Between the Unspeakable and the Unknowable

Israeli Menorah
Source: Ilana Shkolnik, Wikimedia

After the Holocaust, many of the surviving European Jews went to British Palestine, soon to become the nation of Israel. However, the forces that destroyed their families often destroyed their vital documents as well, so those without official papers or family already in Palestine were put in detention camps until things could be sorted out.  Anita Diamant has written a powerful novel about four women in one of these camps with Day After Night. Tedi is from Holland, hidden and raped during the war.  Leonie is French, and was tricked by a neighbor into prostitution for the Nazis until she escaped. Shayna survived Auschwitz. Zorah was a partisan in the Polish woods and has gained notoriety as a war hero. They are very different women, but they become friends in this place of betwixt-and-between. Intrigue in the camp comes from a mother and son from Poland, who may not be really Jewish, a crazy German, and speculation about Tirzah, a woman sleeping with the commander of the camp, ostensibly as a spy. The real excitement comes when the Palmach, the elite of what would become the Israel Defense Forces, decides to liberate the camp, providing momentum for the story once the exposition is relayed.

Diamant gives us a real feel for the place: the heat, the mountains not so far away, and the ocean, which seems just over the horizon along with civilization.  Also, one gets a primer on Zionism, which is helpful if you’re not up on your Jewish history. You might even pick up a little Hebrew, but what Diamant really excels at is illustrating the friendship of these women and how they deal with what has come before. There are so many things not said, either because one already knows or words are inadequate conveyances. Everyone respects another’s right to grieve silently, since all possible tears have been shed. There is hope, or they wouldn’t be in what will become Israel, but there is also trepidation, because hope has been brutally crushed so often in the past.  To sum up: If you are looking for a recent historical that celebrates female friendship and the ability to survive anything, this is the book for you.

Other books you may like:

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. The best known and most highly acclaimed of Diamant’s works, this follows the women of Genesis, mostly left out of the Bible.

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant. A young English Jewish woman goes to British Palestine to find herself, and gets swept up in the tides of history as Israel is born.

Louisa by Simone Zelitch. A retelling of the story of Ruth and Naomi, A holocaust survivor sets out for Eretz Yisrael searching for her cousin and  insistently accompanied by her strange, German daughter-in-law.