Returning to the Past, Regardless of Consequences

Shira Nayman’s debut fiction collection, Awake in the Dark (Scribner, $24.00), took me back to an icy November day in 1996 in a Lithuanian village where some 65,000 Jews had been murdered during WWII. It was a day of memorial and reconciliation. Jewish children and adults joined with those in the village, walking the long walk across a bridge, going first to the Jewish cemetery where kaddish was recited and where the children placed candles at the graves. This ceremony was followed by a service in the Catholic church, where a menorah had been placed on the altar. Later the children danced and sang Hebrew melodies, and later still, in an unheated room, there was a reception. A woman came up to me and I asked her why she had come to this occasion. “Perhaps,” she said, “I too am Jewish and don’t know it.”

Nayman, a clinical psychologist, chronicles the split identities of those raised believing that their lives have taken a certain course, like any of us, but having fragments of memories or disruptions that would say otherwise. In story after story there is this nagging doubt, as if at any moment a small seam could give way and tremors of an impending earthquake open the life wide and put the lie to all that a character believed to be the truth of her existence.

The author uses a narrative structural device that reinforces the sense of these broken identities — sections separated by time, location, and by narrator. For instance, in “The Lamp,” the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Nazi officer alternates between her versions of events and those of her mother. The effect is to place a similar burden upon the reader as exists in the characters of the stories — the need to integrate disparate and traumatic experiences. In “Dark Urgings of the Blood,” a psychiatrist and her patient appear initially as individuated but eventually merge as their histories seem to be identical. The psychiatrist asks: “Is this how a madman feels? Convinced that the impossible parameters of his vision — everything coming together just so, everything filled with threat, and all of it pointed toward me — is the absolute and fundamental truth?” And later, after finally initiating the questioning of her father, she says: “I think about my mother’s principle: No trespassing. I feel a shock of shame… I want to… go back to the unruffled existence I led… to allow my father… to remain in the careful chamber he has made of his life, the past safely sealed away.”

The narrators of these stories dare to cross the forbidden threshold, dare to return to the past regardless of the consequences. These are courageous stories about women who must find a way, once they have unmanned the schizophrenic division of their lives, to reintegrate the parts of their lives. They must face the taboo of breaking apart the parental marriage that has been based on agreed-upon silence about the past, allowing hideous secrets to come streaming out. Whether in breaking through a wall for the hidden message or forcing a lock on a metal box, the stories teach us about the dangers of secrets and the raw courage that it takes to bring the past into the light of the present.

Myra Sklarew is the author of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, most recently The Witness Trees and Lithuania: New & Selected Poems. A research study, Holocaust and the Construction of Memory, is forthcoming from SUNY Press.