By AKIN AJAYI
On the night of October 9, 1945, security at the Atlit Detention Center near Haifa - a camp for "illegal" Jewish immigrants in Mandatory Palestine - was breached; 200 detainees, mainly Holocaust survivors and recent arrivals from Europe, were released in a daring operation launched by the Palmah.
While accounts of the remarkable escape are still recounted today, they are told mainly in connection with the principal actors - the operation was coordinated by Yitzhak Rabin - and within the context of the broader struggle against British hegemony in the last days of the Mandate. Historically significant accounts often, oddly enough, overlook the true impact of momentous events, concentrating on the big picture at the expense of the detail that sets the scene.
Thus, there is something apt in the focus of Anita Diamant's new book, Day After Night, pointing rather to the untold personal narrative. Diamant's fiction concentrates on the exceptional capacity to form kinship and community under testing circumstances; historical detail plays a supporting role to the emotional tales of the otherwise anonymous people freed from the camp. Of disparate backgrounds, her protagonists are brought together by a shared destiny, and what Diamant attempts to shape out of their shared suffering is a redemptive human story of hope and optimism.
Day After Night concentrates on four female inmates of the camp. Shayndel, a Polish Zionist, is unwillingly set upon a pedestal by her fellow inmates because of her courage as part of a group of fighters who stood up to the Nazis; Leonie, French, would much rather that no one discovered the traumatic truth of her wartime experiences in occupied Paris. Tedi, saved from the fate that befell her Dutch family by being hidden away during the war - but at painful personal cost - wants nothing more than to forget the past and to look to the future; Zorah, a survivor of the death camps, wants to continue to remember the horrors of the past. "The point is, nobody knows what happened, and if we pretend that it didn't happen, then it didn't happen and it will never stop."
Diamant - the best-selling author of The Red Tent and The Last Days of Dogtown - has a knack for juxtaposing public fact with private truth, a skill she manipulates to good effect in unpicking the experience of Atlit through the eyes of her protagonists. From the grossly insensitive reception of new inmates - barbed wire, guard towers, herded into communal showers - to the tensions that play out between prisoners and their captors, Diamant skillfully coaxes out a poignant reality from the abstractions of dry historical narrative.
Fiction based on fact always labors under the disadvantage of having the ending pretty much known to all at the beginning. Diamant, by placing the relationships stage center, nonetheless succeeds in teasing out a suitably dramatic tension in the lead-up to the escape.
Perhaps even more satisfying is the emphasis on the contradictions that abounded at the time. The inmates were in limbo, in the Promised Land but yet not free; they alternated between anger and distrust toward the volunteers in the camp, whom they expected to be more forthcoming in facilitating their freedom. The sabras, in turn, considered the former with a combination of condensation and pity. "Everything was permitted and forgiven them, at least as long as they dressed and took their meals and kept their stories to themselves."
Not that many of the inmates had the language with which to tell their stories; Diamant, sensibly, shies away from creating heroes and heroines, but instead sketches honest portraits of everyday people trying their best in challenging circumstances.
Day After Night is not always an unqualified success. Diamant's prose is occasionally uncertain, veering between gross understatement and arch overelaboration. More tellingly, her principals at times present more as calculated composites rather than as fully formed individuals in their own right. The latter, at least, can be understood if not fully appreciated; Diamant herself has acknowledged intent beyond simple storytelling in the development of her characters: "Celebrating women's friendships remains oddly counterculture. The media embraces stories of mean girls and competition between women, but I think cooperation and community among women is at least as if not more normative of women's lives."
So be it. What one cannot deny is the moral authority which they vest in
Day After Night; Shayndel, Leonie, Tedi and Zorah must all find a way to look to the future. Far better together than alone, and as one puts it after the rescue, while sequestered in nearby Kibbutz Beit Oren: "How can I help but hope among such people?"
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