Daniella in the Lion's Den

In the Israeli collective memory Ka-Tzetnik is a symbol of the Holocaust, but for Daniella De-Nur, he was a father to be reckoned with.

yossi klein
Yossi Klein
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yossi klein
Yossi Klein

In response to the question of what the most difficult moment was, in a lengthy series of such moments, Daniella De-Nur looks into the glass she is holding as though the difficult moment were being fomented there in front of her eyes. Yes, she says, there was such a moment, eight years ago, but she doesn't want to talk about it.

"Things we don't want to talk about" are a basic element in the homes of Holocaust survivors and their offspring. Daniella De-Nur is second generation Holocaust. The long silences in her parents' home taught her that not everything is to be talked about, and "difficult moments" are definitely included. It's not easy to imagine what would constitute a "difficult moment" in the life of a woman whose existence has been studded with such times, a life of moving from one house to another and of an unrelenting, but failed, quest for warmth and love.

She is tired of being just the daughter of Yehiel |De-Nur, better known under his pen name, Ka-Tzetnik. She is 51. With her is Yossi Ribak, a supportive and understanding partner. ("Supportive and understanding?" Daniella De-Nur asks, outraged. "For heaven's sake, find something better than that clich? for this wonderful person"). De-Nur's publishing house is prospering. She is her own person and has no special desire to return to her childhood experiences.

But silences are not powerful enough to expunge an entire period of life. As a girl, Daniella, along with her brother, Lior, knew a father who considered his very existence a public mission that exempted him from burdensome tasks such as fatherhood and livelihood. They sought a father and received an emissary. Yehiel De-Nur was, in his view, a kind of angel from another planet who did not remove his wings when he came home. So filled was he with his sense of mission that even his wife, Nina Asherman, was drawn to him and devoted her life to him. "It was crowded by his side," she said before her death. "Whenever he entered the room, he was accompanied by six million others."

As long as he was alive, Daniella had to cope with the heavy shadow of a tormented father and with the blurring of the line that separates past from present, reality from imagination. De-Nur even treated his name, not as signifying his identity, but as a message. He was born Yehiel Finer, wandered around Europe as Karl Tzetnisky and in Israel became Yehiel De-Nur (his last name meaning in Aramaic "of the fire"). He treated all the names with disdain, as he did his past. He justified his existence with the name Ka-Tzetnik (from the German for concentration camp: Konzentrazionslager, or "KZ") and with the searing memories that name bore. At home he was known as "K."

Yehiel De-Nur saw himself not as a writer, but as a chronicler, a documenter. Yet even his biography is replete with uncertainties. According to one version he was born in 1909, while another sets his date of birth in 1917. In a "curriculum vitae" he wrote: "Ka-Tzetnik 135633 [the number the Nazis tattooed on his arm] was born in Auschwitz, in 1943." The name of his twin sister, who perished in the Holocaust, was Daniella, and he named his daughter after her. From him, Daniella received a ring that belonged to her aunt and vowed never to remove it from her hand.

"There is no proof [documentation] that attests to the existence of an actual sister of Yehiel Finer named Daniella," says Prof. Yechiel Szeintuch, from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has studied De-Nur's writings.

`Snorkel to the world'

Daniella De-Nur is a handsome woman of average height. Her face is square and she has piercing brown-green eyes. Her short hair is fashionably cut and the pastel colors of her clothes are carefully matched. She expresses herself clearly and sharply, and the subjects she "doesn't want to talk about" are precisely demarcated. The offices of her small and successful publishing firm are located in a reconstructed, renovated Tel Aviv building on fashionable Rothschild Avenue. Large windows and high ceilings let the pleasant sun of an early summer day light up a floor made of black and white squares. She says she acquired her aesthetic sense from her grandmother. The determination and tenacity are from her mother, Nina Asherman.

Asherman, according to her husband's autobiographical book "The Confrontation" (1975), read his first book, "Salamandra" (1946), was moved by it and decided to meet with the author. "For a full minute they looked at each other and in that minute she could not find a word to say to him," Ka-Tzetnik describes the meeting of a character based on her with a character based on him. It was an encounter of two different worlds: Nina Asherman, the daughter of a gynecologist, Prof. Joseph Asherman, a pioneer researcher of fertility and sterility, owner of assets and properties, a member of the Israeli aristocracy of the time, fell in love with a refugee who had neither family nor property and who had not yet recovered from the horrors he had endured.

The Asherman family examined the new in-law suspiciously. Malka Asherman had other plans concerning her daughter's future husband: worthier candidates included Chaim Herzog, Lova Eliav and Amos Ben-Gurion, the son of Israel's first prime minister. Nina Asherman, though, with characteristic resolve, wanted to bring deliverance to the refugees of the Holocaust, and the refugee from Sosnowitz seemed to her a successful candidate for redemption.

"She was life and he was death," Daniella De-Nur says of the meeting. "It wasn't a regular, happy relationship. They were two different entities entwined in each other."

The optimistic mother painted the ceiling of the children's room sky-blue with gilded stars; the downcast father did not hug or kiss his children and disappeared for lengthy periods "in order to write." At home, nothing was said about the Holocaust, but there were passionate discussions about current events. Nina Asherman, then a very active and highly articulate society woman, established a "social salon" in her home, whose participants included left-wing figures such as Uri Avnery, Uri Davis, Shalom Cohen and Natan Zach (and because of this she came under the surveillance of the Shin Bet security service). Yehiel De-Nur attended the encounters - and said nothing.

"They were not my friends," he said later, "they were her friends." Subsequently she abandoned all her friends and focused all her initiatives on one person: her husband. And she did so, her daughter says, "at her expense and at the expense of her future." He was haunted by nightmares and "she was his snorkel to the world."

Yehiel De-Nur wrote like a man possessed and burned what he wrote. In his book about De-Nur, Prof. Szeintuch quotes a letter that Ka-Tzetnik wrote to his wife while he was sitting "in the Hadassah garden in the darkness of the night": "... Beloved, ho, I know what you endure when because you have to go every week to Bernstein [from Dvir Publishing House] in order to get the few liras for a livelihood on account of the book that I am now about to burn. I know that under no circumstances will you agree to get help from your parents ... If only you would allow your mother to help you!"

Economic distress? Of a daughter from the Asherman family? Another invention, Daniella De-Nur says, her lips expressing abhorrence. She experienced many forms of distress in her childhood, but economic distress was not one of them.

A rare moment

Nina Asherman may have come from a wealthy bourgeois family, but her house, on Megiddo Street in Tel Aviv, was chaotic, reflecting her scatterbrained character. The mess, though, stopped in the living room, where the atmosphere was solemn and gloomy: a large U-shaped cabinet of books covered the south wall, and Yehiel De-Nur sat in the niche in the center, at a large desk. To his right was a writing stand, which faced the porch and the vista beyond it. As far as is known, it was not there that he wrote his books. Behind his back they called the room "the writer's temple."

In contrast to Nina, who dressed like a Gypsy, her daughter says, Yehiel De-Nur was well-groomed and dapper in appearance. "The height of elegance," his wife said admiringly of his exterior: hair impeccably combed, a matching tie always adorning his light-colored attire. "For a few minutes he could be a courteous, even smiling host," Tom Segev wrote in Haaretz, "but suddenly it was as though he was back in Auschwitz, immersed in an oppressive, pained silence." At home, when he was more Yehiel De-Nur than Ka-Tzetnik, he did not abstain from the small pleasures of life, partaking of them in his singular manner: "He would come home and make himself a steak - only for him. And not just any steak, but a fillet flamb?. Can you imagine anything like that?" the daughter says.

Reality and imagination were blurred and intermixed in the house. The father disappeared or went on lengthy journeys and the mother joined him. The atmosphere at home was not so conducive to raising two small children. Daniella was taken to live with her grandparents, Prof. Asherman and his wife, Malka. Their home, at the corner of Idelson and Bialik streets in Tel Aviv, was an "aristocratic bourgeois home," a straight-angled Bauhaus structure laden with massive furniture ("but in style," Daniella remarks) and thick carpets.

However, Prof. Asherman, too, was busy with work, and his wife found it difficult to raise the little girl. When Daniella was nine, she and her brother Lior, who was a year and a half older, were taken to Kfar Hadasim Youth Village, near Netanya, to see the harvest festival there. "It was magical," she recalls. "The light, the lawns - it was like a fairy tale." When they were asked whether they would like to live there, they both shouted their assent enthusiastically.

It's clear to Daniella today that the visit to Hadasim was a "manipulation," though at the same time, in the mode of compassion and understanding that possess her now, she says, "It was the best solution for us." Daniella and Lior found themselves in a place that was earmarked for "children from broken families, but from good homes," in the language of the time. Hadasim was a "wonderful place," Daniella says, and the separation from their parents that it entailed "was perfectly fine, not in the last painful." She even remembers a moment of rare closeness with her father. He promised her that her pet name, Lali, would remain a secret - "our secret; only you and I will know about it."




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