Listen, first, to the voice of Dita Saxova. She is Czech, 19 years old, a survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Bergen-Belson. The year is 1947, and she is speaking to her first lover, describing the departure of girls who will never be seen again.
"When the girls started singing, we thought our ears were deceiving us. Maybe the girls were singing because they were glad to be going away, or maybe they sang the way people do when they're scared of being alone. It was a beautiful song. About ash trees and mountains, about life and love and everything that only lasts a little while. It's awful, because it could be so lovely, couldn't it? It was as if they were telling the Germans in that song that this was their world, not the camp. That the camps belonged to the German's world. And that they were glad to be leaving, no matter what the price. We were surprised that they were allowed to go on singing. Then I 'realized I was crying. I'd been proud of how tough I'd become. Yet all of a sudden tears were streaming down my face because of that song and who was singing it. Then the trucks drove away. There were wild geese or swans flying across the sky. Higher than the chimneys, than they the smoke and the barbed wire and the bins above the showers . . . that same awful world seemed beautiful to me."
At moments like this, Dita's voice attains a note of singular purity. She accepts calmly all that has happened. She is fuly aware of what she has witnessed, but she is neither horrified nor despairing. Though she has judged her experience, she is free of hatred and bitterness and self-pity. In her present contentment, she does not delude herself with false hopes. She feels, and feels deeply, but her perceptions are not clogged by emotions.
Yet some readers will find her clarity and eloquence strange, even sinister. She may seem too remote, too pure, too exalted. Though Dita insists that "they're wrong . . . when they say that because of Birkenau the nature of everything has changed, from the core of the earth out to the farthest star," it is impossible to ignore the way of experience of the Holocaust has marked her, or to ignore the difference between her experience and our own.
Our efforts to contemplate the Holocaust founder again and again before the awful facts. No matter how often we see the photographs of the masses of the dead, we must struggle to believe that such events actually took place. Here, precisely, is our difference from Dita, and our distance from her. The Holocaust is her experience, her youth. She does not struggle to believe what she already knows in her very bones.
We are likely to resist such knowledge as Dita's for it is the knowledge of evil, and she possesses it as surely as her birthright. For Dita there is no resistance and no forgetting. "Sometimes the whole world feels like one big concentration camp," she says. "Or a network of camps. You can get transferred from a better one to a worse one or the other way round, but you never get out."
"You shouldn't blaspheme," a friend replies.
Even among her companions in Prague, most of them survivors of the camps, Dita is set apart. She lives in a hostel with other young women, and though she shares many of their tastes, though she is amiable and generous -- when she receives an unexpected legacy of tooth gold from her uncle, she buys herself a bracelet and gives the rest of the gold to her roommates -- she is regarded as haughty and aloof. Tall, blond and blue-eyed, Dita is attractive to men; she takes a lover, but even in their most intimate conversations, he feels that he probably understands "only half of what was going on in Dita's head."
"Dita Saxova" is a meditative novel, a record of what is gong on in Dita's head as she never expected. In the camps she prepared for death, not life, and now, having been spared, life is more frightening to her than death. Because she cannot help imagining "how lovely it would be not to be alive," her life requires all her bravery and resourcefulness.
Dita is enigmatic and complex, and I'm afraid that I don't understand her any better than her lover does. I simply cannot follow the movements of her mind in some of her conversations, nor can I grasp her mood when, having just written a letter to her lover she thinks, "Nobody should walk over even his or her own dead body and smiles herself.
Some of her pronouncements are muzzy and oracular ("Everyting is more simple than simplicity. People want to live better") and others, while plain enough, are pat and formulaic ("Being happy equals being sensible. Those qualities are indirectly proportional"). And finally, to round out my list of cavils, I will note that Dita often speaks in a voice that seems I belong less to her than to Arnost Lustig.
Still, when Dita's voice does sound, there is no mistaking its ring of truth, wisdom and felt experience. At such moments I don't have to understand Dita; she is mysterious and she is real, and I have only to listen. "I believe that maybe someday there will be a poem or a song, a statue, or a book, for everyone of those people who deserves it," Dita Whispers.
This book is Dita's song, and she deserves it.