20 September 2018

Returning by Yael Shahar


We know now where grief untold goes; it goes on to haunt future generations. It gets left behind on the grating; it passes unscathed through temperatures that can melt iron and reduce human bone to ash. And somewhere far removed in space and decades into the future, a stranger wakes out of a sound sleep with an inexplicable nightmare and a despair so deep as to negate life itself.

Somehow, and don't ask me how, I knew immediately that the quote above, taken from the middle of the book, will be the one for the post that I'll write. The book, Returning, appeared to have a special significance for me, and this is what is this post about. That and the need to tell you to read this book.

This is in no way a review, I am not a literary critic (an ugly combo of two words if there ever was one). It is also not a spoiler, I know y'all hate spoilers and I am not going there. So, unfortunately, it will have to be more about me and how I got to read the book than about the book itself.

Strangely, Soviet Union, an almost perfect implementation of a party dictatorship and the ideal of a Big Brother's bailiwick, was inexplicably generous where the literature about the Nazi concentration/mass murder camps and, by extension, about Holocaust, were concerned. There were several books in our home, and there was no problem whatsoever to get more from the local library. My parents, not being very much into censorship, allowed my reading material to be my own choice (and my own problem), and for some reason, the books about Holocaust took a significant part of my adolescent attention.

After a while, though, I just couldn't continue reading. Something bad was taking over me. The mix of pain, sorrow and, not the least, hate, became so intense that it impacted me on a physical level. Thankfully, there were no Germans in the vicinity, nor implements of revenge or knowledge necessary to operate these, but the mental scars left by the acquired knowledge remained forever. It took me a special effort to agree to visit Germany many years after that period (on business) and I have never been in Poland. The visit to Yad Vashem cost me more - on several levels - than I care to recall. And so it rolled with me. I wasn't able to read more about the Holocaust, or to see the movies, or to view interviews with survivors - all this was just too much for me.

But when I have seen the first notice about the book going to be published and about it subject matter, e.g. a member of sonderkommando*, my acquired resistance weakened. The subject was new to me. Not that I didn't know about sonderkommandos, but I have never seen one talking or writing about the experience, although I heard about survivors... So the ebook was duly purchased and downloaded.

Now about the book. Actually, it is again about me - reading the book this time.  I don't know whether many of you have undergone a musical ability test. Part of it is when the musician sits at the piano and plays a musical piece, where the melody passes from the lower octaves (left hand) to the higher octaves (right hand) and back. You are supposed to point to the correct hand when the melody jumps over, without delay if possible. When I started to read the book, for a short while I thought that I keep following the melody switching hands. But then - it very quickly appeared to be not a relatively simple fugue but a whole complex symphony that kept me on the edge of my chair for the whole time.

This book is a tough read.

This book is also a rewarding read.

This book is a mandatory read.

And many thanks to Yael.

P.S. And I had my own vision too, here in Israel - but it is another story.

(*) The only spoiler you are going to get from me.