Jewels and Ashes

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Memoir by Arnold Zable, 1991

Arnold Zable's Jewels and Ashes is one of several Australian Jewish narratives in which second generation post-Holocaust Australian Jews travel to central or eastern Europe to visit ancestral places destroyed in the Holocaust. Other well-known examples include Mark Baker 's The Fiftieth Gate,Lily Brett 's novel Too Many Men, Andrew Riemer's Inside Outside and The Habsburg Café, and Susan Varga 's Heddy and Me. Riemer and Varga are child survivors whose early childhoods were spent in hiding with parents. In some instances—Baker, Brett, and Varga—parent survivors accompany their children on their journeys to the scenes of wartime catastrophe.

Zable's parents left Bialystok before the war. The families that remained were decimated. Jewels and Ashes recounts what amounts to a spiritual return to Poland, a journey Zable undertakes on his own, but with an imagination fired by parental and other stories. For Zable the world—not least the gone world of eastern European Jewry—is alive with stories, some enchanted, some catastrophic. The book's title alludes to the "elders" who "left a legacy of fragments, a jumble of jewels and ashes, and forests of severed family trees which their children now explore and try somehow to restore."

For the project of restoration Zable employs a nuanced narrative structure comprised of the physical journey, intermittent flashbacks to his childhood, Polish history up to the Holocaust and beyond, personal and metaphysical rumination, and a circular framing configuration whereby the narrative begins and ends with images of his parents. Amid these many currents there is a predominant movement from darkness, confusion, and pain toward intimations of acceptance, harmony, and even peace. The book's final scene recalls a picnic during which the young Arnold finds a dented Ping-Pong ball. His mother delights him by dropping it in boiling water until its spherical shape is restored. But the sense of resolution is always necessarily partial, and it is hard-won: "Perhaps this is how it has always been for descendants of lost families: we search within a tangle of aborted memories, while stumbling towards a mythical home which seems to elude us as it recedes into false turns and dead ends."

Upon arrival at Bialystok he senses the profound doubleness of the place and of the world more generally: "Romance and terror, light and shadow, replicas and originals, hover side by side, seeking reconciliation … yet, somehow, never have I felt so much at peace." Zable is not only a skilled narrator of place but also of those who inhabit places and who invest them with the magic and indestructibility of story. One of several memorable figures in the book is Buklinski, "one of the very last Bialystoker Jews," a survivor, a man of frenetic intensity who "weaves tall stories in a frenzy" before he subsides into tearful recollection of his two years in Auschwitz. Aside from Arnold, the most powerful single human presence in the book is his father, Meier, also a man of great intensity, whose memory "unravels like the scrolls that were paraded on Simchas Torah." It is in large part from his father that the son learns his love of words, of stories; from him, too, he gleans a life trajectory that begins in tumult, loss, and darkness and "moves towards inner balance, an integrity." For Zable, as for so many Jewish writers and thinkers, words bear the power of transcendence; they can summon the inexpressible. His own understatedly poetic style can do this beautifully, as when visiting Auschwitz he notes that:

In recent months I have come to know many levels of silence. It is a language with an extensive vocabulary. There are silences which echo ancestral presences; silences in which it is possible to observe the slightest movement of dust, an insect in hiding, a pod floating from a dandelion with the faintest promise of rebirth; and the awesome silence of forest clearings where mass executions took place against mute backdrops of stunning beauty. Yet here, in the headquarters if the Reich terror network, the vocabulary of silence reaches beyond its own limits. It overwhelms with the sheer force of numbers: and the fact that here, lived and worked a company of technicians and bureaucrats who went about the task of efficiently and quickly annihilating over a million human beings.

There are also stories that can reveal the silence of "perfection and a hint that somewhere, very close, there hovers another realm in which can be found an understanding and acceptance of things that go far beyond mere words." This is a statement of faith, but not of specifically Jewish faith.

Jewels and Ashes 's yearning for restoration reflects a double acknowledgment: an acknowledgment not only that the Holocaust and other catastrophes have happened but also that human potentiality is so much greater than this. Zable's sometimes harrowing memoir is finally an act of affirmation.

—Richard Freadman

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Jewels and Ashes

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