By Wendy Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
DAY AFTER NIGHT
By Anita Diamant
Scribner. 294 pp. $27
Anita Diamant's new novel offers all the satisfactions found in her previous works "The Red Tent" and "The Last Days of Dogtown": rich portraits of female friendship, unflinching acknowledgment of life's cruelty and resolute assertion of hope, enfolded in a strong story line developed in lucid prose. She ups the ante here, chronicling three months in the lives of Jewish refugees interned in Atlit, a British detention center for illegal immigrants to the Palestinian Mandate. Based on an actual event -- the rescue of more than 200 detainees from Atlit in October 1945 -- "Day After Night" demonstrates the power of fiction to illuminate the souls of people battered by the forces of history.
"Not one of the women in Barrack C is twenty-one, but all of them are orphans," the author tells us on the first page. "There are only 170 prisoners in Atlit tonight, and fewer than seventy women in all. It is the same lopsided ratio on the chaotic roads of Poland and Germany, France and Italy; the same in the train stations and the Displaced Persons camps." Tedi, Zorah, Shayndel and Leonie have lost their parents in the Holocaust and are the random survivors of Nazi genocide that killed women faster than men because they had less short-term value as slave labor. Only Zorah was in a concentration camp; Tedi was hidden in the Dutch countryside; Shayndel, a Polish Zionist, fought with the partisans; Leonie was forced into prostitution in Paris. But each of these women wonders why she was spared when so many others died.
Shayndel and Leonie, inseparable since they met in a French train station en route to Palestine, try not to think about their ordeals. They promise to speak only Hebrew, marry brothers, have two babies apiece and live on a kibbutz.
Tedi, too, looks to the future, arguing that "we must put the past behind us, in order to live." But Zorah, bitter and furious, rejects this strategy. "What about your parents?" she pitilessly asks Tedi. "If you don't speak of them, it's like you kill them all over again." Zorah wants to make a new start in Eretz Yisrael, but she will not relinquish the memory of a friend who protected her in Auschwitz whose death taught her "the futility of kindness." Zorah lives "to spit in God's eye" and vows never again to say a Hebrew prayer.
Diamant allows her four protagonists to find varying degrees of equilibrium in a story whose low-key rhythms mirror the pace of life in a place where everyone is waiting. The inmates study Hebrew with a Jewish settler already living in Palestine, who responds dismissively to qualms about displacing the much more numerous Arabs: "They are illiterate, dirty, backward," he tells them. "This was our land from the beginning, and it is our land to win back." The settlers who work at Atlit are a tough, often arrogant bunch with mingled feelings of pity and contempt for the survivors. She "could not abide the victims," decides Tirzah, the camp cook. "She was disgusted by their nightmares, their tears, and their horrible tattoos."
Tirzah is sleeping with the British camp commander, Col. John Bryce, to get information for the Palmach, the settlers' underground army, but she has also fallen in love with him. He's a decent, honorable soldier who despises his country's policies, and his willingness to look the other way as the detainees plan their breakout allows the plot to move forward.
The real story, however, is the agonizing process of recovery from experiences so traumatizing that people can hardly speak of them, let alone comprehend them. Diamant does not engage in philosophical speculations about evil and guilt; she lets the specifics evoke the larger issues, as in Zorah's recollections of her lost home in Poland, "a cramped apartment on the top floor of a dilapidated tenement where, by now, a gang of murdering thieves was cooking pork in her mother's kosher pots." Yet even angry Zorah can't withstand the human need for connection, brutally denied by the Holocaust but warmly affirmed in tender, tentative intimacies that develop among the wounded inmates of Atlit.
This unsparing but fundamentally optimistic narrative shows four friends learning that they can remember the past and still reach for the future. Zorah rediscovers kindness and altruism through her affection for a Polish Christian who saved a Jewish child. Tedi realizes, on the eve of the breakout from Atlit, that "she was connected to the past by love and grief, and that's how it would be until she died." When Shayndel breaks down after finally reaching the dreamed-of kibbutz, Leonie comforts her with knowledge gained from survival and friendship: "Nothing is certain [but] I know that you are smart enough and brave enough to face whatever will happen. . . .That may be the only thing I am sure of."
A little schematic? Perhaps, but Diamant traces the odysseys of her fully imagined characters so sensitively that these resolutions are convincing and well earned. And after all, as we are reminded by a short, heartbreaking epilogue sketching the half-century following their liberation: "That was just the beginning."
Smith frequently reviews for The Post. Ron Charles is on vacation.