Notes from the Green Couch

Amir Gutfreund

Israeli writer Amir Gutfreund reads from his new book Our Holocaust.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Amir Gutfreund's Our Holocaust, winner of the 2003 Sapir Prize for Literature, is a story about two generations: the generation of survivors, and their children.

Notes from the Green Couch

Moreover, it is a story of how these two generations coexisted in the Gutfreund family - how Amir's parents exposed their history to their children, and how Amir and his brother Effi reacted.

The Holocaust has always been a part of Gutfreund's life. Even when, as a child, he was unaware of its presence, it was like "transparent vapors waiting for a spark." When that spark finally ignited, and the fires of the Holocaust engulfed young Amir, the truth about his childhood was finally illuminated - it was anything but normal.

The readers of Our Holocaust do not have to wait years, frustrated, for a truth to be revealed. Initially reluctant to read an excerpt in English, the Israeli novelist consults student Shira Goldberg to deliver the opening lines of his book where we are educated in the Law of Compression.

Having nothing to do with science, the Law of Compression states that the first generation of Holocaust survivors - those who bore witness - adopted each other as family. The Grandpa Lolek we meet at the book's onset is not Gutfreund's real grandfather. The Nazis had exterminated his real grandfather, along with almost everyone else in his real family, during the Holocaust.

Thus, Gutfreund's parents created a family. His parent's generation went by aunt and uncle, their offspring by cousin - fragmented pieces of an annihilated generation melding into one family. That is how Gutfreund grew up and, to a different extent, continues to live today. The Holocaust - "It is always there and never there."

The Holocaust was there when Gutfreund's parents refused to throw out food - when his mother took a carton of sour milk her son had rejected and drank it on the spot; when his mother properly cleaned and arranged leftovers to offer to the neighborhood animals. How could his parents ever throw out food after witnessing people eating huts, enduring a starvation none of us could begin to imagine?

The Holocaust was there when Gutfreund's mother ruthlessly exterminated ants. It was an enigma little Amir constantly tried to decipher - 'how could his mother have compassion for every other living creature, but not a tiny innocent ant?' - but knew he was never supposed to ask. Years later, his father explained that he and Effi had no real grandmothers alive, and the answer became clear. How could Gutfreund's mother ever forget being two years old, waking up under her own mother's murdered body - covered in ants?

The Holocaust was there when Gutfreund saw other parents incapable of even touching their own children. Gutfreund and his brother were lucky - their parents were loving and caring; they could laugh and converse and smile with their children. Tragically, a significant amount of second-generation Holocaust survivors grew up much differently. Their parents were overprotective beyond belief and began drowning in their parents' memories from the moment of conception. Their parents had survived physically, but not mentally. Their capacity to raise a family had been killed in the concentration camps along with their own families.

The Holocaust is there when Gutfreund serves in the Israeli Air Force. Contributing his expertise as a mathematician, he has served as an officer for over twenty years because it is his duty to let the children of Israel to be just that - children. He wants to ensure that no child ever has to experience the childhood his father suffered. He wants to ensure that no child ever has to stare down the barrel of a gun waiting for the trigger to be pulled, like his father, only to be saved by a miracle.