Novel by Carl Friedman, 1991
The narrator of Carl Friedman's first novel, Nightfather (1994; Tralievader, 1991), is a young girl whose father is a survivor of the Holocaust. Her child's perspective shapes the novel, which is written in short chapters reminiscent of a child's primer, each focusing on a word or concept. Like a primer, the chapters elaborate on the use of the term, but this is no easy primer. The novel's deceptively simple form throws into stark relief the devastation of the Holocaust and its continued impact on post-Holocaust life.
Nightfather highlights the difficulty of using language to share an experience that is fundamentally beyond comprehension. As many Holocaust writers have noted, the camp had a language all its own, and its vocabulary cannot simply be imported into postwar life. Friedman expresses this impossibility in the very first line of her novel: "He never mentions it by name." The father never names the concentration camps in which he suffered but rather distills them into a single term, "the camp." The book goes on to explore the difficulty of naming experiences that lie, in a profound way, beyond words. Words such as "hunger" and "camp" bear a very different meaning in the context of the Holocaust. This gap between the words (and world) of the father and the words of his children is at the center of the daughter's second-generation experience.
The book begins with the daughter's understanding that what makes her father different from her and her brother is that he has "had camp." "Camp is not so much a place as a condition," the girl explains. "'I've had camp,' he says. That makes him different from us. We've had chicken pox and German measles. And after Simon fell out of a tree, he got a concussion and had to stay in bed for weeks. But we've never had camp." From there the book takes on words such as "heaven" and "stranger" to mark the distance between the father's world and the children's. Nightfather makes it clear that camp is incurable; those who have it will always be different from those who do not.
Nightfather is not primarily about language, however, but about the impact of the Holocaust on the emotional life of the family. The author uses the difficulty of sharing language to foreground the difficulty of the father to share his experiences with his children. The father of Nightfather has been forever changed by the Holocaust, in ways that have also changed his family. This is no avuncular elder, sharing wisdom about life while his children sit on his lap. The father's "wisdom" comes in difficult lessons, brought on by the everyday behavior of his children. His son saying "I'm hungry" brings a lesson about true hunger; his daughter's desire to join the Girl Scouts evokes a story about Hitler Youth. Everyday objects in the house are linked to the Holocaust, like the knife the father made in the camp, which lies in the drawer with the rest of the knives but which is never used. The daughter understands that what makes these objects different is that they have a story to tell.
The daughter understands that this is also what makes her father different from other fathers—he too has a story to tell. Indeed, his story has changed her as well. She may not be able to fully understand her father's words, yet nor can she relate to the sunny experiences of her peers. While the other children in school draw cheerful pictures of pixies, the girl draws a prisoner being hanged. She understands she is different from the other children but sees this as a limitation of their understanding, not her own. When her friend Nellie comments on what a funny father she has, the girl does not know what to say. Nellie "knows nothing about hunger or the SS … She speaks a different language."
That the daughter is not named in Nightfather suggests that there is something about her experience too that is difficult to express. It also emphasizes her role as witness, as someone who is both part of her father's story and outside of it. Nightfather speaks extensively about the father's experiences in the concentration camps, but the novel is equally the story of the daughter. She bears witness not only to her father's history but also to the ways in which the Holocaust has shaped the life of her family, the ways in which the Holocaust reverberates today.
—Rachel N. Baum