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THE JOURNEY (Podróż)

Novel by Ida Fink, 1990

Ida Fink's novel Podróż first appeared in Polish in 1990. It was published in English translation as The Journey in 1992. Like her earlier collected stories, A Scrap of Time, it is set against the Holocaust and is so deeply rooted in her own personal experiences that it might just as easily be viewed as a memoir. It deals centrally with her escape, along with her sister, from the Nazi death machine. It is her physician father who realizes in 1942 that the only way to save his two grown daughters from the Germans' increasingly frequent and brutal roundups is to obtain false identity cards and working papers for them so that they can leave Poland and travel into Germany as volunteer laborers.

Pretending to be two young peasant girls, they dress up in "old winter coats … cinched with rawhide belts to make them look more peasant like," topped off with the most telling accessory, beautiful kerchiefs for their hair decorated in a popular pattern of "roses blooming among green leaves." Noting with satisfaction that she is a blond (her sister's "Jewish" dark hair is a constant source of anxiety), she is nonetheless concerned about her own appearance. Repeating to herself her brother's observation that "the craziest plans have the greatest chance of succeeding," she sets out with her sister on their journey, a "harrowing odyssey, as the New Yorker reviewer described it, which "has the quality of a fox hunt seen through the eyes of the fox."

The narrator's real name is never given, although we learn three different names that each sister assumes during their flight. From the outset, she realizes that only through "cleverness and luck" will they be able to survive—to deal with informers and blackmailers along the way who either recognize them from their hometown or who suspect they are Jewish and threaten to turn them in to the Gestapo. Wherever they go, they are aware, chillingly, that they are in enemy territory. At a stopover in Lvov, for example, a cabdriver calls their attention to a column of emaciated figures inching their way along a rainy street; they are probably prisoners, the narrator guesses, from a nearby detention or concentration camp. Pointing toward them, the cabdriver, a callous bystander, tells the sisters, "Look, the Yids are marching."

Once they arrive at the Ruhr Valley munitions factory to which they have been assigned, the sisters settle into a routine in the ironworks shop. They live in an adjoining camp barracks with a hundred other Polish-German girls who are also labor volunteers. Working under the German commandant of the camp, Johan Schmidt, the sisters must be ever vigilant to maintain their disguise as Christian peasant girls, fresh from the countryside, passive, a bit slow-witted. Even though they are ever on guard, they fall under suspicion, along with five other Jewish girls who are also in hiding. Betrayal is likely, if not for the reward, then simply for the satisfaction of their fellow workers. Even the youngest member of the volunteers, thirteen-year-old Anya, sighs with relief when the narrator denies the rumor that she is Jewish. "It would be such a pity," says Anya. "I don't like Jews." Recognizing that "only a fraction of a second separated us from the word 'Jew,"' and that at any moment they might be denounced, the narrator considers whether to try to bribe Schmidt or try to escape.

As it turns out, Schmidt has a spark of decency. After agreeing to help out a girl he has been sleeping with, he agrees to help the others as well by pretending he doesn't see them escaping. He even reminds them that their train will depart at seven: "You can still make it." It is a rare and unexpected act of kindness which leaves them "speechless with amazement," especially after he adds "You're a brave bunch … a brave bunch …"

On the final lap of their journey the sisters, still disguised as Aryan "country girls," are able to settle into farm labor for five months. Again they escape in order to travel south to Cologne, Bonn, Frankfurt, and Heidelberg—always in short segments since longer trips would require them to show identification. When the war is finally over, the sisters return to the city where their father, who has somehow survived on his own, is still living. Marvelously and miraculously, they return together "just as they had left together."

We travel with them through landscapes depicted in such rich and compelling detail that they become an integral part of the story. The natural world is always a presence hovering in the background—benignly indifferent to their suffering, as they sadly observe, but nonetheless comforting in its beauty and constancy. Indeed, at the end the narrator tells us that it is only the natural landscapes that she recalls: "the darkness of the autumn night, the gusting wind, the rustle of trees in the alley … the wide plain opening up before us." This is a tense and powerful novel, a tale of terror—as any work about the Holocaust must be—that is mitigated only by the tenderness of the telling and the humanity and rare artistry of the teller.

—Jacqueline Berke

The Journey (Podróz)

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