Diamonds of the Night (Demanty Noci)

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Short stories by Arnošt Lustig, 1958

Diamonds of the Night, published in 1958 and in English translation in 1986, is a collection of nine short stories. The stories progress to the end of World War II, and, therefore, some of Lustig's most optimistic and humanistic stories appear in this work. The cruelty and savagery of the Nazis, however, is ever present. Several stories are intertwined with memories of the past that are in stark contrast to the occurrences of the present. Unpleasant situations are used not as an excuse for revenge but rather as learning devices. The Germans, as well as the Jews, have suffered losses in the war. Characters are interdependent, and comradeship becomes a necessity of survival. As an old man in "The White Rabbit" relates, "We only live for ourselves, but to do even that, we need others." This indeed rings true in this collection. It is this statement that binds together these works and conveys the stories toward the conclusion of the war.

The stories can be grouped into five different themes: hopelessness/despair, reliance, the old and forgotten, glimpses of humanism, and the end of the war. In "Lemon" hopelessness and despair are represented by a lemon that a young boy named Erwin must procure for his ailing sister. Without it he feels his sister will surely die. The despair felt by Erwin is his realization that he is now the man of the family, his mother relies on him, and his sister is near death, yet he is powerless to change the circumstances. "The Lemon" ranks as one of the most heart-breaking stories in this anthology.

"The Old Ones and Death" and "Last Day of the Fire" relate the fate of the elderly—too weak to work and too much of a burden for the young. In "The Old Ones and Death" even the delousing agent has forgotten about Aaron Shapiro and his dying wife, Markéta. Memories of their past are integrated into the moment of her death. "What is death?" is the question that is pervasive throughout this work. In "Last Day of the Fire" a grandfather must wait for his grandson Chick to return each day. Although the two have never been close, Chick shows his love for the old man in an ironic fashion, by rigging a method of suicide for his grandfather should the fire bombing or the Nazis get too close. Discussion of death is a normal pattern of conversation among the old, but what method they succumb to always keeps the reader on edge in Lustig's stories.

Reliance is the theme tying "The Second Round" and "The White Rabbit" together. Children learn to depend upon one another for survival in these works. "The White Rabbit" is especially symbolic. Young Thomas believes he can give one last glimmer of hope to Flea, a girl who has been institutionalized with brain damage at their camp. He borrows a white rabbit from the camp commandant's hutches. The rabbit represents hope for the girl, but its dark fate is inevitable. It is caged like the camp inhabitants, and like their own, its life will end in an oven.

Humanism makes its breakthrough in "Beginning and End," where young Jiří reveals his belief that the German lieutenant in charge of his group may be a decent sort of fellow. His intuition parallel's that of Lustig, who relied on his own perception of human behavior to determine the goodness or evil of a person in order to survive. Jiří realizes he will never know this lieutenant when he discovers his body in a pile of rubble. Michael's predicament in "Michael and the Other Boy with the Dagger" also takes a humanistic approach. He saves a Hitler Youth's life when he falls. In turn the boy does not blow the whistle on Michael; instead, he turns away, only to fall to his death down a broken ladder. The realization that they both might have been friends had circumstances been different comes too late, but the bridge has at least been crossed.

The war has ended with the last two stories of the anthology: "Black Lion" and "Early in the Morning." Both stories raise the question, "How do we make the Germans suffer as we have?" The answer in "Black Lion" is to let them run or leave them to wonder about their own fate. Not knowing is the worst torture with which the survivors can leave them, and, besides, none of the characters in these stories really want to become Nazis toward the Nazis. "They aren't jumping anymore," relates the old man to the young concentration survivors in "Early in the Morning." As for the Germans, he concludes, "They're not interesting anymore. They lost all their mystery, their secrets."

—Cynthia A. Klíma