Review: Day After Night

Unholy welcome to the Holy Land


By Anita Diamant
Simon & Schuster, £12.99

‘In order to live we must annihilate the past” says Shoah survivor Zorah in Anita Diamant’s new novel. Diamant devotees may note the irony of a character flouting her creator’s literary raison d’etre — the recreation of lost history, especially as it pertains to strong Jewish women. In The Red Tent, her best-selling epic of Dinah, Diamant conjured up a completely credible, biblical world of desert wanderings, fertility and betrayals, passions and pomegranates. She now fast-forwards to Palestine 1945, where four very different — achingly young — women struggle to harness hope after the Holocaust.

Suffering, survivor guilt, and secrets they cannot share, unite Zorah, Tedi, Shayndel and Leonie in Atlit internment camp. It is a grim welcome they find in the chaos that was then the Mandate: the barbed wire compound, barrack dormitories and showers are redolent of recent terrors.

Diamant excels at giving voice to the silenced, to girls who, beneath their victim frailties, conceal the strength of several Samsons and sometimes the sensuality of Lilith.

In their brave new non-European world, the girls regroup, despite finding that “so many words have come adrift from their old meaning”— “oven” once conjured up images of cake, roast chicken and warming bread, but is now synonymous with death.

Tedi — tall and blonde enough to be a “poster girl for the Hitler youth” hid out the war on a Dutch farm and escaped a death train to Auschwitz. Not so Zorah, who is too embittered to pray and enraged by promptings to learn the Hebrew for bougainvillea as though Buchenwald never happened. Leonie’s unspeakable war played out under a pink satin coverlet in Paris, where she was forced into prostitution. Polish Zionist Shayndel shrugs off her partisan heroics, and insists that she will never pick up a machine gun again “not even for the Jewish state.”

Day After Night is a snapshot of time and enclosed place. A girl from a new group of detainees recognises her childhood sweetheart through the fence. They fall into each other’s arms and the camp commandant declares a party. Zorah is redeemed by an unsanctioned mitzvah to a makeshift mamma and the boy she would raise as her own.

But the wider world also intrudes: Palmach and Haganah are muscling up, anti-Arab sentiments simmer and a sinister enemy within receives summary judgment.

Diamant leaves the four friends writing the first blank page of their future, now newly aware that the bittersweet past will — and must always — remain between the lines.

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