No laughing matter

Spanning from Poland in 1943 to the end of this century, And the Rat Laughs distills the evil of the Holocaust.

nava semel book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nava semel book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
And the Rat Laughs By Nava Semel Hybrid Publishers 240 pages; $25 'This is a book nobody will read," Nava Semel had said to her editor when, at last, her book was done. But they are reading it, and now And the Rat Laughs (2001), the best-seller by the prize-winning author has been published in Miriam Shlesinger's English translation by Hybrid Publishers in Melbourne. Spanning from Poland in 1943 to the end of this century, And the Rat Laughs distills the evil of the Holocaust. In space it moves from a comfortable Tel Aviv apartment to cyberspace and beyond. The book tells the story of a five-year-old girl thrust into an underground potato pit with only a rat for company. It tells her story through the inarticulable memories of the old woman she has become, the uncomprehending eyes of her granddaughter Miri, stark poems posted on the Internet, a tenuous, obstinate myth in the distant future and the anguished diary of the Polish priest who saves her. This was a book she had to write, Semel says, not only because memories of and relationship to the Holocaust are receding but because "still within [the survivors'] lifetime, in front of their very eyes, they see the Holocaust denied, a period that is probably the most documented atrocity in history, and much of it by the perpetrators." "For us, for Israelis, the Holocaust will never be just history because it's inside of us, even somebody with no biographical connection to it has it under the skin." Semel, 54, is compact, energetic, voluble and eloquent. She is the child of Holocaust survivors who met and married in Europe after the war. Her father was collecting refugees to smuggle them into Palestine. Her elder brother, born in 1949 "when mother was sure that for now there would be no more fighting," is the celebrated rock singer Shlomo Artzi. She and her brother grew up in a bustling, friendly neighborhood near the then unpolluted Yarkon River. Theirs was "a happy childhood, quiet, mundane; scouts, picnics, school trips, the zoo, concerts. We spoke Hebrew at home. Our parents' every effort was directed to living ordinary lives." Her childhood was happy, Semel stresses, and yet, throughout, hung the silence that enveloped "another reality that I didn't know, couldn't know. When I was little, I hated the Seder because the people around the table wept for their dead. It was a Seder of ghosts." To this day her mother, now 87, will not speak of that time, not to anybody. Semel has been telling stories since before she learned to write them down, readily admitting that "I told stories because the silence was so threatening. The Holocaust was always the absent guest." Her first published book was an anthology of poetry on pregnancy and birth "that I wrote in real time," she half jokes. Semel is married to Cameri director-general Noam Semel and they have three children, fraternal twins, now going into the army, and their older brother, who has completed a music degree in Australia. Semel visited him there, her visit resulting in her first non-fiction book, Australian Wedding, coming out in January. In the end, she says, And the Rat Laughs is "a human testament," a reminder "that we do have to choose between good and evil, that we do have a responsibility to be rememberers, to shoulder the burden of memory for the sake of humanity, otherwise we will truly have no chance for redemption or to learn from the past. "Even when it comes with a terrible price," she adds, quietly.