Jona Ober­s­ki; Ralph Man­heim, trans.
  • Review
By – July 1, 2015

Don’t be afraid. Everything’s all right. I’m right here.”

Jona Oberski’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel­la opens with the voice of the young narrator’s moth­er, whose whis­pered assur­ances, waft­ing through the dark in a fore­bod­ing­ly unfa­mil­iar place, imme­di­ate­ly sig­nal to both her son and the read­er that every­thing is not all right; every­thing is not all right at all.

The boy’s moth­er con­tin­ues to explain that they are there by mis­take, a mis­take so com­mon­place and rea­son­able that they can treat their stay as a short vis­it before Dad­dy — who was in the office when the boy and his moth­er were col­lect­ed from their house — can bring them home. They do return, to a series of qui­et vignettes of a child’s life in Ams­ter­dam with World War II loom­ing in the adult world beyond his periph­ery: a bed­time birth­day cel­e­bra­tion, a fer­ry ride, vis­its to hushed offices, anti­se­mit­ic jeers from the grocer’s son, the yel­low patch new­ly sewn to the boy’s coat — Look, now you’ve got a pret­ty star, just like Daddy.”

When the boy’s fam­i­ly is roused by a sol­dier in the mid­dle of the night, they com­ply with cool dig­ni­ty, pre­pared to emi­grate to Pales­tine from the colony of shacks to which they’ve been relo­cat­ed — the same camp in which the boy and his moth­er endured the ear­li­er mis­take.” Hear­ing their name called at an assem­bly fol­low­ing a near­by bomb­ing, the fam­i­ly bun­dles what will fit of their pos­ses­sions into their bed­sheets and crowd into a train car, singing Hatik­vah with their fel­low pas­sen­gers as the loco­mo­tive embarks.

But the next chap­ter opens in the new camp,” not Pales­tine. The boy, small­er than most of the oth­er chil­dren, ambles about Auschwitz as direct­ed, clean­ing” the kitchen pots, fol­low­ing his moth­er on rare, risked vis­its to Dad­dy in the infir­mary, brazen­ly accept­ing dares issued by the old­er chil­dren. Anoth­er train pur­port­ed­ly bound for Pales­tine leaves the boy, his moth­er, and Trude strand­ed on the tracks in uniden­ti­fied woods, sip­ping on boiled net­tles and blind­ly await­ing their fate as the war, some­where beyond, comes to a head.

Oberski’s pro­vok­ing­ly sim­ple writ­ing presents the banal­i­ty of the Holo­caust — not of the evil behind it, but of the trau­ma itself, of the mat­ter-of-fact hope and despair of its most incon­se­quen­tial vic­tims. The struc­ture cap­tures the frag­ment­ed details of a four-year-old’s mem­o­ry: a sequence of dis­parate scenes fit togeth­er in sud­den breaks and splices, rather than the steady, con­tin­u­ous nar­ra­tion of an adult rec­ol­lec­tion. A com­pelling and per­son­al reflec­tion on Child­hood fol­lows the slen­der nov­el in an after­word by Jim Shep­ard, who presents his own close read­ing of the text, illu­mi­nat­ing the devices and trig­gers that make Oberski’s work such a restrained­ly pro­found read.

Relat­ed Content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

Discussion Questions