The voice of the lost generations of Berlin and Hebron
Elyakim Haetzni met Naomi Frenkel in 1983 on the hill at Kiryat Arba. She had left Kibbutz Alfa a few years earlier and was well-known as a writer. She told Haetzi, one of the founders of Kiryat Arba, that her inspiration in Tel Aviv had dried up. "She could no longer draw from there," he says. "The only place where the atmosphere suited her was here. She looked for a way to be renewed and found it over the Green Line. She was looking for a source of energy and found it in Hebron and Kiryat Arba." Ever since, he adds, she was ostracized by friends and boycotted, and even the attitude toward her work suddenly changed. "Whatever she wrote after that, it was as if it did not exist."
Naomi Frenkel died on Friday, at the age of 91, after a life of numerous passages. But the turnaround most associated with her was the move from the leftist Hashomer Hatzair movement to Hebron, from the socialist left to the extreme right and an impassioned belief in the settlement enterprise.
Frenkel was born in 1918 in Berlin to an assimilated Jewish family of textile manufacturers. Her father was an officer in the German army, and her mother died when Naomi was just two. He father died and in 1933, after the Nazi rise to power, she was sent alone to Palestine. She joined Hashomer Hatzair and volunteered for the Palmach, fighting in the War of Independence. "I both fired and killed," she said in an interview a decade ago with Haaretz. Later she joined Kibbutz Beit Alfa, which is affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair.
After the establishment of the state, she began writing her magnum opus "Saul and Joanna" ("Shaul Veyohanna"), which was published as a trilogy, starting from 1957. "They make it possible for me to work on the kibbutz three days and to write three days," she said in a 1963 interview, adding that "it is a blessing to be a writer in a kibbutz framework."
"Saul and Joanna" tells of several generations in a Jewish family in Germany before the Holocaust. Frenkel said it resembled events that had happened to her family. It was one of the first literary works to deal with the Jews of Germany and was enthusiastically received.
"At the start of the book, I describe a bench and everyone says that is exactly how a bench looks in Berlin," she related. "But I intended to describe a bench I had seen on the Tel Aviv beach front... The bench was, for me, a kind of symbol of my generation, a generation born during the crisis in the aftermath of World War I and that grew up in the crisis of the 1920s and 1930s and was already conscripted at the age of 14 or 15. We were a generation without a home."
Frenkel described the social atmosphere in Berlin on the eve of the Nazi rise to power and some Nazi figures. She went to Germany in the 1950s and spoke to Germans about their Nazi past. "I did not have the strength to describe a Nazi type [until] I met Germans with whom I had been friendly in my youth, who did not deny they had belonged to the Nazi movement," she said. "Of course, they weren't anti-Semites... Only there did I understand the emotional makeup of the Nazi."
One of her best girlfriends from her youth told her that "now she understands what Hitler did and what a price the German people paid, but she had never been as happy as she was during that period. Many Germans see the golden age of their lives expressly in the Hitler days."
"Shaul and Joanna" won critical acclaim. Haaretz columnist Baruch Kurzweil praised it. Some found fault with the psychological characterization of the characters.
Frenkel was the center of literary attention when he family saga came out," says critic and editor Gavriel Moked, but she was "stylistically conservative." The realistic fiction of the Palmach generation pushed aside other streams, and she was "squeezed out," he says.
In 1969, Frenkel edited the autobiography of Meir Har-Zion of the famous 101 reconnaissance unit in the Israel Defense Forces. A short while earlier, her husband, Yisrael Rosenzweig, had died. That was when she began to distance herself from the left and the kibbutzim.
At 41, she left the kibbutz and signed up for the army to document the actions of the naval commandos during the War of Attrition. As part of her job, she wrote a report on the staff discussions during the Yom Kippur War. Later, she said, the report gave a picture of "a nation eaten by destruction and rotting." She described Golda Meir as "an old woman who did not understand a thing about military affairs" and Moshe Dayan as "one of the most corrupt people in the State of Israel."
When she was released from the army with the rank of major about a decade later, she felt she must change her life. In 1982, she went to live in Kiryat Arba and grew closer to religion.
"I think that a very difficult thing happened to the Jewish people in this land," she said in an interview with Dalia Karpel. "This secular state will not exist for long. I don't believe in it. I see how it is gradually being destroyed." However, she praised the settlers and their way of life as a model society. "I have not heard gossip from a woman for a decade nor have I heard an unkind word. It is anathema to them," she said of the settler women in Hebron.
In 1988, during the first intifada, Frenkel said at a conference of women settlers that "the Arab women and children have turned into weapons against us and therefore must be treated not as women and children but rather as people who have come to kill us."
Frenkel also said there were people in Israel who were continuing the Nazi enterprise. "The Nazis murdered Judaism as a value, as a philosophical concept, and we are continuing this work," she said.
Frenkel described her feeling toward Hebron in mystical terms, as a covenant similar to the covenant between God and Noah. "I returned to stand again opposite the destroyed houses, and everything was different, and I was calm," she wrote. "My spirit and soul were alight and the spark that began to be kindled in me was stronger than any fear. I had the good fortune to enjoy a moment of purity that will not fade. The light of the sun broke through the mists of the heat wave and seemed to me to be a rainbow in the clouds and a sign of the covenant between Hebron and me."
She drew a parallel between rioting against the Jews of Hebron and the Nazis. "Then suddenly I heard the stomping of boots hitting the stones step by step," she wrote. "A song I had long forgotten came back to me: 'If the knife splashes Jewish blood/Germany will be redeemed in blood!' The sounds of the song in my heart are of the Jewish voices that were slain here... I knew that the fear had not dissipated, it continues to exist and has accompanied me from my childhood in Berlin to Hebron in the land of Judah."
Her first years in Kiryat Arba, Frenkel did not publish. "Barkai" appeared in 1999, focusing on Marranos in Spain at the time of King Ferdinand. Her novel "Farewell" in 2003 describes the history of the Jewish settlement in Hebron. Haetzni calls it "a fantastic enterprise in which she preserved Jewish Hebron until the 1929 pogrom and the annihilation of this community."
Says Haetzni: "After all, no one else has written about the life in the old settlement that existed even before Zionism. She went to every single person who survived, and collected the folklore and the way of life." Had she not gathered this information and put it in her book, it would have been lost forever, he says.
Haetzni attributes the change in Frenkel's life mainly to the experiences of the Yom Kippur war, which she saw from close up and left her bitter about the feebleness of our existence. Frenkel did not have good things to say about kibbutz society. "She said her personality was not built for so much cooperative living. This grew stronger when she married Yisrael Rosenzweig, who was opposed to Marxism and was attacked because of that. There was a real Bolshevik totalitarian regime there after all," says Haetzni Naomi Frenkel asked to be buried at Kibbutz Beit Alfa, next to Rosenzweig, even though she remarried. Haetzni adds: "Rosenzweig was her great love and her heart's darling. She wanted to be buried alongside him."