Short Stories by Ida Fink, 1996
In Primo Levi 's famed memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, the Italian survivor describes a horrific moment when he breaks off an icicle in order to relieve his parching thirst. When an infuriated guard prevents him from doing so, Levi—understand-ably and plaintively—asks why. The reply he receives lays bare the essential, irremediable insanity of the Holocaust: "Here there are no whys."
Published as Slady in 1996 and in English translation in 1997, Ida Fink's second collection of short stories, Traces (like her earlier A Scrap of Time ) gives no rhyme or reason for the savage treatment of Polish Jews by the occupying Germans during World War II. Fink presents story after story—Chekhovian in their economy, precision, and intensity—that chronicle the lives of people caught up in the maniacally conceived and still inconceivable Final Solution. As in her earlier stories, she writes about ordinary men and women living in the small towns and villages of rural Poland; many are young and heartbreakingly eager for life, as in the first story prophetically titled "The End."
Here a young man and woman, deeply in love, stand on a balcony "although it was the middle of the night and only a few hours kept them from the dawn. Down below lay the dark, empty streets; the trees in the square looked like black tousled heads … and the asphalt, overheated during the day, exhale[d] its steamy breath." The personifications in this opening paragraph are characteristic of Fink's stories. They remind us that everything that is happening is happening to people— we are never permitted to forget that critical human dimension. In this case, the young lovers are sharing their last moments together before the invading German forces arrive. In the end the woman tenderly watches over the man; he is asleep and "lying there defenseless as a child and like a child, unconscious of the evil that had been unleashed." Defenseless, innocent, unprepared: he is a perfect and powerful objective correlative (symbol) for Polish Jewry—indeed for European Jewry as a whole.
So too are the three young girls in "An Afternoon on the Grass," in some ways the most affecting story in the collection. "We were sitting on the grass," the narrator tells us, "Natasha, Masha, and I, beneath a cherry tree heavy with dark, sweet fruit, in a dense sheltered orchard." It is another Chekhovian setting "in a world that has ceased to exist." Two of the girls have been living for a year in a nearby city, but they have returned home, hoping to escape capture by the Nazis. The third girl, Masha, who had not been able to afford leaving home, is now lying on the grass with her friends, begging them to tell her what being on their own was like. One of the girls, the narrator, reportedly had a boyfriend. "Tell me …," Masha asks, "Is it really so beautiful?" When the narrator, embarrassed, ignores the question, Masha—pathetically—explains: "Don't be angry. Please understand, I'm just so sad that … I'll never know … that I'll die without ever …" In this story we are put in excruciating touch with the central horror of the Holocaust, the horror of countless lives destined to end before they have even begun.
Fink's stories have the ring of truth. With rare artistry, she shaped her own experiences (and those of family, friends, and other survivors) into stories that both demonstrate and dramatize how death and daily living proceeded side by side during the dark days of the Holocaust, how normalcy and terror incongruously coexisted, sometimes to humorous effect. For example, in an outlying area of the countryside where the Nazis are slowly but steadily encroaching, a concerned father calls out to his daughter and her friends, sitting outside their cottage on a summer evening: "Aren't the mosquitoes bothering you girls?" We cannot help but share the exasperation—and ironic amusement—of the man's wife when she exclaims, "Mosquitoes, mosquitoes … He's worried about mosquitoes."
Many of the stories in Traces deal with the post-Holocaust period when survivors were struggling to survive their survival. So much had been destroyed, swept away. In the title story, for instance (cast in the form of a one-act play), a woman obsessively continues her search for traces of her lost sister. In "An Address," a man who finally locates the woman he thinks is his wife discovers on meeting her face-to-face that she is only a woman who has the same name. And in "Henry's Sister," a woman, anguished by survivor guilt, is unable to face the sister of her husband who did not survive.
Like her first collection of stories, Traces is so ably translated that we forget that it was not written in English. It also illuminates aspects of the Holocaust that few writers have dealt with, or even had access to. A New York Times reviewer noted, "Fink's vignettes are not properly read in isolation—from one book to another, they form a single fabric." It is the totality of her work—brief but powerful beyond description—that will surely remain a classic and a cornerstone of Holocaust literature as long as Holocaust literature is read, studied, and valued.