Telling in Silence

A major Israeli powerhouse tells her story

In the gripping title story of the collection Hold On to the Sun by Michal Govrin (The Feminist Press, $16.95), a scholar of liturgy is haunted by the notion that the Jerusalem streets he traverses are only the fleeting product of his passage, nonexistent before he walks through them and afterwards erased. In the course of a research project, he finds himself in a murky Judaica shop in an ultra-Orthodox enclave. Does the shop truly exist? What matters more is his discovery of an old artifact relating to an obscure, possibly imaginary and probably heretical and dangerous interpretation of the evening prayer, Maariv. Govrin’s story, which reads like the literary progeny of Edgar Allan Poe and the 19th-century halachist Shlomo Ganzfried, links prayer, art, and paganism with the twin human strivings for perpetuity and destruction. It leaves us, and the scholar, at once uplifted and disturbed, and unable to tie it all neatly together.

Michal Govrin was born in Israel just after the State’s establishment to a mother who survived Auschwitz but lost her first family there, a husband and a little boy of eight, Marek. Far from being overwhelmed with the facts of her mother’s tragedy, Govrin pieced it together only through fragmented divulgences. “I learned from her the lesson of telling in silence,” Govrin states in an essay recounting the arduous process of inhabiting her legacy as a second-generation survivor, a journey she calls “obstinate, lonely, and full of contradictions.” Published recently as a translated compilation, her collected short works, including stories, essays and poetry spanning nearly four decades, reveal a fascinating author to whom the unspeakable presents the one worthwhile subject.

The author, who calls Auschwitz “an extreme manifestation of the human soul,” cautions that Holocaust commemoration should not “reiterate a sadistic urge and draw on the same fascination with violence,” does not dedicate herself to literal depictions of a genocidal project. Through Govrin’s essays we learn of the zenerschaft, the extraordinary 10-woman inmate alliance instrumental to the survival of Govrin’s mother, or of the chance encounter on an Israeli bus with a survivor who owes his life to self-compromise. “The End of the Phythia” intones a parable on conscience and chaos, and in a similar vein “The Dance of the Thinker” laments the deathly discipline of life’s interpreters. “Jet Lag” follows a travelling businessman who seems also to be voyaging through critical phases of estrangement from his wife, while “Between Two and Four” observes what happens one day during the Israeli siesta, when an awkward child slips away from her napping parents and into a perilous realm of misinterpretation.

Ranging across a dramatically varied landscape, from lucid memoir to grand myth and psychologically astute fiction, Hold On to the Sun is a beautiful, demanding and unforgettable work that takes on nothing more than the stuff we are made of and what we make of ourselves, both in our most extreme and most ordinary manifestations. 

Naama Goldstein’s first collection of stories, The Place Will Comfort You, was published by Scribner.