The Tragic Art of Ida Fink

"Kol Hasipurim" ("The Complete Stories") by Ida Fink, translation into Hebrew from Polish and afterword by David Weinfeld, Am Oved, 357 pages, NIS 79.

Dan Tsalka
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Dan Tsalka

"Kol Hasipurim" ("The Complete Stories") by Ida Fink, translation into Hebrew from Polish and afterword by David Weinfeld, Am Oved, 357 pages, NIS 79.

Two queries. Why is Ida Fink loved wherever she goes? Why are people of all ages and origins drawn to her? And, also, why did the reviewer for Kirkus Reviews write: "Few books about the Holocaust are as moving as this one. It seems almost cruel to say, but one hopes Fink has more stories to tell"? Did the ancient Athenian, sitting in his uncomfortable theater, think there was something almost cruel about his expectation of seeing tragedies of betrayal and insane vengeance, of wives, daughters and husbands murdered, of man and beast slaughtered and of the human challenge to the almighty gods?

The first question is perhaps easier to answer. Ida Fink is a beautiful woman. There is something level-headed and calm about her, unthreatening to both men and women. One might guess that she possesses the most beneficial and mysterious of inherited qualities: a hidden happiness, maintained despite everything and intensified by her devotion to her art. When you see her, you remember her stories. And what are the stories about? What is their nature? What, exactly, do they describe?

Fink's stories deal with the unbelievable, with a sudden turmoil seizing the very foundations of the earth, like the outbreak of a plague. This plague is caused not by a higher power, but by a political, military, governmental, racist will, a will that breeds in all that it encounters a methodical carnage, sadism, demonic nihilism, humiliation. The plague is not just a holocaust, but a world war destroying cities and regions. Everyone is tainted by it: some die, some will be killed tomorrow or the next day, some live in constant dread of a brush with the plague. But no one can really be saved: the plague will rule all, and everyone lives in the same great nightmare and will still be gripped by terror when the sickness passes from the land.

The fear and terror ruling the world are usually expressed in Fink's work as they are in Greek tragedy, where atrocities do not take place on stage, but are rather reported by a messenger or a chorus. Most events in her stories occur on the margins - at the edge of time, space, consciousness; on the border of the town, the threshold of the forest, the balcony; in train stations, in visits paid after the fact to streets that lack real existence.

Moment of rupture

I once heard a reading in a Jerusalem auditorium of one of Ida Fink's shortest stories, "The Crazy One": "I have crooked legs, as you can see, and a hump on my back, and I am a meter and a half tall. Children are afraid of my face, but my children were good children, and each morning and evening they kissed me on both cheeks and said: `Good morning, Father, good night, Father.' Have you ever heard, doctor, of such ugly people having such beautiful children?"

So begins this awful, frightening and heartrending story, and yet when the evening was over, people flocked to Fink, who makes appearances and gives interviews only rarely; dozens of people wanted to be close to her, to express love for her. Do they think that this judicious guide, who looks at them with a contemplative smile, who could put the inferno into words - do they think that she will also be able to protect them, in some elusive way?

Many of the stories feature a moment of rupture - "My First End of the World," as one story title puts it. It is not hard to identify with Fink, a girl who grew up in a small town: dreams, music, solitary moments in nature, a first love, an affectionate family, the rhythm of the seasons assuming a kind of pastoral hue that provides safety and perhaps also longs for a tempest. The plague stops everything in its tracks. Fink describes how all ambitions change. Renette apples ripen in the winter. After the harvest they are wrapped in newspaper and stored in the cellar. But the Jewish family does not wrap its apples, instead eating them while they are still green. The Renette apples are robbed of the chance to ripen. Their packaging comes to a permanent halt, along with hopes and dreams. And it is clear what this abrupt halt represents: It is the way in which we feel the approach of death, when there is no time left to take another step, no chance for more love, remedy, change, creation. There is no time to finish reading a beloved novel, no time even for justification, for illusion.

The truth is that Fink's stories describe death itself: "My First End of the World," "The End," "The Threshold" - the rupture means death, after which only a ghost remains to roam the world, a fearful ghost surviving by virtue of its lifetime habits, including bursts of terror and hope, love and loss and the anguish of the flesh. Everything is transformed in the world of the plague. The boy's fear of loneliness will lead him to join the crowd, where he will find his death; love will bring destruction, a paternal desire to teach the rules of the game will cause monstrosity to emerge.

The great and tragic art of Ida Fink requires memory, fragments slowly assembled into a whole. More than other kinds of literature, the resulting form of fiction naturally rejects certain themes, manners of writing, pathos and the revelation of the narrating persona. It is not just a matter of modesty. It is a poetics of asceticism, of abstinence. The stories are sparely and severely constructed. The story resides in a fragile balance. It maneuvers through the accepted poetics of the short story. The extroverted toughness, the incorporation into time and space, the emphasis on tragic gaiety during the plague, the surprise or sublime transcendence of the ending, even originality - all these must be carefully, repeatedly weighed. Indeed, it might be argued that these are not really short stories or scraps of autobiography, but sketches of events caught in the magnetic force of the plague.

Not an exile

"Ida Fink was born in 1921 in Zbaraz in Eastern Poland, part of present-day Ukraine. During the Nazi occupation she lived in a ghetto in her hometown, until she managed to escape to safety using forged Aryan documents. (`Stop blinking. When you blink, everyone can immediately see that you are Jewish,' her sister says to her in the story `The Garden That Floated Away'). She emigrated to Israel in 1957, lives in Tel Aviv and writes in Polish. Something of this kind appears on the back covers of her books, which also list all the prestigious awards she has won. The stories themselves do have temporal markers, the occasional name of a camp, but they never really say where the ghetto was built, what the nearby river was called, or in which forest thousands were swiftly murdered. There is an obvious desire here to create an abstract stage for tragic developments. And perhaps there is also the reluctance of authors, sovereigns of their own worlds, to accept the common names that appear on maps: One writer changed the name of a great battle's location, another renamed a range of mountains. When asked about it, he said that he could not accept the mountain's name for what it was.

Fink avoids mentioning names because she abstains from history, since history can turn a tragedy into an epic. Her own small town, Zbaraz, is not just a town in east Galicia, but a symbol of Polish heroism, a kind of "unfallen" Massada, well-described by an author with a mythic touch, Henryk Sienkiewicz, in his novel "With Fire and Sword." Fire and sword also defined the decades that witnessed Chmielnicki (a tyrant to the Jews, a national hero to the Ukrainians, and a kind of lucky Michael Kolhaas to the Poles), the Turks, the Haidamaks.

An author who finds the well of time appealing would have discovered in a single week of research that even in the 17th century there were places like Zbaraz, whose Jewish population of 3,000 was reduced to 60 under the Nazi occupation. And what amazing connections that author would find! And the celebrated Fortress of Zbaraz, the legendary castle mentioned in a random half-sentence in one of the stories, was it not constructed according to the plan of the great Vincenzo Scamozzi - whose "The Idea of Universal Architecture" was one of two or three books that changed the face of Europe and filled it with marvelous, Palladian structures?

Fink's geographical silence is only one small facet of her abstinence, which also includes the stories' failure to refer directly to the most bizarre of facts - that she is writing in Polish in Tel Aviv, but is not an exile and does not say, as exiles do when they continue to write in their native tongue, that "my language is my homeland." I imagine that Fink's claim would be somewhat similar to the mysterious statement of Marina Tsvetaeva: I am not a Russian poet, I am a poet who writes in Russian.

The delicate tread of abstinence is important, of course, not only for the style and theme of the stories, but for the translation. David Weinfeld's translations over the years manifest the precision and gentleness of a faithful attendant.

Reading Fink's stories, we receive a gift that only art can give us: a kind of riddling hint, an insight welling from the depths of artistic design, telling us that we could be different, that the world might be different, might mean something else. We hear this not in what the stories describe, but in the very art of storytelling. What Fink's book describes begins with "The End" and ends with "The Tenth Man for a Minyan [prayer quorum]" - a story about the horrible return of the survivors, ghostly Lazarus figures, specters shrouded in emptiness.

Sometimes after reading a collection of stories or novel about the Holocaust - a reading that makes demands on us which are not easy to describe - we feel a need to become acquainted with the author's views. And so we go to some literary soiree, we read an interview or an essay. Usually we are disappointed.

Ida Fink hardly ever speaks publicly about the Holocaust. There once was a Hasidic rabbi whose rulings consisted solely of references to his sources. Fink's stories are her references.

Dan Tsalka's "Sefer Ha-Aleph-Bet" ("The Alphabet Book"), published by Hargol, recently won the Sapir Prize for Literature.

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