New Jersey Jewish News
A writer finds a rueful smile in a Shoa memoir
When he was growing up in Haifa, said prizewinning Israeli author Amir Gutfreund, his mother saved every scrap of food to feed to the neighborhoods dogs, cats, pigeons, and birds.
In this heaven for the animals of our home, there was one exception ants, Gutfreund told the more than 60 students and community members who had crowded into a small auditorium on the Princeton University campus to hear his lecture.
My mother hated ants in a way which had no connection to the other parts of her character, he said. When she saw a row of ants entering our house, she would come with cans of exterminating materials. She was pulling the trigger. Ants were not dying of the poison they didnt know how to swim, he said, eliciting murmurs of laughter from his audience.
Yes, its funny but its not so funny, Gutfreund said. When he was 16, he said, his father finally told him the story of why his mother so despised the ants. During the Holocaust, as she was being led away by the Nazis, the last image she had of home was of her mothers body lying in the dirt, covered with blood and ants.
That story, seen first through the prism of a childs eyes and then through eyes of understanding, is one of many that fill Gutfreunds novel, Shoah Shelanu, which was recently published in English as Our Holocaust by The Toby Press. In 2002, the novel won Yad Vashems Buchman Prize for the Memory of the Holocaust in Research and Literature.
In Princeton in mid-March, Gutfreund discussed and read excerpts from his novel during a lecture, Writing with Humor About the Holocaust: The Journey of a Survivors Child, sponsored by the universitys Program in Judaic Studies.
If you will forget all my lecture one hour from now, please, please remember only one thing from my lecture: The Holocaust is not funny, he said. Under no circumstances. The Holocaust is very, very horrible.
But the point of view on the Holocaust could be very funny a childish point of view, for example, he said. When children are trying to reveal Holocaust family secrets, the result is very funny. The humor in my book is coming mainly from the direction of this childish point of view.
As he wrote about in Our Holocaust, Since I was a child, I knew two different Holocausts: the formal one, which I met mainly in memorial days and school ceremonies, and the domestic one the Holocaust that I met as the son of Holocaust survivors.
The formal Holocaust could not elicit a smile, he wrote, but the domestic Holocaust revealed a more complicated picture.
I knew admirable survivors and ridiculous ones, stupid and wise, multi-misers and very generous, he wrote. I wanted to write their story with love and compassion, and describe them exactly as they were: regular people thrown into the most horrible episode of the 20th century the Holocaust.
He grew up surrounded by those people grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, and aunts, Gutfreund told his audience. It took some years to reveal that each one of them was not a real uncle, a real grandfather, a real grandmother. I really had no real family. But his parents, Polish-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, needed family, and so they made family, he said. When I was born in 1963, this fake family looked very natural to me.
Israel is filled with second-generation children who grew up in such families, according to Gutfreund. They were overprotected over-overprotected, he said. They had to eat everything, without leaving a little piece on the plate. They had to eat it until the last spoon, and nobody told us why.
It is not recommended to be second generation, he said sardonically. If someone suggests it to you dont.
When he decided to write about his memories, Gutfreund said, he wanted to describe his family exactly as they were.
You know, Holocaust survivors are treated like saints, like in a museum, very precious, behind glass, he said. I wanted to throw away those glass enclosures through my writing so people could touch them.
My relatives are very funny, he said. I can remember until today when I was a child sitting near two people Holocaust survivors, of course arguing over who suffered more during the Holocaust. Its funny but its tragic.
Nevertheless, he had a happy childhood, Gutfreund added. But from time to time, the Holocaust entered my life, because it was always there. It was like vapors. No one can see them, but they are there, he said. You just need a little sparkle to light them.
For example, he said, now, in the middle of his life, that vapor comes alive when he looks at his blond, blue-eyed son. You know what is coming to my mind? In the next Holocaust, I can hide him. He doesnt look like a Jew.
Those thoughts are crossing my mind. That means I am not so normal, Gutfreund said. It is not only for the second generation. The whole state of Israel suffers from that phenomenon.
Somehow, we are sushi eaters and espresso drinkers; we look like a civilized people, he said. But we are traumatized as a society, as a state. And I, myself I am traumatized, because the Holocaust is in my life. It is nowhere and everywhere.
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