It is rare that anyone, in his or her mid-seventies, writes a first book, in a second or third language. Rarer still is that a first book proves to be of lasting worth. In the case of this book and this author, these two rarities are not unrelated.
Elisabeth M. Raab's haunting, terse, and beautiful memoir seeks not to impress the reader with all she has seen or heard of the momentous events of her life, but with what she has seen fit to take away. Wisdom is a threshing, and wisdom literature seems suited to slim volumes.
This is a Holocaust memoir. Most are worth publishing as documents, if only because soon there will be no first-hand testimony about the events. When civil society breaks down, such events remind us that we civilians are, as Thomas Hobbes persuaded the founders of liberalism, always perilously close to a state in which cruel and murderous, nay, monstrous, passions are easily unleashed in the war of all against all. Memoirs of these events form part of the necessary and sobering education of citizens. But which memoir to read?
There is something special about this one. The author tells us in a few, swift, unforgettable chapters, how she went from a pastoral Hungarian life, with a young family, to Auschwitz. She describes her experiences in the death camps, and how it affected her and her friends; she writes unforgettably about her liberation day, and then of a lifetime of unsatisfactory sifting through memory's silty aftermath. There is neither self-pity, nor excessive focus on herself, nor even focus upon herself as special witness.
The Nazi machine was so thorough that no-one, no matter how much virtue he or she possessed, could be guaranteed survival. Yet one sees in Raab the suggestion that her earthy realism may have given her an edge in the rare situations where a victim had room to manoeuvre. This one can detect even by examining her approach to the narrative. Completely original, ferociously disciplined, Raab, eschewing commentary, insists only on telling the facts of the story, so that the readers can come to their own conclusions; history is intuited through the fine details. These facts are the brutal, and, at times, beautiful facts of human nature, as they come to light in the most dire of tests and trials. Raab keeps her focus only on what she has seen. It is as though she has not read any of the historical Holocaust literature, or the theories of why what happened happened. (Indeed, in a brief interview with her for this piece, the reticent Raab confirmed that she did not read any other memoirs or Holocaust materials.) It is as though she has been squirrelled away since the war, preparing to review her memories, which speak louder than all the din around her.
Related to this realism is a kind of self-reliance that emerges about Raab; she is no joiner. As the Nazis move in, her unwillingness to embellish events with her hopes becomes apparent. She, about seventeen years of age, begins to observe how her beloved father, a decorated Hungarian soldier, struggles against accepting the fact that all forms of civility are lost. Raab has already accepted it. There is realism in her bones. It helps her to see what she can and cannot do. Even after the Nazis arrive, while the deportations are being organized, she knows when she can dare to ride the trains without I.D. or her Yellow Star.
Raab's great strength is that she has understood that writing of the Holocaust poses a special task for a writer, just as reading about it poses a special task for the reader. The first task for the writer is getting a reader, for a reader must be in a peculiar frame of mind to want to immerse himself in a tragedy of this magnitude. Without minimizing the horror she experienced, Raab seems to have found a way of sparing the reader the terror and anxiety she feels as she passes into Auschwitz, never quite to come back.
Why should the reader be spared at all? Because this level of horror requires a slow initiation if it is to be assimilated. Understanding the Holocaust is a process, not a single event, for reader and writer alike.
Hence the work begins with a-comparatively-light touch: death. A single one. In peacetime. Raab hears of the death of an older cousin from her past, Nora. She dies in Hungary, years after the war. Nora it turns out was the last person alive to remember Raab's birth, a birth that shows us the refined manners, consideration, and exquisite attention to small details that characterized the charming Hungarian village life into which Raab was born. On hearing the news that a child was born, a gypsy band stopped by her parent's home, and played an admiring serenade outside the window while Raab's father held her up to them to see. The death of Nora, who contained in her memory that old genteel world, seems to trigger in Raab the need to recapture it, and set it down for the readers. She begins to flash back to encounters with Nora, and to her stoicism, the product of the war, fine-tuned under years of Communist rule. Nora's is one of the first of the many human portraits of the different ways the different human types respond to the horrors that unfold. The Nora sequence, and Nora's measured movements, seem to take place in slow time. But Raab finds her last visit too much to bear, for Nora has a way of stirring up Raab's interior life of memories in a way that is too intense for her at the moment. In a way, the book is a working out of the relation between what Nora has stirred up, and Raab's current life in Toronto.
Then, suddenly, with few wasted words, the book descends into the harrowing chapter called "The Narrowing Circle". In one day Raab loses her baby daughter Kati, her parents, her name, her hair, clothes, and last possessions, and her religious faith. The cruel economy of the Nazis, wresting from her, in a few moments, everything that she holds dear, is matched by the economy with which she describes this brutal fate. This is unforgettable writing, and I shall not attempt to convey with quotation out of context the spare majesty with which she describes these events. Only a lifetime of anguished sifting for the right words can produce such a work; only the greatest personal restraint can produce the classical prose that permits a reader to make constructive use of the experiences. The loss of her daughter Kati shook me to the core, though it was simply reported, with no fuss.
Chapter 5, "From the Ashes", is filled with one extraordinary passage after another. One cannot get out of one's mind the images of the three women friends, Raab, Hanna, and Eszter, newly liberated, walking through the silent, empty town, with its haunting empty houses, on their first days of freedom. Their persecutors have taken flight. The three women open the doors of their persecutors' homes, go in, and lie down on empty beds. There is only a kind of crib left for Raab, and she climbs into it for her second sleep since liberation. After some sleep, she is stirred, and opens her eyes, lifting them up to a smiling black American soldier-the first black man she has ever seen. In a moment she realizes that his easy, natural gestures, so without the airs of European men in uniform, represent a new and different kind of human being, with whom she and the world would have to deal. The scene is a portrayal in a microcosm of the macro shift in sympathies and geopolitics that was occurring in the world at large, and that has characterized the world since.
There are many other scenes that capture in microcosm what was happening in the world. Everywhere there are trains-before the war they take Raab on a school trip to Florence and Venice, where Mussolini's white, spectacular new train station is for show; but on a train ride back, German soldiers board, and sitting down beside her begin to intimidate her; later, she dares to ride the trains without identification papers, just before deportation. And of course she is taken in a hermetically sealed train of horror to Auschwitz. At the end of the war, after liberation, the broken-down trains become the objective correlative for all of Europe.
Particularly precious is a sequence in which she and her friends, on liberation, are permitted their first moments of simply enjoying existence: sunbathing in their newly constructed, handmade underwear, not out of any wish to exhibit, but out of a hunger for the sun and life. The whole passage teaches how people who have been shamed seem to lose shame; and how they must go through steps to regain shame, and the modesty that goes with it-the modesty that protects the private self.
This memoir is, as all good memoirs must in some way be, an examination of how memory works. The title of the book tells us that after such losses there is no complete "working through" of the trauma and its memories. Part of the reason that Raab can describe what happened without invoking the terror she felt is that she had to learn to push it away. Over and over she speaks of feeling unreal, and this is, in part, the product of the defence mechanism of dissociation. What Raab doesn't tell the reader explicitly, but becomes apparent in the last lines of the memoir, is that to bring these memories back, and tell them to others requires great overwhelming anguish, which is then packed away, yes, but never too far from the surface. The focus on detail, without the use of interfering emotion or embellishment, which makes the work so powerful, is part of a ferocious discipline. We sense the alternation between a torrent of agony and psychic numbing that is necessary in dealing with such memories. This alternation accounts for the traumatic tone that is pathognomonic of this kind of disclosure.
The nature of trauma accounts in part for the structure of the work. The telling of the horrors of Auschwitz and "The Narrowing Circle" take up only the first chapters. It is in chapters 5 through 12 that the events begin to be digested. Raab circles around her traumas for years before she realizes what she is doing. As she comes back on visits to Hungary, the past seems more real than the present. At times she feels unreal. At the scene of the crimes she realizes that the whole balance of present and past, of perception and memory, has been permanently altered in her. It is not that her judgement is affected. She can always separate the present and the past; but her sense of feeling is at times, understandably, more powerfully attached to the past. What she describes is typical of people who have experienced such traumas-often the survivor walks through life, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years after, with a sense that the present is slightly unreal-a sign of the dissociation that was put in place at the time of the losses.
In her unobtrusive way, though, she shows us how others in her life have responded to similar horrors. Ivan, the criminal, Nathan, the action-oriented Zionists, and the concentration camp survivor who was a singer in Cairo, all respond differently, at least on the surface.
Reading such a work is part of our sobering up, and learning to appreciate what we have. It allows us to gain a perspective about our political institutions, too, which, though not perfect, have thus far spared us the horrors that Europe then faced. It is interesting to know what a woman who lived through so much has to say about Canada. (After the war, Raab in her many travels lived in Quito, Ecuador, and Australia, before settling in Canada.) Raab's appreciation of the virtues of the Wasps of Ontario emerges when she arrives in Toronto. These virtues are often ones that the Wasps of Ontario don't appreciate in themselves; it is hard for people to value what comes most naturally to them, precisely because it does come naturally.
If she feels she has been well-treated in Wasp Ontario, it is not because she has responded to her experiences by merely devaluing Europe. The opening and closing chapters display a great appreciation of aspects of her former European life: a precious simpli-city, a lack of our hurry-sickness, an acuity of observation, and a depth of family feeling that is enviable.
Putting down the book, I had the sense that this would be a wonderful work to introduce young people to the Holocaust. Yet there is another reason for which I recommend it as a teaching document. Raab's greatest virtue is her appreciation of the good despite the bad around her. Appreciation is a stance toward the world, buttressed by faculties that weigh with the greatest care everything in human life for its worth. Nothing is more at odds with our relativistic day and age, which dogmatically asserts that the one thing human beings cannot do is make judgements about what is of lasting worth. Hence nothing is more relevant than a study of appreciation. Appreciation is the stuff not only of wisdom literature, but of a great pair of eyes in the act of observing.
Norman Doidge is the chief editor of Books in Canada.