In a Whisper, Not a Shout

Ida Fink, who died last month, won accolades for writing about the Shoah by focusing on details and dilemmas and shying away from a histrionic national narrative.

When Ida Fink died, this past September 27, Jewish literature lost a great and important author, one whose works were focused solely on the Holocaust. Fink, 90, tackled the subject in a unique way and won her place beside Ka-Tzetnik (Yehiel De-Nur ), Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertesz.

Fink was born in 1921 in Zbaraz, which was then in Poland and is today in Ukraine. Her father was a physician and her mother a mathematics and natural sciences teacher in the local high school. The German invasion during World War II changed her life.

"We used to hide and listen to the sounds to know whether the danger was over," she recalled in an interview. "It was life beside death. In this situation we had to do something. It was too dangerous not to do a thing. The choice was narrow and cruel: to wait for the murderers or to try and save ourselves, to run away, to hide."

On the eve of the liquidation of the Zbaraz ghetto, in 1942, her father used the last of his money to forge Aryan identity papers for Ida and her sister. The two fled, journeying from place to place under assumed names, until they reached Germany posing as simple Polish workers. Her autobiographical novel "The Journey" (published in English in 1992 ) described the physical and emotional journey the two sisters made.

At the end of the war, their father emerged from hiding. He had been taken in by Polish farmers who had been among his patients. He and his two daughters lived in Wroclaw, Poland. Ida married and came to Israel in 1957. That's when she began to write, doing so in Polish.

Eventually, her stories were translated into many languages. She won the Anne Frank Prize (Amsterdam, 1985 ), the Yaakov Buchman Prize (Jerusalem, 1995 ), the Alberto Moravia Prize (Italy, 1996 ), the PEN Club Prize (Poland, 2003 ) and in 2008 the Israel Prize for Literature.

Fink maintained that she remembered everything precisely, but that literary reality is, after all, different from the reality of the real world. Literary writing allows one to obscure and erase.

From the very beginning, as a writer, she was careful not to raise her voice, as it were, not to invent events that she herself had not experienced and not to take on major world issues.

The editor of a Hebrew language publishing house to whom she submitted a manuscript said to her: "Lady, that's not the way to write about the Holocaust. You have to open the window and scream!" But Fink looked at the world through a narrow opening, and she whispered.

David Weinfeld, who translated her works into Hebrew, said her toned-down style was an asset.

"There was no outcry in the stories, no hint of Jewish martyrdom, no settling of historical accounts with the non-Jewish world of those days, or reference to the national significance of the Holocaust," he said. "But they did describe the fate of individuals - the daily, mundane occurrences of people who were not destined to be tragic heroes. It is precisely her restrained style and her focus on micro-history that gained her new generations of readers."

Ida Fink loved Poland's nature and scenery, but did not forget what some people there had done to others. Beside the green forests, the meadows and the wild flowers, pits were dug and in them her kinsmen were shot dead.

The late writer Dan Tsalka saw in her stories an outbreak of a plague created by twisted humanity: a plague of racism and massacres from which no one is spared.

Even after it is over, the nightmares and terror continue to accompany the survivors. The writer described the regular life of young and healthy people who are suddenly gripped by death that does not let go. Their aspirations and dreams become a past that will never return. According to Tsalka, just as in a Greek tragedy, where the horrors are not seen on stage but are told by a runner or a chorus, so in Fink's stories the horrors are only hinted at in a few words and they occur beyond the boundaries of the story.

Over time a concept has emerged whereby one has to write about the Holocaust by way of reporting, documenting and using autobiographical testimony; not a stylish fiction rich in expression but a literature of facts delivered in a thin and accurate manner. And indeed, over the years, diaries, letters and memoirs were being published, even as works of fiction became a rarity.

In an epilogue to one of Fink's works, David Weinfeld asserts that, although she is writing fiction, Fink uses the "testimony" model, which contains an autobiographic mark. Her heroes usually belong to a close family circle: the father, the sister, the aunts, the cousin, the maid. At the same time, though, Fink rarely cites the names of places because she does not consider herself a recorder of events. Writing about a time in which the individual had become an afterthought, Fink deliberately touches on the private and the intimate; out of a convoy of trucks she picks characters with unique features. Some of her characters face difficult and complex dilemmas, but the writer does not judge them.

Fink preferred the short-story form, and she wrote about the literary event in a frugal language, using a minimum of words. A lust for life governs her heroes, who are ready to make every effort to live and survive. But a heavy shadow of death blocks their way, which they struggle against until their strength runs out.

A short story usually highlights one of the main elements in it: a character, a plot or a background, and pushes the other elements aside. The main element in the story is also barely described.

If the focus is on the plot, then there is a straight line of events, and everything is told simply and clearly. It frequently breaks at a sharp and sudden turning point, and the plot changes its direction and progression. Sometimes the shift complicates the plot. It has to be resolved and it brings the story close to its end.

Even though the narrator in a Fink short story has a limited role, it is a significant one, since the story is presented as an eyewitness account, something that strengthens the reader's impression that this is not fiction but actual testimony.

Place and the time are only hinted at. Most of Fink's stories take place in an anonymous small town in eastern Poland, which was occupied in 1941. Immediately, the Nazis arrived and began executing the Jews, shooting them at the edge of mass pits.

The present in her stories is divided between the time of the occupation and the end of the war. There is no way back to the past and the future is shrouded in fog. The time span of the short present is usually only a few hours and at the most a few days.


Dr. Israel Biniaminov was principal of the Ort Singalovski High School and a lecturer in the School of Education at Tel Aviv University.