Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2019

The Storyteller: Selected Stories, by Serge Liberman

I have been reading these stories by Serge Liberman OAM (1942-2017) on and off ever since the book launch last year, but I am clearing the decks of books received for review in 2018 and it’s time to write about some of the most memorable…

‘The Promise’ comes to mind now because it covers similar territory to The Atheist by Achdiat Mihardja, which I read last month.  Both stories involve a fraught discussion about questions of faith between a man and his adult son, and both vividly convey the pain felt by both as the chasm between them widens.  But the context is entirely different.  Hasan in The Atheist is a symbol representing a secular future for a nation emerging from colonialism, but in ‘The Promise’ Shimen  — speaking with his father who perished — represents all those who lost their faith because of the Holocaust.  Distraught that he has been spared when so many others were not, his response to his father’s belief in God’s will is a passionate rebuttal:

‘If that which happens happens by His will, why then did He will it that you, Father, and you, Mother, and you, Shliomi, Soreh, Itzik, Rivke, Yankev and the children — the children, tell me, why the children? — all of you so gifted, so good and so mightily loving of Him, should be taken, and that I be saved instead, the least endowed and the least deserving, who in surviving has come not only to live every day joyless and with heartache, but also to repudiate Him as a fiction, an invention, a fable — and yes, a lie?’

The spectre of his father tells him that a Jew may repudiate God, but will never himself be repudiated. He says that until God’s purpose is known, it is for men to create their own purposes, and it is not too late for Shimon to do so.  But Shimon interrupts his father as he never would have if his father were alive:

‘For me, fifty years ago was already too late’, I say, ‘when I learned that there is none above, nor below, nor in the wings who directs dramas, comedies and farces down here.  There is only us, we as ourselves; mortal men all, some of us wise, others less so, some menschlich [humane], others brutish, some choosing well, others badly, some reaping justly what they have sown, and others shredded and dismembered, not by their own choosing but by the designs that others with names like Amalek**, Haman** and Hitler have cut for them.’ (p.206-7, Amalek and Haman were Biblical enemies of the Israelites)

This altercation reminds me of once reading that there were Jews who believed the Holocaust was another of their Old Testament God’s punishments for sin, and to me it seemed such a terrible thing that as well as all the other horrors of the Holocaust, these believers should think that they deserved it.  One flaw in this otherwise excellent book is that there’s no appendix providing the previous publication of these stories, so I can’t tell when this one was written, but ‘fifty years ago’ suggests about 1995, which makes every day joyless and with heartache even more poignant.

‘Two Years in Exile’ also speaks of the tension between parents and children.  Set in Melbourne when Northcote was on the suburban fringe, Mother finds it a wilderness. 

Five miles from the city’s heart, Mother feels as if she were in a country town, a Siberian sovkhoz, [a Soviet state-owned farm] or a displaced persons’ camp again.  Far away is High Street with its sprawl of shops, offices, arcades and picture theatres.  Further still, a light-year away, there is — she knows — a Jewish face, a Jewish word, a Jewish melody.  But at our end, her very existence is enshrouded in a pall of silence and loneliness, while beyond, past the next crossing, along the dry, cracked and dusty unmade road, stretches an empty nakedness that, for Mother, is worse even than the silence and the loneliness.  And more threatening.  (p.38)

But her son, tormented by a freckled neighbour called Colin, is trying hard to fit in, and he hates it when they move to St Kilda.  They move because he is forced to deny his identity, and his mother fears that betrayal:

‘Don’t ya’ like our Christmas songs, mate?’
[Colin] is over me.  As always.  I lie spreadeagled on my back, the grass beneath cold and moist and unyielding, his knees pressing down, a vice on my outstretched arms, my own legs achieving nothing towards liberation.  His face, freckles and all, scowls.  His nostrils, black pits, flare.  His mouth is a menacing crypt of fillings and carious teeth.
‘We kill Jews, do ya’ know?’
Words are his sole weapon, but the roots of my hair burn, as though he has set me on fire.  The throb in my arms is as nothing against this fire.
‘I am not a Jew.’ (p.43-44)

Both his parents hear this denial, but it’s his mother who is distraught:

‘We must move from here.  See what this wilderness, this wasteland is doing to your son.  Little brothers, blessed sisters.  How have we sinned?  Who is right in this world?  And who is wise? And who is safe?  Chaim to Siberia, Reuven to the gas-chambers, Sonia to America, Shimon to Israel.  Leaves, feathers, scattered and dispersed, while we, silly, blind, pitiful yiddelech [little Jews] sink to the bottom of a barren trough, in exile, without a Yiddish book, a Yiddish word, a Yiddish geist? [spirit](p.45)

There is the same sense of dislocation in ‘Home’: we learn that for a boy home was where the feet ran most freely; home, for Mother, object of hopeless and hungry hankering, was where she had been at her fleetest. But Warsaw as she knew it is gone:

There was no returning to the tumbling of Baroque, Gothic, Classical and Rococo, to the shimmering sun-splintering  Vistula lapping past her house, to the warmth of family and laughter, to the crucible in which contending ideologies and messianisms boiled and fermented and effervesced.  (p.117)

This theme, of children adjusting to a new life while a mother struggles with being isolated from a robust cultural life by language difficulties and a different way of life, also surfaced in Sofija Stefanovic’s memoir Miss Ex-Yugoslavia.  It is a common experience for newcomers in any country, and I think it is especially hard for mothers who see it as their duty to create a new home but don’t feel as if they have one any longer.

This inter-generational tension erupts as a real crisis in a family where the younger generation marries ‘out’, as in Liberman’s ‘Drifting’, though in that story it is the father who is inflexible about his son marrying a non-Jew.  A damaged soul, he uses emotional blackmail to try to sabotage the relationship.  ‘Is this what I lived through Auschwitz for? For my sake, give her up.’ 

The struggle to make sense of the Holocaust —when it was and still is an evil that makes no sense — is a preoccupation in these stories, but it is filtered through different perspectives.  In ‘Words’, Australian-born Nathan, though born of postwar refugees from Poland, is relentless.  He talks about the Holocaust as an abstract event, telling his future mother-in-law that experience when extreme […] can be a narrow-minded teacher.

How deeply the younger man had wounded, Shraga Sztayer never revealed.  But after that he stood back from Nathan Rubin and accepted him — tolerated him — only because Rita , in love with dour intellect, loved him in her way and he, the father, was unable to dissuade her. (p.259)

There’s a universality about these frictions.  Too often we hear that people who’ve suffered should ‘get over it’ and ‘move on’ but Liberman’s insights reveal the cost of ‘moving on’ when your own children don’t understand…

Equally hard is that others ‘move on’ too.  Shraga’s poems are rejected by his publisher because they are too abstract, too remote […] and too sterile.

…listen to me.  Europe, Auschwitz, Siberia — they’re behind us.  The people, yes the people are tired of the same reworked themes.  Your Ashes of Time ten years ago was appropriate.  They were good poems, substantial, sensitive, significant.  But today…’ He paused, then with his hand again cut across whatever Shraga Sztayer was beginning to say.  ‘Our reality today is Australia not Poland, Israel and not the vanished shtetl. [a small European Jewish village or town].  Our problems are of identity, belief, culture, affluence, of children turning away, of parents unable to reach them.  A poet who wants to leave his mark must adapt and respond to change, must progress in the same direction as society.  (p.261)

In articulating these painful issues in a sensitive and compassionate way, there is no doubt that Serge Liberman left his mark…

Posthumously published after Liberman died in 2017, The Storyteller, Selected Stories was completed with the help of friends Alex Skovron and Richard Freadman.

The cover painting is The Esplanade, St Kilda by Herman Pekel.

Author: Serge Liberman
Title: The Storyteller, Selected Stories
Introduction by Alex Skovron
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2018, 432 pages including the glossary of Yiddish words and phrases
ISBN: 9781925272956
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

You can buy the book from Fishpond: The Storyteller: Selected Stories or the Hybrid Publishing website. or good bookshops everywhere.


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