In this portrait of the artist as a young woman, Michal Govrin, one of Israel's most important contemporary writers, offers a kaleidoscope of stories and essays. Populated by mysterious and real people, each tale is in some way a search for meaning in a post-Holocaust world. Reminiscent of W.G. Sebald, characters irrationally and humanely find reason for hope in a world that offers little. Essays describe Govrin's visits to Poland as a young adult, where her mother had survived a death camp. Govrin journeys there after she learns that her mother had not been alone. She lost her first husband and eight-year-old son, Govrin's half brother, and kept it a secret from her second family for many years. In a multiplicity of voices, Govrin's haunting stories capture the depths of denial and the exuberance of youth.
Michal Govrin is the author of eight books of fiction and poetry. Her novel The Name won the Kugel Literary Prize in Israel; her second novel Snapshots was awarded the 2003 Acum Prize for the best literary achievement of the year. Govrin has been selected by the Salon du Livre as one of the most influential writers of the past thirty years.
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About the Author
Michal Govrin was born in Tel Aviv, and is the daughter of an Israeli pioneer father and a mother who survived the Holocaust. Working as a novelist, poet, and theater director, Govrin has published eight books of poetry and fiction. Among her novels, The Name received the Kugel Literary Prize in Israel and was nominated for the Koret Jewish Book Award. Snapshots was awarded the 2003 Acum Prize for the Best Literary Achievement of the Year. Govrin was nominated for the Israel Prime Minister's Prize, the nation's highest honor, in 1998. Among the pioneers of Jewish experimental theatre, Govrin has directed award-winning performances in all the major theatres in Israel.
Now residing in Jerusalem, Govrin teaches at the School of Visual Theater and is the academic chair of the Theater Department of Emunah College, both in Jerusalem. She has taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, presents an annual lecture at The Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York, and is a former Writer in Residence and Aresty Senior Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University.
Judith G. Miller is a professor and former chair of French at New York University. She has written extensively on French and Francophone theatre, including a recent book on theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine. She also translates plays from the French, most recently excerpts of plays by Hélène Cixous (with an introductory essay) for Columbia University Press.
Read an Excerpt
THE JOURNEY TO POLAND
PART I: A RETROSPECTIVE NOTE FROM JERUSALEM, 1997
In late October 1975, when I was in my early twenties and completing my doctorate in Paris, I went to Poland. An almost impossible journey then for a young woman, alone, with an Israeli passport, at the time when there were no diplomatic relations between the Eastern Bloc and Israel. It was only because of a French-Jewish friend, who turned me into a "representative of France" at the International Theater Festival in Wroclaw [Breslau], that I received a special visa for a week.
The night before the trip, when everything was ready, I called my parents in Tel Aviv and told them. I asked my shocked mother for the exact address of her family home in Krakow. Only later that winter, when I visited Israel, did I understand what profound emotion took hold of my mother's few surviving friends and relatives from Krakow when they heard of the trip.
A week later I returned to Paris. For twenty-four hours, I closed myself in my student apartment in the Latin Quarter, far from the Parisian street scenes, and feverishly wrote to my parents. A letter of more than twenty pages. First thoughts, a summary of the rapid notes taken on the trip. The words groped for another language, for a different level of discourse.
That year, as every year, a commemoration for the Jewish community of Krakow was held in the auditorium of my high school in Tel Aviv. News of my trip and of my letter reached the members of the community, and they wanted to read it aloud at the commemoration. I agreed, and after it was commandeered from the family circle, I submitted it for publication to the literary supplement of the newspaper, Davar, with the title, "Letter from The Regions of Delusion," the expression "Regions of Delusion" borrowed from the title of a parable attributed to the Ba'al Shem Tov. Aside from some peripheral changes of style, that text appears in the following pages.
Traveling to Poland in 75 was not part of the social phenomenon it is today. The group definition of "second-generation Holocaust survivors" hadn't yet been coined. You had to find out everything by yourself: how to plan the trip, how to feel, and how to talk about it. The letter to my parents began a long process of formulation. Even the choice of parents as the addressees of an intimate discourse was not the norm then.
Today, that trip seems like a geological rift that changed my emotional and intellectual landscape, and placed its seal on my writing. Yet the "journey to Poland" didn't begin in 75, but in early childhood, in Tel Aviv in the 1950s. Distant shocks preceded the rift.
The "journey to Poland" began in that journey "to there" — the journey every child makes to the regions before she was born, to the unknown past of her parents, to the secret of her birth. My journey to Mother's world began long before I "understood" who my mother, Regina-Rina Poser-Laub-Govrin, was, before I "knew" that she survived the "Holocaust," that she once had another husband, that I had a half-brother. But there was the other "knowledge," that knowledge of pre-knowledge and of pre-language, transmitted in the thousand languages that connect a child and her parents without words. A knowledge that lay like a dark cloud on the horizon. Terrifying and seductive.
For years the journey proceeded on a double track. One outside the home and one inside it. And there was an almost complete separation between the two. As if everything that was said outside had nothing to do with Mother. Outside, incomprehensible, violent stories about the "Holocaust" were forged upon the little girl's consciousness. In school assemblies, in lessons for Holocaust Memorial Day, and later on in lessons of "Annals of the Jewish People," which were taught separately from "history" classes, and described events that happened in "another, Jewish time and place," where King David and small-town Jews strolled among the goats and railroad cars of the ghetto. Even the Eichmann trial, on the radio in school and at home, was an event you had to listen to, but it had no real relation to Mother. (And even if things were said about it then at home, I succeeded in repressing them from consciousness.)
At home, there were bright stories about Krakow, the boulevards, the Hebrew high school, the cook, the maids, about skiing and summer holidays in the mountains, in Zakopane, and sometimes on Friday evening, Mother and I would dance a Krakowiak on the big rug in the living room. And there was Mother's compulsive forced-labor house cleaning, and her periods of rage and despair when I didn't straighten up my room (what I called "prophecies of rage" with self-defensive cunning), there was the everlasting, frightened struggle to make me eat, and there was the disconnected silence that enveloped her when she didn't get out of bed on Yom Kippur. And there was the photo album "from there" at the bottom of Mother's lingerie drawer, with unfamiliar images, and also pictures of a boy, Marek. And stories about him, joyful, a baby in a cradle on the balcony, a beautiful child on the boulevard. And a tender memory of the goggle-moggle with sugar he loved so much (and only years later did I understand the terrifying circumstances of that). And there were the weekly get-togethers at Aunt Tonka's house (who was never introduced as the widow of Mother's older brother who was murdered), get-togethers so different from the humorous, confident gatherings of Father's family, who immigrated as pioneers in the 1920s and held leadership positions in the establishment of the state. At night, in Aunt Tonka's modest apartment, I was the only little girl — "a blonde, she looks like a shiksa" — in the middle of the Polish conversation of "friends from there." And every year there were also the visits of Schindler, when you could go all dressed up with Mother's cousin to greet him at the Dan Hotel. And once, when Mother and I were coming back from downtown on bus number 22, Mother stopped next to the driver and blurted a short sentence at him for no reason. The driver, a gray-haired man in a jacket, was silent and turned his head away. "He was a ka-po," she said when we got off, pronouncing the pair of incomprehensible syllables gravely. All of that was part of the cloud that darkened the horizon, yes, but had nothing to do with what was mentioned at school or on the radio.
Poland and Krakow weren't "real" places either, no more than King Solomon's Temple, for instance. I remember how stunned I was when I went with Mother to the film King Matthew the First, based on the children's story by Janusz Korszak which I had read in Hebrew. In the film, the children spoke Polish! And it didn't sound like the language of the friends at Aunt Tonka's house. "Nice Polish," Mother explained, "of Poles." Poles?They apparently do exist somewhere.
Yet, a few events did form a first bridge between the outside and inside. One day, in a used bookstore in south Tel Aviv, Mother bought an album of black and white photos of Krakow; "Because the photos are beautiful," she emphasized, "they have artistic value." And indeed, the sights of the renaissance city in four seasons flowed before my eyes. A beautiful, tranquil city, full of green trees and towers. Jews? No, there were no Jews in that album, maybe only a few alleys "on the way to Kazimierz."
At the age of ten, my parents sent me for private lessons in English, because "it's important to know languages." And thus I came to Mrs. Spiro, a gentle woman from London, married to Doctor Spiro, Mother's classmate from the Hebrew high school in Krakow. One day, when the lesson was over, Mrs. Spiro accompanied me to the edge of the yard of their house on King Solomon Street. I recall the sidewalk with big paving stones as she talked with me. Maybe I had complained before about Mother's strict demands, or maybe she started talking on her own.
"Of course, you know what your mother went through, she was in the Holocaust. You have to understand her, the tensions she has sometimes," she said to me directly.
That was an earthquake. A double one. The understanding that Mother was in "the Holocaust," that awful thing they talk about in school assemblies, with the "six million." And that I, a ten-year-old girl, had to or even could "understand Mother." That is, to leave the symbiosis of mother and daughter constituting one expanded body, to cut myself off from my child's view, and see Mother as a separate person, with her own fate and reasons for moods that didn't depend only on me, or on my certain guilt. I remember how, at that moment, facing the spotted paving stones, I understood both those things all at once. Like a blinding blow.
Then came high school in Tel Aviv. Since both the principal and the assistant principal were graduates of the Hebrew High School in Krakow, their former classmates in that high school, including my mother, sent their children to study there. At that school, influenced by the principal and his assistant, both of them historians, there was an intense awareness of the Jewish past and life in the Diaspora — a rare dimension in the Zionist-Israeli landscape of Diaspora denial — and Gideon Hausner, the prosecutor in the Eichmann trial, initiated a "club to immortalize the Jewish community of Krakow." A group of students met with members of the Krakow community, who taught them the history of the city and the Jewish community before the destruction. The club also heard testimony from the Holocaust, with a special (exclusive?) emphasis on the activities of the Jewish underground. The women's revolt in the Gestapo prison, led by "Justina," was also dramatized and performed for the community members on the annual memorial day. ("Holocaust celebrations," as the memorials were ironically called by members of the drama club.)
I was a member of the "club to immortalize," and I also played a Polish cook in the performance of the history of the uprising. But in fact, a partition still remained between me and the others, a zone of silence so dense that, to this day, I don't know which of the children of the Krakow community members were children of Holocaust survivors and which were children of parents who emigrated to Palestine before the war. If there were any children of survivors, no bond was formed between us. We didn't talk about it. We remained isolated, caged in the sealed biographies of our parents.
There were other bridges too, almost subterranean ones, which, as far as I recall, were not formulated explicitly. The bond with the literature teacher, the poet, Itamar Yaoz-Kest, who survived as a child with his mother in Bergen-Belsen. In high school, there was only his influence on my literary development and a sense of closeness, a sort of secret look between "others." Only later did I read his poems of "the double root" about his split childhood "there" and in Israel, and his story describing, as he put it, a little girl who looked like me, the daughter of survivors. And there was the love affair with the boy in my class, whose delicate smile on his drooping lower lip looked like the "different" smile of the literature teacher. His father, the lawyer, submitted reparations claims to Germany in those days — close enough to the seductive-dangerous realm. My complicated relations with that boy paralleled the shock of discovery of Kafka; and along with the tempest of feelings of fifteen-year-olds, that forbidden, denied, inflamed relation had a pungent mixture of eros and sadism, a tenderness and an attraction to death, and above all, metaphysical dimensions that pierced the abyss of dark feelings which somehow was also part of "there."
In my childhood, when Mother was an omnipotent entity within the house, I couldn't "understand" her. Later, when she became the authority to rebel against, the enzyme necessary to cut the fruit off from the branch erected a dam of alienation and enmity between us; I couldn't identify with her, with her humanity. There had to be a real separation. I had to live by myself. To go through the trials alone. To listen slowly to what was concealed.
(An amazing example of the layers of memory and forgetting was revealed to me as I wrote The Name. The only detail I borrowed in the novel from things I had heard from Mother was a story of the heroism of a woman who succeeded in escaping from Auschwitz-Birkenau, and when she was caught and taken to the Appelplatz, the roll call area, she managed to commit suicide. I also borrowed the admiring tone in which Mother spoke of the event — only later did I discover how it had served her as a model. I created a biographical-fictional character, a virtuoso pianist, and invented a name for her, Mala, which I turned into Amalia, the name of the heroine. Years later, as I was finishing the book, I came across a written description of the event in Birkenau and discovered that the name of the woman was the same as the name I had "invented," Mala — Mala Zimetbaum.)
Then came the move to Europe, to Paris. To study for the doctorate and to write literature intensively. I went to the Paris of culture, of Rilke, of Proust, of Edith Piaf. But in 1972, soon after I arrived, the film The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophuls was released. When the screening ended in the cinema on the Champs-Elysées, I emerged into a different Paris, into a place where that mythical war had gone on. I understood that here, on Rue de Rivoli, beneath my garret room, German tanks had passed (ever since then they began to inhabit my dreams); I understood that the description of the French as a nation of bold underground fighters and rescuers of Jews — a notion I had grown up with in the years of the military pact between Israel and De Gaulle's France — was very far from reality. The clear, comforting borders between good and bad were shattered for me, and so were the simple moral judgments mobilized for ideologies. Here, far from a post-Six-Day-War-Israel, secure in her power, far from the official versions of Holocaust and heroism, a different time was in the streets, a time not completely cut off from the war years. Here, for the first time I experienced the sense of "the other." As a Jew, as an Israeli. Wary of revealing my identity at the university that served as a center of Fatah activities, trembling in the Metro once as I read the Israeli newspaper, Ma'ariv, when someone called it to my attention: "Mademoiselle, somebody spat on your jacket."
Distance also allowed a different discourse with my parents, especially with Mother. In the weekly letters, without the daily tension of life at home, a new bond was formed, between people who were close, who were beginning to speak more openly with one another. Even my clothes in the European winter, in the "retro" style, began to look like the clothes in Mother's old pictures from Poland, like her hairdo in the photo next to the jeep from Hanover, when she served after the war as a commander in Aliyah B, the Brikha, camouflaged in a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration uniform. Poland, Hanover, suddenly turned into places that were much closer, more present than the little state on the shores of the Mediterranean.
On the first Holocaust Memorial Day in Paris, I decided to stay in my apartment all day and to cut myself off from the street that lived by its own dates, for example, Armistice Day of World War I, the "Great War" that took place at the same time of year. I spent the day reading works on the sources of Nazism, on the roots of anti-Semitism, on the German nationalism of Wagner, rehearsals of whose Parsifal I had attended at the Paris Opera.
That summer, on a tour of Europe, an accident forced me to stay unexpectedly in Munich for three weeks. And then the blank spot that filled the heart of the European map for me — Germany — the blank, untouchable spot that sucked up all the evil, also fell. Here, next to the beer hall of "the Nazi buds," where some Israelis had taken me, in what was obviously a sick gesture, there was also an opera, where Mozart was performed, and there were wonderful museums, and parks.
The forced stay in Germany and the Yom Kippur War the following autumn, which I spent in Paris facing the brightly lit Champs-Elysées while my dear ones were in mortal danger, proved to me that there is no refuge in the soothing distinctions between "then" and "now," between "there" and "here." And I also understood that there is no racial difference, imprinted at birth between "them" and "us," nor can we Jews hide behind the fences of the Chosen People. And that, in every person, the murderer and the victim potentially exist, blended into one another, constantly demanding separation, every single day, with full awareness. I understood that I could no longer hide behind the collective, ready-made definitions of memory. That there would be no choice but to embark on the journey that is obstinate, lonely, and full of contradictions.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hold on to the Sun"
Copyright © 2010 Feminist Press.
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Table of Contents
Poem: Can’t You See
The Journey to Poland
La Promenade (Triptych)
Between Two and Four
The End of the Pythia
Rites of Spring
Hold on to the Sun
Selichot in Krakow: Migrations of a Melody
Afterword: Interview of Michal Govrin by Judith Miller
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very moving and profound book of essays and short stories. I was totally taken by the reading.