Book Discussion: Day After Night

February 23, 2010Peter Shapiro

The English essayist and poet Alexander Pope wrote, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast..." That adage is challenged by the four protagonists in Anita Diamant's book, Day After Night. The author introduces the reader to four young women who have distinctly different experiences and survived the nightmare of life in Europe during the Holocaust. The book's power comes from the author's extraordinary ability to breathe life into the characters. It is after just a few chapters that one can easily shut his or her eyes and not only picture a character but have a sense of their voice, moods and mannerisms. She allows the reader to transform him or herself into the characters and experience their emotions of pain, sorrow, anger, hatred and joy.

Tedi, a blond Danish girl, was sent by her family to live with a Christian family. For a sustained period of time they physically and sexually abused her. The family then turned her over to the Nazis and she was shipped to Auschwitz. Fortunately, she escaped from the train that was to take her to the death camp. Tedi remained in hiding for the duration of the war.

Zorah, a young Polish girl, was kept alive by the persistence of a fellow inmate. She survived her ordeal in Auschwitz, unlike the fate of her friend. When liberated she was barely alive, had neither identity papers nor any desire to return to Warsaw. Zorah was not a Zionist, but for her the only option was to go to Palestine.

Leonie, a beautiful young Parisian girl, was warned by a neighbor while returning home one night that the Germans had raided her apartment and to go there would be dangerous. She offered Leonie sanctuary at what she thought was a safe house but in reality was a brothel. Leonie was locked in the building with several other young women where she was forced into prostitution. Leonie finally escaped, finding refuge in a Catholic church and remaining there for the duration of the war.

Shayndel worshiped her older brother who was an ardent Zionist. They were fearful of the Germans and planned to go to Palestine. Their religious parents strenuously objected to their leaving as they believed the German oppression would subside. Shayndel's brother was murdered and she joined the partisan Young Guards fighting the Germans in Vilna and the surrounding area.

The four young women arrived in Palestine haunted by unspeakable memories, troubled that they survived while others more worthy perished without friends and family and having lost their faith in G-D. What little hope they had was squeezed from their minds, hearts and souls when they entered Atlit, a detention camp. They felt it was another concentration camp, this time run by the British. How painful and disheartening it must have been to have survived so much and come so far, and then to be denied the opportunity to start a new life in Eretz Yisrael.

The four young women's stories are the quintessential story of Exodus, the Jewish people's journey from slavery to freedom. In every Exodus there comes a time when the fear, hate and need for revenge is no longer an all- consuming reason to survive. There generally comes a time when a faint glimmer of hope emerges that freedom can be attained. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea they started to experience the lifting of the yoke of slavery and fear of their oppressors. Freedom finally seemed obtainable when they received the Torah at Sinai.

One of the more moving incidents in the book took place when the four women vented their anger and hatred, taking revenge against Lottie, formerly a member of the dreaded German SS. They needed to silence Lottie, fearing she might tell the British of the plan to escape Atlit. They intended to knock her out with chloroform and tie her to the bed but the chloroform failed to work. They proceeded to place a pillow over her face and smothered her to death. See pp. 245-246. I could feel the venom ooze out their bodies, hearts and souls as they were ending Lottie's life. That act opened a new chapter in their journeys. They could never forget the wrongs perpetrated but that cathartic act was the first step in purging their anger and hatred, allowing the healing process to begin and enabling them to care for others and to possibly love again.

Each protagonist had her "Sinai" moment where a faint glimmer of hope for freedom and a new life infused their hearts and minds. The most poignant occurred on Yom Kippur, when Shayndel attended the Neilah service to say Kaddish for her family. See pp 101-104. As the Rabbi began to chant the first mournful note she remembered all the people dear to her that she would never see again. Shayndel began to cry, and the more she remembered, the more her tears flowed as did Leonie's and Tedi's, and mine.

Zorah watched from afar and was not moved. When the rabbi recited Kaddish all she could think about was the absurdity of praising such a cruel G-D who had brought the Germans into this world and did not interfere with their inhumane acts. It was only when she felt needed and loved by a young boy, Jacob, and the Gentile woman who he believed was his mother and cared for him from birth that a dim ray of hope and love made a small crack in her thick veneer of despair and hate.

The four young women were on their own Exodus from slavery to freedom at a discrete point in time and place at Atlit. How they reacted to their situations prompts deep and meaningful discussions of Jewish values. This makes "Day After Night" a significant Jewish book. The following three issues are ripe for discussion:

1. How does the act of the four protagonists smothering Lottie, a former member of the German SS Corps, comport with Jewish values?
2. Tirzah used sexual wiles to obtain needed information and assistance from Colonel Bryce, Atlit's commander, and Leonie acceded to being a prostitute to save her life. How do their acts comport with Jewish values?
3. The Epilogue leads to the assumption that Esther never told Jacob she was not his natural mother. Should she have informed him of that fact? How did her actions comport with Jewish values?

Anita Diamant's work of fiction is significant in that the issues raised are not set in time but related to past, present, and future segments of our own journeys and those of the Jewish people. The conversations those issues engender heighten an understanding of our Jewish heritage and the attendant obligations to live consistent with Jewish values.

One intriguing issue related to the fact that in Nazi Germany, there were those who relished following the party line, many more who remained silent, and a few who spoke out and acted against their government's heinous policies. The British policies in Palestine, portrayed at Atlit, were vigorously supported by some, of no consequence to the majority, and actively objected to by a small minority. Israel today is in the position of occupier and its policies and their implementation vis a vis the indigenous Arab population and the Palestinians living in the disputed territories and Gaza has been the subject of harsh criticism abroad. Israelis do not speak with one voice on this issue. The current government advocates taking a hard line, and while supported by the majority it is vehemently opposed by a substantial minority. Very few Israelis remain neutral.

To what extent did our Jewish values inform our reactions to the policies and supporters of the occupying German and British governments? Today we should ask ourselves if Jewish values reflect how we are addressing the treatment of the indigenous Arab population as well as inhabitants of the disputed territories and Gaza. To what extent, if any, does or can another iteration of the proposed "two state" solution reflect Jewish values?

Rabbi Joachim Printz at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington prior to Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream speech" stated "that with respect to discrimination the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence."

We welcome your thought and comments. Help us continue the conversation.

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