Tehi­la Lieber­man is the author of the short sto­ry col­lec­tion Venus in the After­noon. She is cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing a nov­el enti­tled The Last Holy Man”. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Most of my sto­ries begin with an image or a line that arrives whole and I fol­low it into the dark, as if with a head­lamp and sup­plies for a long trek, seek­ing to illu­mi­nate what lies in front of it, to the sides, or in the way of back sto­ry, behind.

But two sto­ries announced their form first. One of these was Cul de Sac,” which came to me as a theme with sev­er­al vari­a­tions. I imag­ined it as a col­lec­tion of sto­ries that loose­ly shared a theme, only in minia­ture, and envi­sioned these minia­ture nar­ra­tives all woven into one short sto­ry. The rela­tion­ships between the char­ac­ters and the var­i­ous sto­ry lines, which involved betray­al and loss, would emerge with the writ­ing. Instead of bridges or a cho­rus, the pieces would be tied togeth­er in a Coda. I knew this ear­ly on.

The oth­er, Waltz on East 6th Street,” arrived as a Trip­tych and hence its three pan­els. While I knew the gen­er­al ques­tions I want­ed to tack­le, I had no idea at the out­set what each pan­el” would comprise.

Once I accept­ed and grew com­fort­able with the fact that for this sto­ry, the form was an impor­tant ele­ment, there was a much deep­er chal­lenge. I found myself, as I’m sure oth­er writ­ers and artists have, ask­ing myself if I had a right to write this sto­ry, to even touch Holo­caust material.

I am not a child of sur­vivors. I did how­ev­er grow up with many — per­haps a third to a half of my friends were chil­dren of sur­vivors, as were many of our Jew­ish Day School teach­ers. Sixth grade Tal­mud class would cease mid-dis­cus­sion as, with­out any warn­ing, some­thing would sud­den­ly trig­ger our teacher to begin a sto­ry of what he’d endured. Though we bare­ly talked about it amongst our­selves, we all knew there was a pro­found dif­fer­ence between the par­ents of our Amer­i­can born friends and the sur­vivors, and con­se­quent­ly there was a dif­fer­ence between us. 

Those of us born to Amer­i­can par­ents seemed inno­cent, naïve, tab­u­la rasa. Where the stakes were high in terms of how we did in school, which spouse or pro­fes­sion we chose, it was clear that they were not quite as high as for our friends who were chil­dren of sur­vivors. The Holo­caust was extreme­ly present in our Day School edu­ca­tion, from the guest speak­ers to the many films we were shown from the ear­ly grades on. And so it would seem that there was noth­ing left to won­der about. But there was every­thing to won­der about.

Except in the case of our sixth grade teacher, it was in whis­pers and innu­en­do that we learned of peo­ple’s his­to­ries. And one nev­er knew where the ker­nels of truth lay. The true sto­ries of the peo­ple around us were not always dis­cussed. We might know some salient detail: So and so can nev­er eat blend­ed food because of the rations in the camps” or so and so was the sole sur­vivor in his family.”

It was lat­er, when I read books by sur­vivors them­selves, Ilona Karmel’s An Estate of Mem­ory and books by Pri­mo Levi, that the details began to take shape, and as any writer or read­er knows, it is the details that bring a sto­ry to life.

It was when those details became vivid that a ques­tion began to take shape for me in a new way: How did one sur­vive? And I don’t mean the logis­tics or details of what they might have had to do to sur­vive — which was, to my mind, quite beyond my abil­i­ty or right to judge, but rather how did the spir­it sur­vive in the face of such mul­ti­ple trau­ma? And then an asso­ci­at­ed ques­tion — Did we have a right to ask our ques­tions? Did sur­vivors who chose to remain silent not have a right to their silence? Did we want to risk an unrav­el­ing of the very weave that enabled them to continue?

These are the ques­tions that ani­mate Waltz on East Sixth Street.”

As writ­ers we often don’t know what we know until it’s on the page. Sim­i­lar­ly it was only when look­ing back at this sto­ry and at Cul de Sac,” that I under­stood that, of all my sto­ries, per­haps it was these two that had declared their form first because the mate­r­i­al they con­tained was so painful, I had to be sure of its con­tain­ment before I could begin.

Vis­it Tehi­la’s offi­cial web­site here.

Tehi­la Lieber­man has received the Kather­ine Anne Porter Short Fic­tion Prize, the Stan­ley Elkin Memo­r­i­al Prize, and the Rick DiMari­nis Short Fic­tion Prize and her fic­tion has appeared in many lit­er­ary jour­nals. Her non-fic­tion has appeared on Salon​.com, and in Israel’s Eretz Acheret. The daugh­ter of an Ashke­naz­ic Rab­bi in a Sephardic con­gre­ga­tion, Lieber­man often explores a wide range of worlds and themes.