Solving the riddle of Elsa Weiss

Michal Ben-Naftali, the latest recipient of the Sapir Prize, discusses her winning novel, its historical and literary context and her general sources of influence.

Michal Ben-Naftali (photo credit: COURTESY SAPIR PRIZE)
Michal Ben-Naftali
(photo credit: COURTESY SAPIR PRIZE)
Michal Ben-Naftali was this year’s winner of the Sapir Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in Israel for a work of literature in the Hebrew language. She was awarded the prize for her novel The Teacher. It tells the story of Elsa Weiss, a Holocaust survivor and one of 1,684 Jews who were smuggled out of Europe on the Rudolf Kastner train on June 30, 1944.
Weiss becomes a respected English teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, but one day she kills herself by jumping off the roof of her apartment building.
Three decades later, one of her students decides to trace her life story and solve her riddle, learning significant lessons from her encounter with this enigmatic woman.
“I WAS surprised and pleased to hear of my nomination for the prize and later the win,” says the author, “but even before the nomination, this book received more feedback than the previous six books I wrote.”
Ben-Naftali was born in Tel Aviv in 1963. A writer, translator and editor, she studied history and philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and received her PhD in contemporary French philosophy from Oxford University.
Having taught at several academic institutions, she now teaches French literature and creative writing at Tel Aviv University.
Although The Teacher is based on Ben-Naftali’s real-life high school teacher, who committed suicide in the 1980s, most of the book is fictional.
“You could say I did minimal research. By minimal I mean that I read literature written on Hungarian Jews during the war and the [Kastner] train, visiting several people who shared their experiences, people who got on the train as young adults or children from Budapest, or like Elsa Weiss, from Kolozsvár,” she says. “Since this isn’t a history book, at a certain point I let go of the knowledge I gathered from archives and tried to imagine the teacher’s life, especially her inner life.”
This is not the first time that Ben-Naftali’s writing has been Holocaust-related. In her book Spirit, she writes speculative fiction about her grandmother, whom the Holocaust transformed from a young woman who immigrated to Israel-Palestine, to a survivor whose parents and brother were killed during World War II.
“After reading The Teacher, many people approached me and brought up the topic of the voice of the ‘third generation,’” Ben-Naftali says. “This was not something I consciously thought about while I was writing. I suppose they mean that the story is written from the perspective of a student, who describes a teacher who clearly came from Europe after the catastrophe, even if no one knew exactly what she experienced there.
“The ‘third generation’ is perhaps a concept that indicates another type of testimony that will surely spread and become more prominent, a testimony that is not necessarily based on kinship, the kind that is not committed to comply with the regulations and constraints expressed or implied by the first generation or second generation of survivors.
“We have already seen several examples of this new generational sensibility – for example, Yael Hersonski’s film The Silence of the Archives, or the impressive novel by Leah Aini, Rose of Lebanon. Although Aini is actually second generation, telling about a father who came from Thessaloniki and survived Auschwitz, her approach to post-traumatic violence, the kind that victims carry with them and transfer into the environment of their new life, is probably unprecedented and indicates a new generational position.”
Why did Ben-Naftali return to this extremely sensitive and traumatic realm? “In this case, more than dealing with the Holocaust, I approached a specific affair within it, or rather the consequences of this affair: the Kastner train and its survivors. Elsa Weiss, the heroine of the book, was on the train. She was sent to Bergen-Belsen, placed in a refugee camp in Switzerland and finally came to Palestine after the war. She had no choice in this matter. Without wanting this arrangement or asking for it, Weiss was one of the ‘privileged’ survivors; those selected from the Hungarian Jewish community and sent to Palestine due to what was described as ‘collaboration.’ Negotiations that led to an agreement between the leaders of the Jewish community and the Nazis.
“This fact led Weiss and the other train survivors to a kind of existence of hiding in plain sight, even more so than Holocaust survivors in general in the country at the time, at least until the Eichmann trial began. These survivors’ characters were allegedly contaminated, considered to be ‘impure’ and not completely innocent. This direct or indirect incrimination culminated in the Kastner trial, followed by Kastner’s murder.
“This is one of the aspects of a complex question that has a lot of variations in history and in our daily lives: what we do, or may or may not do, in order to survive; what are we able to turn a blind eye to, not because we are ‘evil,’ but because of the calculations and concessions we believe we must practice.
“I did not intend to deal with the historical question or rule on the bottom line concerning the case, but I wanted to raise its complexity through the perspective of a female character who was on the train, a character that, unlike many other survivors, never rebuilt her life or started a family after the war.”
IN HER second book, The Visitation of Hannah Arendt, Ben-Naftali described a series of imaginary meetings between Arendt and four characters: Stefan Zweig, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Michal daughter of Saul, and an anonymous student.
“When I wrote about Hannah Arendt,” she says, “It wasn’t a study in the clear-cut sense of the word. It’s a book of fictional conversations among different characters. The book tries to trace the character of the teacher there as well – one that may be real or fictional – and invites a visitation in the life of the reader who seeks to be born into a spiritual existence.
“We must remember, however, that despite popular views of Arendt and her controversial writing regarding Eichmann in Jerusalem, she had very strong opinions about the Judenrat. Her report on the judgment of Jewish collaborators was as equally unequivocal and purist as that of Shmuel Tamir or Judge Benjamin Halevi, who stated that Kastner sold his soul to the devil.
“When I wrote the book on Arendt, I tried to examine things from her perspective. In The Teacher, I examined things from a different perspective entirely, one that does not seek purism at all, but rather examines the gray areas between victims and executioners. The genre of novel not only allows for this, but I would say that it requires it. It must be loyal to the complexity of the human condition.”
Ben-Naftali lived in Paris for several years and was the editor of the “The French” series for Hakibbutz Hameuhad publishing house in Israel.
Her translations from French to Hebrew include works by André Breton, Maurice Blanchot, Julia Kristeva, Esther Orner, Annie Ernaux and Jacques Derrida. Derrida, the acclaimed Jewish- French philosopher, was also her teacher for a short period of time. When asked about the influences of her academic work and especially of her encounters with Derrida on her writing, she says: “It’s difficult to speak about Jacques Derrida in a few sentences.
“Since I studied Derrida for many years, translated some of his books, wrote about him, and taught his philosophy, he has had a decisive influence on the way I view situations and phenomena, and I would even say the way I experience them.
“One of Derrida’s most prominent gestures is the undermining of the polar relations between seemingly opposing concepts: body and mind, reason and madness, source and translation, speech and writing, etc. Derrida tries to show how it is impossible to think of one concept without the other; how these concepts permeate into one another, condition and even ‘stain’ each other. This brings me back to the idea of the non-purist position I mentioned, the one I was looking for. Regarding the Holocaust, but also all trauma, my narrator eye always looks for the overlapping areas, the implication of one position in the other.”
The editor of a series for Resling publishing house and former writer-in-residence at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, Ben-Naftali elaborates about her writing process and influences.
“I feel as if there are many fragmented and incoherent voices within me. I find it hard to talk about direct influences in the sense of sources of inspiration. Perhaps the word ‘love’ is more accurate in describing this constant process of the trickling of voices. I tend toward writers whose focus is the inner life of their characters, the world of fantasy and stream of consciousness, such as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust and Marguerite Duras – what attracts me to her writing is primarily the musicality of the prose she writes.
“In the context of Hebrew literature, I am drawn to the melancholy of Yehudit Hendel’s writing, which is still soaked in unforeseen elements, creating a theater of absurd. There are many others, but it is important to say that my loves are not only an attraction to the similar. I am drawn to many kinds of books in various genres.
Virginia Woolf wrote in one of her essays that one should read books not only in libraries but also on tubes [London Underground trains], and I would add that books should be read in different states of being – hunched over a desk, on the couch, in bed, on a bench on a boulevard.”
Ben-Naftali’s book Chronicle of Separation: On Deconstruction’s Disillusioned Love has been translated into English and published by Fordham University Press and The Teacher will soon follow. An English version will be available in the near future with the support of the Sapir Prize board, which offers a translation into Arabic and another language of the selected author’s choice. There are also future projects on the horizon.
“I have thoughts on the matter, as well as beginnings of a novel and a novella. The novel returns to the theme of my first book, Chronicles of Separation, but from the opposite perspective.
At the time, I wrote about the Book of Ruth from the perspective of Ruth, in what could be called Moabite or ‘Ruthish.’ I wrote the existential adventure that led Ruth to leave her home and follow Naomi until the moment she decides to leave and return to her mother’s home.
“What I’d like to focus on in the next novel is again the relationship between the older and the younger woman, but this time, noblesse oblige, from the mature perspective.”