Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 4, 2010

Between Sky and Sea (1946), by Herz Bergner, translated by Judah Waten

I had hoped that the ascendancy of Kevin Rudd as prime minister had brought about the end of the demeaning debate about ‘boat people’ in this country, but alas, our new political leaders seem just as willing to demonize refugees as ever.  It’s very discouraging.

I should declare my bias, I suppose.  When my family migrated to Melbourne, we soon moved to Caulfield in Melbourne, which was home to many Jewish refugees in the 1960s and 70s.  The people in our street were mostly Holocaust survivors although our next neighbour Mr Kuperholz had fled Stalin.  I liked these people.  They were hard-working, generous people who had somehow survived with their spirit and sense of humour intact.  One way or another they made a valuable contribution to Australian life and we would be the poorer without them.  So I don’t have much patience with the idea that it’s ok to ‘feel anxious’ about refugees and even less with pledges to turn the boats back to sea.  For humanitarian reasons and because Australia as a developed nation should take its share of refugees however they arrive, I think we should have a mature and honourable response to people who flee war and oppression.  I’d like to see our political leaders show some integrity on this issue instead of pandering to ignorance, prejudice and irrational fear.

Presumably the people at Text Publishing think so too.  They have taken the step of republishing this book, Between Sky and Sea, which has been out of print for over 50 years, because it addresses the issue of asylum-seekers being denied a port to land at.

It’s a simple story really.  A rickety old Greek freighter is carrying a group of Jewish refugees from the Nazi invasion of Poland, but it’s denied entry at a succession of ports.  Supplies are running out, and internal tension wracks the ship.  These people are traumatized after suffering enormous losses and they fear that no one will take them in.

There are children on this ship, as there are children on today’s ships.  Imagine this:

A small girl [approached] the group of children.  In her hand she held a white bread roll which some sailor, who had taken pity on her, must have given her.  To the children who hadn’t seen such a thing for weeks the piece of baked dough gleamed so white that it must have come from fairyland.  They were drawn to it and they stopped their play and circled around the child with the roll like moths round a lamp at night.  They drew nearer and nearer, stretching out their hands and begging for a little piece.  The child broke off crumbs with a mean little hand and distributed them among the outstretched hands.  Her eyes shone with pleasure and she was full of self-importance.  She played the role of a patron, pinching off tiny pieces with two fingers.  But the children demanded more an more.  Then she noticed that there was hardly anything left in her hand, and she didn’t want to give anyone any more.  Helplessly she sat down on the floor and clutched to herself, with both hands, the remains of the roll.  Then the others fell upon her, tore the piece of roll out of her hands and quickly disappeared.  (p107)

The story of Ida and Nathan is heart-rending.  Both had lost their spouse and children when they fled the bombing, and they are bound together by the trauma which at the same  time makes it impossible for them to love anyone.  They are haunted by memories and guilt, and they fear loving again because the risk of loss is more than they can bear.   For Fabyash – brash, assertive, cocky – it is the losses that he suffers aboard the ship that bring him undone.

And in the end, a shocking climax.

Between Sky and  Sea won the Australian Society of Literature’s gold medal for book of the year in 1948.  It’s an important book which deserves to be widely read.  I wish our political leaders would read it.

Sue reviewed this a while ago at Whispering Gums, and Alan Gold reviewed it for The Australian.  See also Life Matters on Radio National, and John McCrystal’s review at the NZ Herald.

Update 24/8/18:  See also this article at the Sydney Review of Books about Yiddish-Australian literature and the history of migrant writing in this country.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Herz Bergner
Title: Between Sky and Sea,
Translated by Judah Waten
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010, first published 1946
ISBN: 9781921656316
Source: Review copy courtesy Text Publishing.


  1. Nice review Lisa … so totally agree with you about our leaders not pandering to ignorance and fear. So, so disappointing. Where’s the vision, where’s the courage? There’s not much in evidence is there?


  2. Since the people you describe here sound a lot like the people in my work, I agree: sometimes the people who exist under duress are the greatest gift to any country.


  3. We have precisely the same debate here in the UK, the debate being angrier because of our over-population and creaking services. This sounds like a wonderful book, but I find it hard to read books which are quite as harrowing as that.


  4. Tom, I think it’s because I’ve read a little about refugee numbers in France and the UK, and the pressure that causes on infrastructure, that I feel so embarrassed about the way Australians carry on about it. I saw a wonderful French film not so long ago, called Welcome, and it was about a Kurdish refugee trying to get from Calais to his girlfriend in the UK. It was an even-handed film, showing the desperation of the refugee, varying responses from the people he met, and the difficulty the authorities were having managing such large numbers of people.
    Well, here we have a strong immigration program but we get very few asylum seekers by world standards (because we’re so far away and hard to get to, I suppose). We could be, and IMO should be, more welcoming.
    In my career I’ve met Vietnamese and Cambodian ‘boat people’ and Afghans, Iraquis and Iranians, and honestly, they have all been assets to our country in every way, which is more than I could say about some coming under the family reunion program!


  5. Other than the book’s subject matter and its relevance to today’s refugee-related issues, how does the novel stack up as a work of literature on its own terms?


    • Hello Evan, thanks for joining in the conversation. Between Sky and Sea stacks up well as a work of literature on its own terms. It wouldn’t have lasted the distance nor won that medal were it not so. (Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist sank like a stone, and so did Sandy McCutcheon’s The Ha-Ha Man because their political good intentions weren’t matched by the writing in these books.)
      I can’t comment on the language much: it seems to me that the translation from the Yiddish is smooth and near undetectable as a work-in-translation, but having witnessed so many lively conversations in Yiddish I’m not sure if it captures the dynamic spirit of Yiddish. Yiddish-speaking Arnold Zable, (who wrote the introduction) seems a bit ambivalent because apparently the author interfered a bit with Judah Waten’s translation – but, in the end, as with all books in translation, we have to take it as it is, and the language worked for me.
      I can comment further on the book’s literary qualities. The setting on the boat is a study in contrasts: the claustrophic conditions on board, and the relentless sea and sky around them as a metaphor for oppression and isolation – that’s superbly done. The characters are vibrant and entirely credible. I haven’t commented much on them because I wanted to avoid plot spoilers, but they are (as you’d expect) a mixture of types, some bossy, foolish, or spiteful; some generous, wise or thoughtful. None are idealised; they have human failings as well as qualities we like to admire. The story begins slowly as the characters emerge, and concludes with an ending I did not expect. That’s good plotting, IMO.
      So for me, it ticks all the boxes.


  6. Sounds good, Lisa. I have this sitting on my shelf and hope to get to it soon (after finishing JG Farrell’s Troubles, which, IMHO, is an absolute cracker of a read). I have another Bergner work, Light and Shadows, that I picked up at a library sale in Sydney. I was amazed to discover that Melbourne once had a relatively buzzing Yiddish-language literary scene, but this should not be too surprising, given the relative prominence of Yiddish culture among the city’s Jews. I too have heard Yiddish still being spoken by some elderly residents of Caulfield and thereabouts – it’s something you don’t get too much of in Auckland.


    • As a teenager I used to love going up to my local park where people would be playing chess and having passionate conversations about whatever…I didn’t understand a word, of course, but it inspired me for life. These were people who had suffered unimaginably, and yet they were determined to rebuild with whatever they had left, and live a good life. The only other people I have known with as much spirit were the Cambodian refugees I met in the 1970s – they too had survived horror and come here to rebuild their lives with dignity and grace and courage.
      You are reading Troubles – – that’s a wonderful book – I love Farrell’s writing. I have one of his books left on my TBR, The SIngapre Grip and I am hoarding it against a reainy day when nothing else seems good to read.
      BTW as a New Zealand reader, can you recommend a good book blog that would help me to keep in touch with the NZ Literary scene?


  7. Sorry to say, Lisa, that I do not read a lot of NZ Lit :(. Come to think of it, I’ve probably read more books by Australian authors than NZ authors. As an English teacher, I can safely say that Katherine Mansfield is near-untouchable, but she’s hardly indicative of the current NZ literary scene. Janet Frame is always worth a look – if you’ve yet to read her, start with The Lagoon – it’s a near-perfect collection of short stories. After that, go for Owls Do Cry, her first novel.
    The last “recent” NZ novel I read was Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip, which made something of a splash internationally – it’s a nice read. The Book Of Fame by the same author is also a very good book – and has been published in Australia by Text Publishing.
    Hope that serves as a taster.


    • I do like Katherine Mansfield, and am re-reading her stories on and off (on the Kindle when I’m having a coffee in cafes) but as you say, time has moved on. I read some of Frame a while ago now, but not The Lagoon. I’ll have to hunt that one out.
      Of contemporary work, well, I read Mr Pip too, and thought it was terrific. I’ve got something else of Lloyd Jones on my TBR – Paint Your Wife, but I haven’t got to it yet…


  8. Well, Lisa – I finished Between Sky and Sea last night. As a work of Yiddish literature, it’s probably not as accomplished as say, Isaac Bashevis Singer at his best, but it was an engrossing read and I’m glad I discovered it. It’s really more a novella than a novel and it adheres to the compactness of the form very well (the ending was a bit of a disappointment, though).


  9. Hello Evan, thank you for taking the time to comment:)
    I am interested in what you say about Yiddish literature, and would be interested to know more about it. I’ll check out Singer in due course, but are there others you’d recommend?
    PS I was disappointed in the ending too, but for me, it was an emotional response. I had come to care about the characters, and well, without giving away spoilers, let’s just say my hopes for them were dashed.


  10. Singer is the only Yiddish writer that I’d read a lot of. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to make the comparison, considering I’ve only read one novel of Bergner’s (thus far, that is – I have his only other novel in translation, Light and Shadows and plan to read it before the year is out). Singer has a nice range – he has written some very good novels (e.g. The Family Moskat is a nice family saga set in Warsaw between World Wars I and II and The Certificate is a like a Polish-Jewish Catcher in the Rye, of sorts) but his best works are probably his stories (read the collection Gimpel the Fool first – it’s a superb introduction).


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