A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (Skrawek Czasu)

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Short Stories by Ida Fink, 1983

First published in Polish in 1983 and in English in 1987 (revised, 1995), Ida Fink's A Scrap of Time and Other Stories is a remarkable and powerful collection of 22 very short stories. The world she conjures up unveils the pitiless, harrowing world of the Holocaust as it unfolded in Nazi-occupied Poland—day by horrifying day. Here some three-and-a-half million Jewish men, women, and children were slaughtered as part of the Third Reich's Final Solution.

Born in Poland in 1921, Fink is herself a survivor of both the ghetto and of years in hiding. Almost all her stories are autobiographical; they are based either on her own experiences or those of people she knew and talked to. The town in the stories, for example, "is always the same town, the garden is our garden." The dog, Ching, who would not betray the family's hiding place, belonged to Fink's real-life family; the three-year-old in "The Key Game," pathetically practicing how to postpone opening the door for the police until after his father was hidden, was in fact the son of Fink's husband. One should not—and perhaps as we may speculate, cannot make up stories about what happened during the Holocaust. In important ways, it is all unimaginable, inconceivable. One ought to present the Holocaust "in a very authentic manner," she says. "It seems to me that on this theme fantasy is harmful."

This is not to say that she has not used fantasy to make a point, as in the stunningly surrealistic ending to "The Garden That Floated Away." One of the early stories in the collection, it focuses on the time before the mass deportations when Jews were still desperately seeking means of escape. A Jewish doctor "on a warm and peaceful afternoon" in summer, negotiates secretly within the confines of his home office for forged documents that might possibly protect his family. The young narrator sits on the porch steps overlooking two gardens—really the single garden her family has long shared with their non-Jewish friends and neighbors. There is no fence, for they had long ago companionably agreed it "would be an intrusion."

But now, as the narrator overhears their muffled conversation, she realizes that fence or no fence, they are divided: they are in different worlds. The trees on their "Jewish" side are all bare; the family has already eaten the fruit, even when it was green. The neighbors are saying that "we were right to do so, because who knows what would happen to us by winter." Recognizing that "what they were saying was absolutely true," the narrator notes that "the garden of our childhood friend suddenly shuddered, swayed, began to pitch and roll, and slowly, slowly it started to float away, like a huge green ocean liner." Fink uses the garden as an objective correlative, a device whereby an object, a person, event, or situation represents more than itself and thereby elicits an emotional response from the reader. It is Fink's repeated and brilliant use of this device that helps to account for the intensity, economy, and power of her stories. "The Garden That Floated Away" elicits readers' keen disappointment, if not righteous indignation, regarding the sorry role of so many bystanders during the Holocaust, their widespread and ultimate indifference and passivity.

Fink's stories are arranged chronologically within the time frame of the Holocaust years in Poland, beginning with early harassment of Jews to ultimate deportations, disappearances, and death. She never takes us into the world of the camps: we remain outside on the tormented fringes. Later we move into the post-Holocaust period when grief-stricken survivors are obsessively trying to locate their loved ones or at least find out what happened to them. Those who know the worst may nonetheless be driven obsessively to talk about them, even though there are those—like the young girl in "Splinter"—who literally fall asleep when her young boyfriend insists on repeating yet again an account of how his mother, arrested by the Nazis, managed to spirit him away to safety.

Essentially two themes—time and memory—run through this masterful collection; both are introduced in the title story "A Scrap of Time." "I want to talk about a certain time," the narrator-author announces, "not measured in months and years." It is a time she feared had been "crushed and destroyed by regular time." But she tells us, "as I was digging around in the ruins of memory I find it fresh and untouched by forgetfulness." It is the time when people did not talk about days or months but rather about "the first action, or the second, or right before the third." Thus, each of the stories that constitute the collection represents the author's excavation into "the ruins of memory" from which she emerges repeatedly with another incomparable literary resurrection—or restoration—of what has been referred to as "a world that was and is no more." In Fink's remarkable writing, "scraps" of that world are returned to us with such clarity, fidelity, and force as to be—without exception—unforgettable.

—Jacqueline Berke

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A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (Skrawek Czasu)

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