Writing the Writers Only Connect

Day Three. I don't want to go soft on you midweek, but I must point out the message I keep hearing in session after session of this festival - and most likely not because participants were given a list of talking points by their handlers from Mishkenot Sha'ananim. One after another, writers declare that they see one of the great goals of literature as creating "empathy," to help readers "step into the shoes" or "into the skin" of another, or be in "their eyes looking out."

Yesterday, this idea was driven home for me in the three sessions I attended: a meeting of Irish novelist Niall Williams with his translator, Shlomit Handelsman; a panel discussion, led by scholar Fania Oz-Salzberger, with three writers who deal with the Holocaust - Israelis Savyon Liebrecht and Amir Gutfreund, and German Hans-Ulrich Treichel; and a conversation between Israeli writer Eli Amir and two men who translate from Hebrew into Arabic, Israeli Arab Naim Araidi and Egyptian journalist Hussein Serag.

It's Amos Oz who says that he sees curiosity as an "ethical quality," and an "antidote to fanaticism." Hussein Serag explained that when fellow Egyptians attack him for translating books by Israelis, and publishing Hebrew literature in October, the Arabic-language magazine in Cairo of which he is deputy editor, he tells them that "even if you see the Israelis as our enemies, you have to get to know them." Serag knows, though, that with understanding comes empathy (often), and with empathy, it's harder to hate. But enough of this sentimentality....

I was startled when Shlomit Handelsman told Niall Williams that reading, and then translating, his 2001 novel, "The Fall of Light," about a family torn apart by the Irish potato famine, reminded her of the reality of her own family - and she is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She said that she "saw it as an epic novel," and so, when she was rendering it into Hebrew, she wrote the author to ask if "it would be okay for me to use a bit of Biblical language." He agreed.

Williams told his audience that his goal in writing "The Fall of Light" was to deal with "the most significant moment in Irish history," the period between 1846 and 1848, when "Ireland's population was halved. There were those who died on the roads, and those who died on their way to America, in what came to be called the coffin ships," only to have their bodies tossed into the sea.

The Irishman, who turns 50 this year, seemed very comfortable being on stage, but he said that in his 25 years as a published writer, he has only attended two or three such events. Why now, to this festival? "I was so surprised to be asked to come, it seemed as if it was out of my power to say yes or no." However, earlier in the session, which was so electrifying that it went on almost a half-hour beyond schedule, Williams, who said several times that he never writes or speaks out on politics ("my interest is in the human story"), spoke about the recent moves that seem to have brought Ireland's civil war to an end. "The 'Troubles' lasted 30 years, my entire childhood. And for most of my life, the idea of reconciliation was completely unimaginable." He calls the turn toward peace an example of "the infiltration of the imagination into politics." Perhaps a desire to deliver that message was another reason he decide to accept the invitation to Jerusalem.

The conversation between Liebrecht, Gutfreund and Treichel was also riveting, principally because, whereas the two Israelis write as the children of Holocaust survivors, the German writes about the suffering endured by his nation - and his parents - during the war years, a subject that all agreed couldn't have been addressed in Germany a generation ago. Treichel, who said that not only did he grow up with no sympathy for his parents or their generation, but that even they "couldn't see themselves as victims" before the 1990s. "They felt an instinctual connection to the criminals, even though my father's family lost their land in Ukraine, and my mother lost her home in Poland." His father, too, never had an opportunity to be a war criminal, as he lost his arm on the Russian front, early in the war.

But those weren't their only losses. Treichel's parents also lost a son after they were expelled from what was to become East Germany during the Russian advance in 1945. They ended up in Westphalia, in West Germany. "My brother had supposedly died in 1945, but he actually was lost," as they fled westward. "The search for him went on for years, but my parents never spoke of it. This shocked me," and this, says Treichel is what led him to write his most well-known book, "Lost," a fictional version of his family's story.

It would be hard not to feel empathy for a family that went through all that.