Star Eternal (Kokhav Ha-Efer)

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STAR ETERNAL (Kokhav ha-efer)

Novel by Ka-Tzetnik 135633, 1966

In different ways Star Eternal (1971; Kokhav ha-efer, 1966) by Ka-Tzetnik 135633 is a remarkable, seminal achievement in the Holocaust canon. At once a disturbing and edifying work, it depicts in vivid, yet simple and direct detail the unspeakable horrors of concentration camp existence and functions as a summum of Ka-Tzetnik's thematic template. Above all, it describes the gruesome events of the Final Solution in a pared-down, staccato style and language that tangibly pierces the thick, impenetrable wall erected by readers that often prevents any cognitive or emotional engagement. Put simply, the novel arouses and extracts a deep chill of empathy and shock from the spectator and in the process opens a window for the younger generation so as to allow them to connect with the world being described.

Star Eternal possesses a mimetic surface clarity that is aided and abetted by the brevity of the basic Hebrew, pruned of metaphor and hyperbole. It is laconic, trimmed, and controlled, and the effect is so natural that the bewildered reader is increasingly unaware of how much detail is being described. Admittedly, the conflation of razor-sharp sentences with fragmented descriptions underscores the author's desire to reflect the crushed, disjointed reality that is outside any normative framework and that does not fit into a logical, coherent mold. Likewise, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the message foisted upon the audience is that here is a perverted reality, stripped bare of the conventional constituents of time and space and that the monastic verbal representation is in consonance with the unthinkable reality.

The novel was originally published in 1960 in Hebrew under the title Ha-shaon ("The Clock"), and it is small wonder that the central operating motif informing the narrative is one of time, more specifically, the parallel time frames of normal Europe, where people live a typical, ordinary life, and "planet Auschwitz," where Jews suffer terror and inhumanity. In construction the book is made up of a series of jarring, loosely coupled episodes, which the author terms "stages." Each chapter is self-contained, encasing within its midst a separate title and story line, and pivots around disparate threads of camp living, leavened for the most part by a welter of jolts, gnomic words, and twists.

Bookended by a prologue and an epilogue, Star Eternal begins in the narrator's eerily quiet street, bathed in the searing heat of the sun and featuring a boulevard of display windows. The author adumbrates the tranquillity of the place, heightened by snippets of banality peppered throughout the opening pages, and then quickly dismantles it when the intensity of the date is revealed: 9 September 1939, the day on which Hitler's army marched into Poland, marking the start of World War II. Even more starkly, the city's electric clock is in synchronicity with the unfolding of events; its hands rest on 9 a.m. And thus we have an application of a direct and realistic portraiture devoted to the profound and sober chronicling of a specific place and time, setting down a visage of the "other planet," to borrow from Ka-Tzetnik once more, in precise detail and lineament.

After the hero, Ferber, is taken to Auschwitz, the narrative lens zeros in on this world with uncompromising eyes, capturing with perfectly modulated metrics the indigestible tableau, the images of annihilation, and the doing of evil that defies description. With a raw filmic gaze the author, possessing a strong grip on his material, leads the reader into the vortex of Auschwitz, into the black hole, condensing into a few passages the feeling of omnipresent death. Because the narrative is written in the second person, the reader is addressed openly and is thus positioned to see the inmate's world and is co-opted into participating in an experience from which, by reason of distance, he was explicitly excluded. In other words, the reader is positioned to adopt and comply with the mood, vulnerability, and torment the shaping of the plot seeks to present.

There are moments of uninhibited, infernal magnitude. In one episode we step into the "showers," surrounded by the bony, living dead, and stare into the sprinklers above our heads in anticipation of the stream of Zyklon B, which will spurt the blue gas into our lungs. If anything, the unflagging pace, the leaping from one visceral episode of agonizing torture to another, the repeated catalog of atrocities presented in explicit specificity are all chokingly disturbing. One need only consider a sequence in which a group throws itself at the ground to lick the remains of some spilled soup, one person's teeth biting into another, to understand the reduction of the human condition to its most basic level.

And still, in the midst of the machinery of death, a note of optimism for the future can be drawn from a striking theological conversation between Ferber and the rabbi of Shilev titled "The Last Debate." At one point Ferber ponders the question of the Jewish people's destiny, asking the rabbi why God has deserted his children and delivered them into the hands of the beast. In response the rabbi states that out of the ruins and ashes of the night the nation of Israel will arise in the promised land with its eternal star brightly shining. On the face of it, this is a false hope. Yet for the hero it is a nourishing vision: "Light of full understanding flashed within Ferber; his brothers there, in the land of Israel! Revelation bared itself to him. For a split second only. Round about him all was distillate, pure. No longer did he feel himself in his own skeleton. At that moment he was utterly oblivious to his body's existence. The Rabbi's eyes were like two open gates."

At the novel's conclusion, when the main protagonist returns from Auschwitz to his hometown of Metropoli, the clock has not stood still but is still running, but this time it is a changed world he encounters. A compendium of the devastating effects of the camp is supplied in the text's concluding lines. Here Ferber pleads that one hair of his sister's golden locks be returned, along with one of his father's shoes, one wheel of his brother's bicycle, and one speck from his mother's back.

—Dvir Abramovich