that recall the “final solution”. Some were transported from the ship to Atlit in boxcars, the camp had barbed wire and a guard tower, and when they arrived they had to strip and go into the showers for delousing. Diamant shows us how traumatic these conditions could be, and yet how at the same time things like the food, the space between bodies, and lumpy mattresses were welcome.

As in The Red Tent, her novel about Dinah of the Old Testament, Diamant wants to bring to light the role of women in history and to investigate any insight that their female perspective can shed for us on historical events. She has crafted a novel of four main female characters who have come from their separate hells to arrive in Atlit. One was a partisan fighter, one a concentration camp survivor, another was hidden by a Dutch farmer, and the other was taken in by a neighbor in Paris who ran a brothel. They all have their hidden devils and unassuaged grief to carry. As Leonie, the former prostitute, sees it, they each walk balancing their heavy load like a native bearer, keeping it "exquisitely balanced."

I found the book absorbing in its evocation of the camp, of the difference between the new arrivals and the old, between the refugees and the Palestinian Jews there to help them, between the British soldiers and the resistance fighters. There are so many snapshots in the book that it takes some effort to connect the background material that Diamant casually offers to slowly build the past lives of the main characters. While there is renewed hope - in a possible relationship, in helping take care of children, in feeding people on a special occasion - mostly the inhabitants weep or show off to each other. There are parts of them frozen by what they went through and what they witnessed.

The resistance fighter is defeated inside by her almost certain knowledge that her mistakes in the field caused her comrades’ death. The girl in the brothel learned to please her German customers but was brutalized anyway, finally running for help to a nearby convent. You might wonder why she didn’t run before this – she had to be beaten down and stripped of any special consideration that she had won for herself. The camp survivor has vowed never again to praise God, not a God that killed her family and all of her existence. The Dutch girl had been “hidden”, but was used to provide sex for a Dutch farmer and his friends. She finally told his wife and was turned over to the Gestapo the next day. She escaped with others through a hole in a cattle car and returned to Amsterdam, to learn, as she had already guessed, that her entire family was dead.

Diamant calls the book Day after Night, but what she shows us is how the night lingers on. The escape to the kibbutz provides some drama for an ending, but the book doesn’t generate real momentum on its own. None of the women really change, except the camp survivor. She begins to venture out of her shell, by extending sympathy to a young boy.

What the book finally feels like is a crafted concoction, with the politics and realities parceled out in small quantities, to seem like “real life”, because everything is understated. But Diamant shouldn’t be so careful to avoid life head on. The dramas that we live come and confront us, and our changes encompass more than just the weight of remembering them.

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