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The Legacy of the Holocaust: Silencing the Survivor in "Twilight" and "Hayuta's Engagement Party"

Ashanti Henderson

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Ashanti Henderson

The University of Georgia

 

The Legacy of the Holocaust: Silencing the Survivor in "Twilight" and "Hayuta's Engagement Party"

 

This paper examines two short stories by Israeli women, Shulamit Hareven’sTwilight and Savyon Liebrechts Hayutas Engagement Party, as critiques of Zionism and of Israels seeming complicity with the anti-Semitic oppression of the European Jew. These stories reflect the general intolerance for expressions of suffering in Israel that persisted even after the Eichmann trial, leading to the continued stifling of the memories of Holocaust survivors, who were expected to put painful memories behind them in order to assimilate into Israeli society.

 

Shulamith Hareven’s “Twilight” and Savyon Liebrecht’s “Hayuta’s Engagement Party” are short stories that critique Zionist ideals as the basis for the formation of the State of Israel. Israel’s general intolerance for expressions of suffering, deemed counterproductive to the Zionist movement’s push for nation building. These stories suggest that this intolerance toward Holocaust survivors persisted even after the Eichmann trials. While the execution of this Nazi war criminal revived public awareness of the importance of the Holocaust in the creation of the Jewish State, it failed to inspire sympathy for the outward mourning of Holocaust survivors. The protagonists in both stories must deal with their repressed memories that are now surfacing but are silenced by their communities. The narrator of “Twilight” does not deal directly with her grief and is only able to resolve the memories of the past in her dreams. While this unconscious coping mechanism works for her, Grandpa Mendel of “Hayuta’s Engagement Party” feels the need to vocalize his grief, but his words either fall on deaf ears or are curtailed by family members, who view him as a party pooper. In both cases, the expression of grief is seen as something to be left unsaid for fear of rebuke. “Twilight” and “Hayuta’s Engagement Party” suggest that Zionism, by creating a climate in which survivors must suffer in silence, could be a continuation of the oppression the diaspora Jew experienced during the Holocaust. This is seen most clearly in the latter story, which presents a rift between an older generation of Holocaust survivors and a younger generation of unsympathetic Israelis.

            “Twilight” is an example of how Jews silently endured their memories of suffering and their guilt of surviving. The story is ambiguous and never explicitly states that its dream narrative is in fact a Holocaust story. Instead, it oozes implications that the narrator is affected by the Holocaust and is, perhaps, a survivor. In the final paragraph of the story, the narrator awakes from her dream in present-day Israel and observes: “From now on I would find nothing there but the stones of Jerusalem” (11). But the bulk of the story is set in a “twilight” world from the past: the narrator returns in dreams to her hometown, revisiting what seem to be repressed memories of the Holocaust and survivor guilt and grief. In one scene, she helplessly watches “Operation Cauldron,” in which soldiers forcefully herd her opera-going neighbors onto crowded trucks never to return again. She wants “unto death to leap... and be with them. To be taken” (5), a statement that suggests feelings of guilt for escaping the fate of her neighbors, her people. While she herself is never taken, her dream-child goes into the opera square and, sharing the fate of her neighbors, never returns. When she gives birth to this child, she feels as if “a part of [her] had suddenly been separated for all time” (9). Therefore, the loss of this child seems to be partial atonement because she, in a sense, loses part of herself to the tragedy of her dream-past. 

            As another part of her atonement, the narrator of “Twilight” lives out the rest of her blurred, time-warped year in the Hellish city, until “one day [she] knew that time had come full circle: [her] year in the city without light was over...” and her guilt is absolved (9). After her surreal odyssey, she seems to have found peace: “My past was commuted” (11). While the narrator is able to successfully cope with her guilt and can now live without her past haunting her present, the reader wonders about the state of her present, in which her guilt is never addressed. In the her dream-past, “[she requires] no sleep or food in the city of [her] birth, but only speech” (2); food and sleep return to her in the present-day, but her expression of grief has disappeared and seems irrelevant as she has already dealt with it unconsciously in her dreams. This suggests that expression of grief through speech is something vital like sleep or food, yet it is inaccessible to her in her waking life in Israel, which is why she must return to the “city of sorrow” in sleep to address her grief and resolve her guilt.

            Fortunately for the narrator of “Twilight,” she is seemingly able cope with her grief without words, something Grandpa Mendel of “Hayuta’s Engagement Party” is unable to do—growing more vocal about his experiences after staying silent for so long. “Hayuta’s Engagement Party” shows the reality of dealing with survivor guilt in modern-day Israel in a way that differs from “Twilight,” and, considering the fate of Grandpa Mendel, makes the reader wonder if a dream-resolution is the only option the “Twilight” narrator has. After years of repressing his memories of the Holocaust, Grandpa Mendel begins vocally expressing his survivor guilt. He begins: “In the camp, every day two or three people would die in our barracks...” but is quickly reminded that holidays are reserved for “happy things” (86-7). While his daughter is somewhat sympathetic, his grandchildren have little patience for him and claim that he is the cause of their suffering: “We have suffered enough, and we have heard enough. Don’t we have Memorial Day and Holocaust Day and commemorative assembles and what have you? They never let you forget for a minute” (88). This view of Grandpa Mendel’s expression of grief as disruptive to daily life––in a larger sense, the grieving of Holocaust survivors as disruptive to Israeli society–– is troublesome, as noted by Bella, Grandpa Mendel’s daughter, who sees how the younger generation, especially her own daughter Hayuta, treats Bella’s father “like an unwanted object,” which shows the disconnect between Holocaust survivors and native-born Israelis (83). The titular character Hayuta considers her grandfather a disgrace and does everything within her power to silence him in order to make sure he doesn’t “cause the family to irrevocably lose face in front of all their guests” (88) by telling his Holocaust stories during her engagement party. Grandpa Mendel talks, but no one listens, having “[blocked] his stories from the paths to their hearts” (87), effectively shutting him up. Viewing Grandpa Mendel’s family members as reflective of perceptions in Israeli society, “Hayuta’s Engagement Party” seems to be a criticism of Israel as the promise land for all Jews, especially since Holocaust survivors cannot lay their burden down but are expected to silently carry it with them.

            Grandpa Mendel cannot suffer silently any longer, but his family denies him the opportunity to externally express his guilt and grief. Knowing that the speaker of “Twilight” lives in Israel like Grandpa Mendel brings up the issue that, perhaps, she also experiences a lack of sympathy, which forces her to deal with her guilt internally. This suggests that despite state-mandated holidays in remembrance of the Holocaust, on more personal and intimate levels there is little or no space in Israel for Holocaust survivors to openly express their grief. The younger generation’s perception of Holocaust survivors and their personal histories as separate from and irrelevant to Israel is frighteningly similar to the exclusion of the European Jews in Nazi Germany, as a people who were eternal foreigners doomed to wander in search of acceptance like the titular character of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.

            According to Anita Shapira, in the beginning, “Israel presented itself as fighting for the rehabilitation of the Holocaust survivors...representing both the living and destroyed Jewish people” (261). The Zionist movement appropriated the suffering of Holocaust survivors as a way to historically justify the creation of the state, but in reality there was no place for European Jews in Zionist Israeli society on a nationalistic, political, or social level. Many, especially younger generations, disassociated Israeli nationalism from the history of the Holocaust and Jewish diaspora; politically, there were those that made polarizing distinctions between the “heroic, courageous, fighting Israeli” and the “wretched, weak Diaspora Jew” (264); and socially, the silent suffering of those who fought in the War of Independence extended to the Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel. Ironically, a nation supposedly established as “the only place where [Holocaust survivors] would be wanted and able to rehabilitate their lives” became for many a land where European Jews and their diaspora history seemed to be very unwanted in and alienated from Israeli society (261).

            The Eichmann trials seemingly revived a space for Holocaust remembrance in Israel—at least in the public sphere. The ideals of Zionism, however, seem to be the underlying reason that the social exclusion of European Jews persisted despite outward state-initiated displays of having embraced the memory of the Holocaust. Though neither the author of “Twilight” nor of “Hayuta’s Engagement Party” are Holocaust survivors, their works speak to the need for literature that represents the voice of these survivors. In the vein of Pascale Casanova’s depoliticized literature, by writing about the oppression of Holocaust survivors both under the Nazi regime and Israeli Zionism, European Jews are freed “from the hold of the political and national authorities that originally it helped to establish and legitimize” (332) their own identity.

            “Hayuta’s Engagement Party” demonstrates on a more intimate scale the role of the younger generation of Israeli Jews in the continuing oppression and silencing of Holocaust survivors even after the Eichmann trial, while “Twilight” presents dreaming as a solution to dealing with suppressed memories that Holocaust survivors are not able to express freely. The narrator of “Twilight” survives because she is able to work out her guilt silently; she figuratively puts her old European Jew self to rest, coming to terms with her past and embracing her future as an Israeli. In contrast, Grandpa Mendel dies because he is denied free expression of his horrific experiences as a diaspora Jew during the Holocaust because this expression is rejected as counterproductive to national sustainment. In both cases, the voices of the Holocaust survivors are silenced because, in an ironic echo of European antisemitism, they are expected to assimilate to Israeli society or be persecuted.

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Casanova, Pascale. “Literature, Nation, and Politics.” The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature: From the European Enlightenment to the Global Present. Ed. David Damrosch, Natalie Melas, and Mbongiseni Buthelezi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. 329-40. Print.

Hareven, Shulamith. “Twilight.” Twilight and Other Stories. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1992. 1-11. Print.

Liebrecht, Savyon. "Hayuta's Engagement Party." Apples from the Desert: Selected Stories. Trans. Marganit Weinberger-Rotman. New York: Feminist at the City University of New York, 1998. 81-92. Print.

Shapira, Anita. "Nation Building." Israel: A History. Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2012. 260-68. Print.

 
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