The Holocaust in Israeli Fiction

The following information is distilled from a 2/20 interview with Dr. Rachel Korazim, Academic Director of Long Distance Programs at the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Literature about the Holocaust written by Israelis falls into two main categories. The first consists of works set in Europe during the war. These books, by authors such as Aharon Appelfeld and Dan Pagis, deal with the ghettos, the deportations, the concentration camps, the partisans, and the liberation. The second category of Holocaust fiction consists of works set in Israel. These books, by David Grossman, Savyon Liebreht, and others, deal with the attempt to incorporate the tragedy into the Israeli national and historic consciousness. This literature review focuses primarily on the second category of works, since Walk on Water belongs to this same artistic genre.

Immediately after the war, most works of Holocaust fiction set in Israel dealt with the attempt to rescue young Jewish children who had survived the war. In the classic narrative that underlies these works, a male fatherly figure who served in the Jewish unit of the British army stays on in Europe after the war to work with survivors. This man becomes attached to one particular child survivor, often named Yankele or Channele, and brings him or her home to integrate the child into Israeli society. Invariably, this Yankele or Channele is pale and thin and dresses funny. He or she speaks Yiddish, which is anathema to the sabra. The other students make fun of the European import until one day, on a big school hike, an accident happens and it is Yankele or Channele who emerges as the unexpected hero, armed with survival skills from years in the forests. By the end of the story, the father figure comes to visit the child he rescued and barely recognizes the newly-christened Koby or Chana – above all, because the child is now suntanned, which is the mark of the true Israeli.

Books in this genre include Leah Goldberg’s The Lady in the Castle and Yemima Tzernovitz’s Echad Mishelanu, both published in the 1950s.* A similar set of books came out in the 1960s, but with a twist – the now-suntanned European child realizes in the end that although he or she can dress like an Israeli and speak Hebrew, he or she will never really be like one of the sabras. The sixties also witnessed the emergence of a “literature of guilt” by survivors who felt that they did not deserve to be saved when so many others were not. These works were heavily influenced by the debates about Holocaust reparations money. Many Israelis felt that they could not accepted “tainted” German reparations, or felt too guilty about having survived to be able to accept compensation.

In the 1970s, questions arose about the legitimacy of drawing comparisons between the Holocaust and other instances of victimization and genocide. In 1974, the Israeli Iraqi writer Sami Michael unleashed a stream of controversy when his novel More and More Equal drew an explicit comparison between the treatment of Holocaust survivors and the treatment of new Iraqi immigrants to Israel, who were humiliatingly sprayed with DDT to “detoxify” them upon their arrival in the promised land.

The 1980s witnessed the rise of a “second generation” of Holocaust writers. This term refers to those Israelis who are children of survivors. Do they inherit a “Holocaust gene” that makes them different from everyone else? What does it mean to carry around a terrible historical legacy? Classic works of this genre include David Grossman’s Momik (famous for its literalization of the “Nazi beast”), Savyon Liebrecht’s Apples from the Desert, and Gila Almagor’s Summer of Aviya.

In the 1990s, writers of fiction began to examine the relationship between the Holocaust and Israeli national politics. Two of the most outstanding works to emerge are Amir Gutfreund’s Our Holocaust and Lysie Doron’s Lama Lo Bata Lifnei Ha-Milchama. These titles raise difficult and serious questions about the relationships between victims and victimizers, an issue that has come to the fore once again in the wake of the disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005.

For whatever reason, the writers in the upper echelons of the Israeli pantheon—Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and Meir Shalev—have chosen to avoid the subject of the Holocaust altogether. Nonetheless, a rich Israeli literature has emerged in the aftermath of one of the greatest historical nightmares, and continues to emerge and to evolve in our own day as well.

*Books whose titles appear in Hebrew have not yet been translated into English.

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