Traces: Stories


Finalist, National Jewish Book Award 1997

A New York Times Notable Book

Ida Fink's first collection of short stories, A Scrap of Time, was universally hailed as a masterpiece. Traces continues Fink's portrait of life in Nazi-occupied Poland, of men and women otherwise buried in the anonymous statistics of war and genocide.

It is Fink's special art to show that even the Holocaust had its everyday life, where ...

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Finalist, National Jewish Book Award 1997

A New York Times Notable Book

Ida Fink's first collection of short stories, A Scrap of Time, was universally hailed as a masterpiece. Traces continues Fink's portrait of life in Nazi-occupied Poland, of men and women otherwise buried in the anonymous statistics of war and genocide.

It is Fink's special art to show that even the Holocaust had its everyday life, where death and daily routine shared the same cramped quarters. In spare, intense prose, Fink records the modest acts of courage, and the delicate shifts in consciousness amidst unimaginable horror. She shows us as well the survivors' desperate search for traces or clues: a torn piece of paper, a half-forgotten address, initials carved into a windowsill, any mention, any at all, of a loved one. At once ter and unsparing, elegiac and ironic, these seemingly simple stories present the complexity of life as it was lived in the darkest days of our century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"It has become Ida Fink's vocation to preserve this extinguished world, these snipped-off lives, in a prose whose subtlety and precision heighten the plangency of her subjects' intolerable ends. "-The New York Times Book Review

"Ida Fink's spectacular stories tell of the Holocaust in distilled, elliptical moments that hint at the unsayable enormity of what happened."-Elle

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Appropriately enough, this heartbreaking collection begins with "The End," an account of the precise moment in 1938 when the German invasion first impinges on the lives of two young Polish lovers. A mood of crushing fatalism runs through the book: its subject is the prelude to and aftermath of genocide, and Fink has no interest in easy sentiment or cheap optimism. Septuagenarian Fink ("The Journey"), who is herself a Holocaust survivor, writes in Polish, and her stories take place in a series of almost interchangeable Polish cities, towns and villages. Her vocabulary is simple, almost coldly precise, and the 21 stories here are little more than vignettes, jumbles of finely observed details that delicately illustrate the daily lives of her characters, often young women, as the events of the Holocaust overtake them. The traces of the title are the little scraps of information that remain behind when the forces of war conspire to erase a human being. These traces take many forms: an initial carved in an attic hideaway; the features of a lost lover, rediscovered in his twin sister's face; the neurotic symptoms that betray the presence of buried trauma; and the stories themselves, which cast an almost painfully steady gaze on heroes and villains, strong and weak, mourners and mourned alike.
Library Journal
As World War II progresses and the Germans close in, the characters in Fink's ("The Journey", LJ 7/92) stories teeter on the edge of an abyss. Young love, the approach of spring, the atmosphere of a measured life in rural Poland about to vanish foreverall mark an interval filled with wistful hope, giving these stories and all of Fink's work their aching and at the same time dazzling clarity. In "The End," two lovers pretend the tanks they hear rumbling in the streets don't really exist. In "The Threshold," Elzbieta's parents have disappeared; when SS officers come to kill fellow Jews in her town, Elzbieta maintains the sense of normalcy, and the story ends with her crossing the room to take her place at the table. In another story, three girlfriends wonder whether they will ever experience love. In the title piece, a playlet, a young woman returns to her town a few years after the war to find traces of her sister, who was reported to have hidden there. An extraordinary literary tension between power and restraint is at work here. Highly recommended for all libraries. Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, Md.
Kirkus Reviews
A quietly harrowing third book (and second story collection, after "A Scrap of Time", 1987) from the Polish Holocaust survivor and author.

Hardly a voice is raised throughout these 21 vignette-like pieces, which nevertheless contain worlds of implication about the destruction of a culture, plus the mingled resilience and despair exhibited by those who outlived their nearest and dearest. Simple, conversational language and a reserved focus on domestic minutiae effectively underscore Fink's subtle emphasis on the miraculous nature of simply having survived. Her collection has the effect of a song cycle in which a central melodic theme is repeated with what seem infinite variations. The characters include a teenaged girl who intuits the transitoriness of her own and her young lover's brief happiness ("The End"); a timid accountant who returns after years of working in a city to his parents' village, only to find its residents being marched away to their deaths ("A Closed Circle"); and a luckless young mother ("Sabina Under the Sacks") who, having escaped a painful arranged marriage, cannot escape the approaching SS. Fink can construct a powerfully echoing story from the simplest materials imaginable (in "In Front of the Mirror," a girl vainly primps before her dressmaker, trying to blot out remembrance of both their murdered families), or stun you with a story's simple climactic, unanswerable question: "Did you ever see someone who was killed in the war but is still alive?" Further evidence of her genius for understatement is displayed in two tales presented as playlets: "Description of a Morning" and the superb title piece, a Rashomon-like account of a middle-aged woman's quest to learn whether her long-missing sister has or has not survived the war.

Few books about the Holocaust are as moving as this one. It seems almost cruel to say so, but one hopes Fink has more stories to tell.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805045581
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/15/1998
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Ida Fink is the author of A Scrap of Time ("remarkable," New York Times) and The Journey ("a gift," the New Yorker). Born in Poland in 1921, she lived in a ghetto throughout 1942 and went into hiding until the of the war.

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Read an Excerpt



They were still standing on the balcony, although it was the middle of the night and only a few hours kept them from dawn. Down below lay the dark, empty street; the trees in the square looked like black tousled heads. Once again it was quiet, too quiet after what had happened. From time to time a streetcar rumbled through the city center; a car rolled quietly past. The night was heavy, humid: one of those midsummer nights when not a single leaf trembles, and the asphalt, overheated during the day, exhales its steamy breath.

He slid his hand along the iron railing of the balcony and touched the girl's hand. Her hand was cold; she kept her fingers clenched.

"You see," he said. "It was nothing."

She wasn't looking at him, she was looking out over the roofs of the city, peering into the thick darkness; she sensed that he, too, was straining to listen. He said it was nothing, and yet he was listening.

"Don't be afraid, let's get some sleep." And again he said, "It was nothing."

"I'm not afraid," she answered loudly, angrily; her words spattered down onto the street like tiny, hurried footsteps. "And I'm not a child. Don't treat me like one. And don't lie to me. I can see that you're listening, too."

"But you are a child." He laughed. "My beloved little child ..."

"Don't make me mad. And anyway—" She stopped in midsentence.

They heard a noise, at first far away, then clearer, close by—it was just a truck.

"Do you remember when we first realized that something was happening?" she asked, after the silence returned. Her voice was high-pitchedand clear. The boy shut his eyes and thought, I love her, I don't want her to be afraid.

"Tell me," she insisted, "do you remember?"

"Of course. I could sing the exact moment for you, except you know how I sing."

"Don't joke now. This is an important night."

He put his arm around her; he could feel her body shaking. "It's an important night, love—because it's our night ..."

In the darkness, he caught a glimpse of her angry expression. She was in no mood for either jokes or tenderness.

"I remember," he added hastily, and in an instant the music of that first moment surged inside him.

He recalled it exactly. The strings were growing quieter, preparing the way for the soloist. During the first measures of the larghetto, which he liked so much, he began to notice a faint buzz coming from the direction of the city. As if swarms of locusts were flying in from far away. Maybe not locusts, but simply the dense tremolo of the strings, rising to a forte, closer and closer, fleeing before the storm. The orchestra, which had once again picked up the piano theme, seemed muted, and the whole audience turned as if swept by a great wind toward the rumbling, now a loud and brutal thunder. He saw the pianist hesitate and watched his fingers attack the silent keyboard: by now, neither the piano nor the orchestra could be heard above the din. Then the tanks came rolling up the street alongside the park, their treads clanging and clattering. The storm crested and subsided. Once again it was quiet, and the full whisper of the strings reached the very last rows, where they were sitting.

"I remember," he said once more. "What an idea, to have a concert in the park!"

"Piotr," the girl whispered. She had never called him by his real name before, preferring instead the nickname Piotrus. "Piotr, think about it ... three months ofhappiness ... so little ..."

For a moment he didn't realize she was talking about them; when he finally understood and tried to answer, the words stuck in his throat.

"And you go on insisting that nothing has happened. Why do you want to hide your head in the sand? People have been asking each other all week: When is it going to happen? Everyone knows that it is, that it's just about to ..."

He managed to remain calm. "You're not making sense, you're upset. Look, the whole city is sleeping, all the lights are out. That proves that nothing has happened."

As if to spite him the darkness resounded with dull thuds. They raised their heads and listened. It was the same ominous music that had overpowered Chopin in the park. Tanks were once again riding down the city streets. Lights flickered on; voices could be heard through the open windows. She looked into his eyes.

"Let's go inside," she said.

She went back into the room and carefully locked the door to the balcony, as if she could lock out all the evil events of the night.

"Do you remember the first time I came here?" she asked, stopping in the middle of the room to look around. Piotr felt a chill run through him: Then, too, she had run into the room with rapid little steps, stopped still, and looked all around. Was she now unconsciously replaying that night?

"Do you remember? It was March, a very wet March, the snow was melting. Everything you were painting was green, and being in your room was like lying in the grass."

She was already looking back! Already recalling the past! He wanted to tell her, Don't say "was." Don't say: "You were painting." Say "is." Say: "You are painting."

"And you were playing Bach," he said.

"And I was playing Bach," she repeated. And added, "I'm so sad that it's already over."

"Stop it!" he shouted. "How can you say that! Nothing is over, we're still together, we're going to stay together. Always. Calm down. I'll make some coffee."

His hands were shaking. In the mirror he saw a pale face that looked nothing like his own. The girl was saying, "Why lie? It's the end. The end of youth, the end of love, of your paintings, of my music. We were very happy, but there's no need to lie. Isn't it better to accept that we had three months of great happiness? And now they're over."

She met his gaze, read his answer. His face was chalk-white, taut with pain.

A low thrumming of windowpanes jarred her from her sleep. She bolted up in bed, wide awake, fully aware of what was happening. The room itself was now half dark; the windows had become glowing rectangles of gray. She waited. After a few minutes she heard a heavy, dull rumbling, as if the earth were sighing. The windows once again began to hum, but their music was immediately overwhelmed by a new explosion.

She glanced at her watch. It was almost four. Carefully, so as not to wake the boy, she moved over and leaned back against the wall. She watched him lying there, defenseless as a child and, like a child, unconscious of the evil that had been unleashed. She studied the rough darkness of his body, the hawklike profile of his young face. Gently she stroked his hair.

"Keep sleeping," she whispered.

She bent over him and stayed that way, keeping watch, guarding his last peaceful moments of sleep. The dawn advanced, followed by the sun. The war was fifteen minutes old.



The wooden porch was glassed in on all sides with huge panes. Until recently, curtains had hung in the windows, as yellow as the noonday sun. Not a restful color, but bright and warm; it complemented the nasturtiums that bloomed in the beds Mother tended all by herself. This year there were no nasturtiums either. Stripped of curtains and flowers, the front of the house looked strange and pathetic. Even these tiny changes showed how different things were now. The gate, usually latched with such care, hung by one hinge, lopsided, like someone about to faint. The windows were sealed tight, though it was the height of summer. The path in front of the house meandered toward the meadows and the river, past lush gardens and one-storied cottages. It was early morning, the beginning of July 1941, the first quiet, calm morning after days of intense worry. One week before, the Russians had fled the town. One week before, the Germans had marched in. The first pogrom had already taken place.

Elzbieta sneaked out onto the porch. It was cold; rivuletsstreamed down the windowpanes. She sat in a wicker armchair—pale, but calm. She was thinking about her parents, whom the war had caught by surprise in L.; she wished that they would return as soon as possible. Once they came back, she thought, peace and order would return, too; everything would be the same as before ... or almost the same. Elzbieta was still very young.

Every day she took Czing on his leash and went for a walk outside the town.

"It's safest by the river," she explained to Kuba. "The Germans never go down there—after all, these days there aren't too many Jews interested in swimming."

It was quiet by the river. The poplars glistened in the sun, gray-green, slender as columns; the water flowed lazily, covered with spreading blooms of gray spawn. The sand was hot.

They often stayed out the entire afternoon and went back just before dark, when the empty streets sighed with relief and fatigue after another long day. As they made their way through town, they could hear drunken voices coming from the bars, loud songs sung in a harsh foreign language.

"I never liked German even in school," she confessed to Kuba. "Now tell me if I wasn't right."

Kuba smiled and said nothing. He was much older; he knew more than Elzbieta, and had a better sense of the world. He put his arm around her and hugged her gently. She did not resist. It gave her a feeling of security.

"Let's go to the farmer's tomorrow to buy potatoes," she told him one day as they said good-bye in front of the porch. "I have to get them before my parents come back." At the thought of her parents she could hardly hold back her tears. Not now, maybe later, at night, when no one could see ...

The next day they brought the potatoes in a wheelbarrow.

"Two sacks! That'll last a long time," she told Kuba happily. "We'll make pierogi and potato pancakes. Do you like pierogi?"

The furrow in Kuba's forehead disappeared when he heard her voice and looked at her young face, tanned by the summer sun.

Her aunts and uncle disapproved of her behavior. Elzbieta kept her distance from them, just as she distanced herself from their incessant concern with all the frightening and incomprehensible events. She locked herself in her own world and kept the others out. Even though they all lived under one roof, they hardly ever saw one another. Elzbieta refused to cross the threshold of their room, which seemed haunted by the spirit of that terrible time.

In vain they tried to reason with her, to explain things, to open her eyes, as they said. "Everything just slides off her like water off a duck! At a time like this, she wants to go walking. At a time like this."

The pastures smelled of chamomile and wild thyme. She lay next to Kuba on the trampled, fragrant grass, passing the hours.

"I just can't," said Elzbieta, "I just can't accept ...

Kuba took a box of tobacco out of his pocket, rolled a cigarette, and lit it.

"What can't you accept?" he asked.

She sat up and looked all around her, as far as she could see. The forest off to the east was slowly turning black. She saw herself in the meadow with flowers in her hair. She heard herself laughing. "Why are you laughing?" her teacher had asked at the school's spring outing. She hadn't wanted to say.

"What can't you accept?"

Instead of answering, she asked: "Tell me, Kuba, ... youreally love life, too, don't you?"

They walked along the riverbank, just as in the old days, down by the little beach, and then across to the pastures. They bought apples from the farmer and ate nothing else all day. In the evening Agafia made pierogi and put a steaming bowl of them on the table next to the window. Outside the window were lilacs, beyond the lilacs was the garden, and beyond the garden was the river.

Sometimes, when she lay awake in the darkness, she could make out bits of conversation coming from her aunts' room. Mostly cries and sighs. Then she would cover her ears with her pillow and burst into tears. Puzzled, Czing would lick her feet.

Two young SS men had been ransacking the house for over an hour. They stuffed their suitcases with the table silver, the kilims, the paintings, the porcelain. Elzbieta's uncle was at work; only the women were at home. When all their pleas were answered with harsh threats and warnings, the aunts took refuge in their room, but not even that room was spared. Since Elzbieta was the legal owner of the house, the Germans ordered her to assist with the looting, to show them around and explain where everything was. Nor did they overlook the attic, where they found the painting of a naked woman, which Elzbieta's parents had received on some occasion and stashed out of sight. They couldn't bear to look at it and only brought it out when the hapless person who gave it to them was about to visit. The SS men were very taken by the painting. They laughed as they used their riding crops to touch the breasts of the woman posed so nonchalantly.

Finally, when the whole house looked as if a battle had been fought there, they demanded a bottle of wine and two glasses. "I'll take it to them," Agafia whispered to Elzbieta.

Elzbieta sneaked out onto the porch. It was cold; rivulets streamed down the windowpanes. She sat there pale and very weary. "Come back," she pleaded with her absent parents. She could hear, from inside, the Germans' vulgar laughter and Agafia's angry mutter. A moment later she heard the sound of shattering glass; the Germans must have smashed the wineglasses. Then she heard steps. They were leaving. They shouted at her. She stood up, her back to the house, facing the shadowy street. "Wo ist dein Vater?"—"Where's your father?"—one of them remembered to ask. She didn't look at him. She focused on the spreading chestnut in their neighbor's garden.

"Dein Vater!"

"My father is at work," she lied, still looking at the tree. And at that moment she glimpsed something moving: A cat?

The first thing she noticed was the boyish face, the frightened eyes. How did he get here? A whole week after the fighting? And so young!

Then he emerged completely, his uniform in tatters, without a cap, his hair disheveled as if he had just woken up. He looked around. The little street was empty. She stifled a cry.

"Bitte," she said with effort, inviting the SS men backinto the house. "There's still one more room...."

"What?" shouted the older one. "Go have a look, Hans."

The Russian boy was approaching slowly; he seemed hardly able to walk. He was so close that she could make out the insignia on the uniform, the cuts on his hands.

"We've gone through the whole house," reported the younger one.

"Na, dann los!"—"let's go!"

They pointed to the bulging suitcases and instructed her not to touch them. They would be right back with the car. Then they headed for the porch door. She thought quickly, I have to stop them until he passes. I have to stop them.

"Bitte," she said shyly.

"Quiet!" the older one shouted, convinced that she was going to beg them not to take something.

Just in front of the porch, the Russian finally saw them. He ducked and ran.

The younger SS man cried out and chased after him.

"Come on." The older one pushed Elzbieta in front of him. "You will translate."

"They want to know where you were hiding," Elzbieta explained, her voice soft and kind.

"Schneller, schneller!"

The soldier didn't speak. Elzbieta couldn't bear to look into his eyes.

"Don't be afraid," she said, "I won't tell them anything, don't be afraid ..."

The boy moved his lips and mumbled a few words. The only word Elzbieta understood was zhizn—"life."

"What did he say? Translate!"

"Let him go," she cried despairingly, "ich bitte, ich bitte..."

The older SS man peered at her. His eyes were sky blue.

"How old are you?"


"I'm twenty. And I've already shot seventeen people. This one'll be my eighteenth. Have you ever seen how it's done?"

She tore herself away with all her strength but then felt the strong arm of the SS man around her neck and something cold jabbing into her cheek.

"Schau mal—look, it's so simple...."

The last thing she saw before she shut her eyes was the boy's final, bewildered gaze.

That evening she and Agafia buried him beneath the chestnut tree in their next-door neighbor's garden. Inside her aunts' room the light was already burning. A pot of kasha was cooking on their makeshift stove, filling the whole room with its aroma. Several people were sitting around the table.

"... and then they killed Goldman and his little son ...," her uncle was saying quietly.

Elzbieta crossed silently into the room and took her place at the table.

Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America

By Michael Ruhlman

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1997 Michael Ruhlman.All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

The End 3
The Threshold 9
Alina's Defeat 17
Zygmunt 25
An Afternoon on the Grass 31
A Closed Circle 37
A Second Scrap of Time 53
In Front of the Mirror 59
The Death of Tsaritsa 63
Eugenia 71
Description of a Morning 81
Sabina under the Sacks 97
Nocturnal Variations on a Theme 109
The Hand 113
An Address 121
Henryk's Sister 133
Cheerful Zofia 143
Birds 147
Traces 155
Julia 183
The Baker's Ongoing Resurrection 205
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