Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 26, 2018

Bella and Chaim, The Story of Beauty and Life, by Sara Rena Vidal #BookReview

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is commemorated each year on the 27th January, because that is the day of the liberation of the Nazi extermination and concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945.  As it says at Global Dimension, which is a website for teachers promoting learning for a ‘just and sustainable world’:

HMD seeks to highlight the importance of understanding and combating the processes that led to the mass extermination of Jews during World War II, and to recognise that the type of behaviour demonstrated in Nazi Germany was not unique either to Germany or to a particular point in history. More recent events in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur amply demonstrate the propensity of human beings to engage in mass murder.

The theme for HMD 2018 is ‘The Power of Words‘, exploring how language has been used in the past, and how it is used in the present day, whether this be through propaganda used to incite, through slogans written in resistance, and through memoirs written to record and respond to what was going on.

In recognition of this day,  I decided to put other things aside to read Bella and Chaim which had arrived in my post box late last year.  The author, Sara Rena Vidal, was born in 1945 in a refugee camp to Holocaust survivors Bella (Basia) and Chaim (Heniek).  They had married just before the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and escaped the death camps by hiding in a hole in the ground for 18 months.  Karol Smolarczyk, (listed among the Righteous Gentiles Among the Nations register of people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust), was a retired policemen who constructed a bunker under a wood-sawing machine in his backyard workshop.  He and his niece Lodzia brought them food… invariably potato soup and occasional scraps of meat and took care of their needs as best they could without detection.  But it was hellish, mentally and physically:

The bunker is so small: one-metre-wide by one-metre-high by two-metres-long. Unable to stand, they sit, or lie, in the dark, separated from the dirt floor by a thin matting, with just a threadbare blanket, thus enduring the longs days and nights. (p.146)

Vidal keeps this section short – hardly more than four vivid pages – but few could read it without being overwhelmed by the moment when they are liberated by a delighted Russian soldier who is hardly more than a boy.  

It’s an unusual form of Holocaust memoir, and one particularly well suited to this year’s HMD theme, ‘the power of words’  because the author has used the power of multiple sources of words to conjure the immediacy of a vanished world.  I haven’t read anything quite like it before.  The blurb describes it as a flowing collage which embraces and mingles memory, historical record, fragments of the 1950s, real-time journal entries and musings on the light, dark, and potential of being alive.  This is further clarified by the ‘Author’s Note Regarding the Elements’, in which she explains the purposeful structure of these elements within the thirteen parts of the book:

  • her own memory fragments are from her unpublished memoir The Making of Plans, her journal and her reflections, and they are placed in alternating parts One to Thirteen;
  • the stories of her parents Basia and Heniek as told to her, covering the pre-war period, the time in the Warsaw Ghetto (1939-43), and then 1944-49.  These stories are interspersed with prose poems, and her parents’ sayings and insights along with her own thoughts.  These elements alternate in the even numbered parts up to Part Twelve.

Although many of us have known about the Holocaust for many years because our shocked parents told us about it and we learned more at school and since, we need to remember that this is not always the case with younger generations.  And in a multicultural country like ours, migrants who have come from countries hostile to Israel, or people from war-torn countries with disrupted or minimal education, may also not know about the Holocaust.  Furthermore, strange as it may seem after so many years, new information still comes to light when old photos or journals or newspapers are discovered in long-hidden places, or when official documents are released for public scrutiny, or when an elderly survivor finally breaks a silence of over seventy years.  So it is entirely appropriate that Vidal’s memoir also includes the historical context through facts, numbers, analysis and newspaper headlines, augmented with a component she calls ‘Imagine Being in their Shoes’, these particular sections…

gleaned from the real-time journals of those who perished
and the recollections of those who survived –
offer detail and insight to things
my parents did not tell me,
of the events in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The book concludes with an Affirmation, and there are also photos, a map, a chapter on sources, a bibliography, endnotes and an index.  Different fonts, indentations and text placement indicate changes in the type of text, and the language of each section uses the idiom of the time, often using words used by victims and survivors as found in records and testimonies.  The effect is sometimes disorientating, reminding me of the Jewish Museum in Berlin where the architecture is deliberately designed to replicate the physical experience of being shunted about and not feeling safe anywhere. One lurches from past to present, from the verbosity of officialese to intensely personal poetry, from seemingly bland reportage to family arguments.  But taken together, this collage is deeply humanising.  The people – survivors and victims alike – are intensely alive in this memoir.

This is an excerpt on page 107 (I have done my best to replicate the font and layout):

What if?
Many historians then and now question that perhaps more resistance
and an earlier heroic stance could have translated to lives saved.
The Jews of Poland are variously charged with helping the war effort,
conspiracy in their own extermination, mistreatment of fellow Jews,
mistakenly considering surviving, as they had before,
by sacrifice of some to save the body.

However, each instance is different, only the rule of no rule applies.
One dies by going, another by staying.
One survives by acts of kindness from a gentile; another perishes;
a third survives despite lack of help or betrayal.
The saved report being shot point bank, injured,
made to dig their own graves; for each saved, thousands are murdered.
Each one’s same-different story is individual,
not reducible to archetypal or stereotypical categories.
Until the end of time, many will discuss and debate the what-ifs.

Bear with me.  This is the time space place
where thinking of what is to come – then, and with hatreds today –
I become immobilised.

Dream my Way Back

I don’t even have to close my eyes to see Grandmother Sara.
She leans over to stroke my hair.  Prettier in life than in the photo.
I introduce her to my husband, and my grown children.
Joy sparkles as Sara takes in the jewels …

This image
stays with me
, and,
as each fragment makes a contribution,
this recurring waking vision
helps me to continue.

 Midway through the book, there is an especially poignant moment in Chapter 16, titled ‘All the Family Still Alive’.  It was the 9th of August 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, and aware of the cataclysm about to befall them. it is decided that Basia and Heniek should marry before the Nazi ‘selections’ separate the families.  So they gather together to celebrate the wedding of the young couple.

Everything had been made ready.  No time for proper preparation, no wedding dress or invited guests to mark this celebration.  But this is not an occasion for lamentation.
[…]
And to join them in long life as man and wife, the blessings are sealed with a plain gold band, the mazeltovs resound, toasts are drunk to life, to health, to happiness.
The young couple cling to each other.
Alive in the present.
The whole family.
Still alive. (p.124)

The children of Holocaust survivors are burdened in ways that most of us can’t imagine, but I think we all share a desire that our parents should find peace and contentment.  The post war years were harrowing for Basia and Heniek too, but eventually they were able to settle here in Melbourne and find some enjoyment in life despite the loss of almost their entire family.  Heniek dies aged 77, able to say ‘Let me go – I am happy with my life’ and Basia, whose mental health suffered terribly during the confinement in the bunker, is one day, aged 87, at last able to reconcile herself to tensions within the family and assert:

‘I believe, everyone is just the same. I mean all people.’
She pauses again. ‘There are good ones and bad ones.’
My hands on the wheel, glancing at her, I catch the affirming nod of the head as she agrees with herself. I give her a reassuring smile. She smiles back, her eyes sparkling, pleased with herself. I am pleased with her too.
‘Watch the road,’ she admonishes.
For good measure she adds, as if for the first time,
‘Live and let live.'(p. 202)

Advice worth thinking about…

Author: Sara Rena Vidal
Title: Bella and Chaim, the story of beauty and life
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 9781925272659
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Fishpond Bella and Chaim: The Story of Beauty and Life or direct from Hybrid (where it is also available as an eBook and you can read a generous extract).


Responses

  1. Fascinating review Lisa, the irrational bigotry some people have for Jews astonishes me as they refuse to recognize Holocaust or even teach about it.
    In my region there is tribe who claim to have Jewish descent but now are Muslims they are called Yibir and after Many centuries people still have bigotry towards them.
    After reading this book i hope you discover this book
    For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

  2. The world would be such a better place if we could only live and let live…

  3. Lovely review, Lisa.

    Sara is thrilled – she wrote: “Hi Anna OMGOODNESS – that is brilliant. I could not hope for a more sensitive or better review. Gosh. … How wonderful for us to know that it has indeed been worth it.”

    Regards Anna

    • Well, that is lovely, it is nice to make an author happy!
      As I was reading – and then writing about it, I was conscious of the role of the editor too… it must have been a complicated thing, doing the layout so that the different elements sat nicely as they should without losing the flow of things?

  4. A moving piece. I remember from my childhood my father’s muted stories of his wartime experiences (POW for 4 years) and the horrific sights he witnessed. Too much for him to share, mostly. That monument in Berlin is also very moving – but so are the small bronze plaques in the pavements – the stolperstein mementos of names, often whole families, of Jewish victims of the holocaust and their fates, usually death camps, sometimes escape.

    • Yes … we must find a way of getting through to our young people that it must never happen again.

  5. It appears that Hybrid Publishers have done a wonderful job of keeping the integrity of the work throughout the publishing process. The manuscript was clearly in capable hands and I suspect this is a book that will impact many people deeply.

    • I wonder if when people are doing PhDs in writing, if they study works like this, that are more than the words on the page because they depend to some extent on layout and presentation?

      • There was some inclusion of presentation methods when I studied English Lit. so you would think people doing PhDs would get more of an in-depth view of it all? I hope so.
        And I know it is sometimes difficult for writers to get their editors/publishers to go along with their vision. It is, of course, an added expense but I think the visual is an important component (perhaps even more so in today’s screen-centred environment).

        • I don’t know much about PHDs in writing: I suspect it’s more to do with the research for the novel than it is about exploring innovations in text. Maybe someone reading this who’s done one can set us straight about this?

  6. Sounds really interesting Lisa. I’m constantly surprised by how many new ways writers come up with to talk about the Holocaust (in fiction and non-fiction). I love that they do, because it keeps the issue alive in a way that probably couldn’t happen if the stories were always the same. It’s also interesting to see so many children of Holocaust survivors (or children born during it to parents who survived and emigrated) now writing.

    • Yes, this one is very different to the most recent one I read, The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser. Though with both you sense the ache of not knowing and trying to fill the gaps.

  7. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


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