This exact phrase is one my mom reads to my sister and I every Shabbat; we know and recite it by heart. I always craved to see it written somewhere as an opening quote, so this was like a personal wish coming true.
I started the first chapter with the tiniest of hesitation. I was thinking back on how impressed I was by the epigraph, and even the prologue captivated me, so surely the first chapter will be the hindrance. But as I read on, it’s to uncover an enchanting storyteller in Anita Diamant. It’s reading a book, knowing that you surely won’t regret doing so. It’s ending a chapter only to want more. This is an author who knows the power her writing holds and how to wield her magic pen. What a journey this book took me on.
Day After Night is based on the extraordinary true story of the October 1945 rescue of more than 200 prisoners from the Atlit internment camp – a prison for illegal immigrants run by the British military near the Mediterranean coast north of Haifa. The story is told through the eyes of four young women at the camp.
It’s the first book in a while that made me excited to read it during the week, stealing time here and there to dive in, instead of settling for a binge-read on Shabbat. Something about that epigraph and that masterful character building on the very first page (pictured below) made me stand still and reappraise what I was getting into. Rounded characterization on page one means: nightmares we can only imagine. They hold so much sorrow in their young lives already. The “military-issue pillows that smell of disinfectant” that are the bare-minimum when compared to what they had growing up, but after all they’ve been through it’s a luxury. Set against the unmoving background of Atlit’s Detainee Camp ruled by the British military, this is a part in European Jewish history I personally hadn’t known of before.
“Everyone who is locked up in Atlit waits for an answer to the same questions: When will I get out of here? When will the past be over?”
I like reading historical fiction for the simple act of being educated on a topic completely unheard of before through a story. It humanizes history and makes me remember details long afterward. Like with Sarit Yishai-Levi’s The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, which delivered both on the historic events of those that tried to detain Jews from coming into Israel, as well as the many romances that still have me worked up. So much of the time period before the founding of the state of Israel holds me enthralled. I recently watched the 2017 film An Israeli Love Story that tackled similar issues in that time frame while residing on the kibbutz.
Following four young women, Day After Night starts with introspective and self-aware Tedi Pastore, who craves nothing more than to assimilate and forget all her horrible memories as soon as her brain lets up, though those memories will sneak up on you as soon as you let your defenses down. My heart connected to her instantly with her quiet nature and this brilliant phrase:
“She wondered if she could fill her head with enough Hebrew to crowd out her native Dutch.”
Yes; though when Dutch peaks its way back into your life down the road (sooner than you’d like), it’ll come flooding back. I feel this so deeply.
We leave her to follow Zorah Weitz, who’s quite the opposite with her scorn and quiet rage at her surroundings. So much of her anger is just, obviously, but because we arrive into her chapter coming from Tedi’s point of view, it became quite jarring to experience such a different tough-to-crack perspective. It became interesting to see how the author would weave their stories together to make Zorah a more multidimensional character. I never doubted for a minute that she wouldn’t succeed. Any author that can character build on the very first page of the first chapter has my full trust.
“She knew they were reluctant to tell their own stories because all of them began and ended with the same horrible question: Why was I spared?”
And Shayndel and Leonie whose specialties include daydreaming and people-watching. They invent stories in their head to escape from their current reality and remain sane under the heinous circumstances thrown their way. They grow close and cling onto each other as people that go through wartime experiences only can.
It’s interesting then to connect and reflect on their stories of coming to Israel to my own Aliyah and how I was more of a Zorah at the very beginning (this realization occurred while writing made me far more forgiving when reading her harsh words after): I felt so helpless with my surroundings and how these circumstances I was in weren’t even of my choice. There was just so much (too much) anger pent-up that I feel so sorry looking back to ten-year-old me. And so came the gradual change of coming to terms with your reality and quietly turning into a Tedi with wanting to forget as quickly as possible all the good and the bad on the tail end. I have the hardest time remembering stuff from the past now, which is why I’m so particular with writing everything down as soon as I complete reading or watching or listening anything.
“It was unspeakable, so they spoke of nothing.”
It makes for an interesting phenomenon when shedding those layers of European culture and reconnecting back to your own Jewish roots. It’s a loss of a comfortable layer and the growth of one that’s been waiting for generations. It’s realizing that the “loss” of your mother tongue isn’t your real mother tongue. The culture of “cold politeness” you’ve become accustomed to isn’t where your heart belongs (“leaving behind the whole poisoned graveyard that was Europe”). The warm connection between the people in our own homeland is one that cannot be replicated.
I felt this distinctly in the piercing moment when all the characters come together to light the candles and say the blessing for Rosh Hashanah, after years and years of hell on earth. The quiet strength echoed throughout this scene felt so real I could almost reach out and grasp it.
“Anschel lifted a cup above his head and glared around the room, waiting for others to do the same. Around each table, the men eyed each other and silently determined which one would stand for the blessing. As they raised their cups, he began, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe.” The piercing nasal drone of his voice held everyone in thrall at first, but then others joined, creating a baritone jumble of melodies and accents that conjured a congregation of absent fathers and grandfathers. Tears flowed as the goblets were emptied, but Tirzah gave them no time to mourn, banging the door open wide with a tray piled with golden loaves of challah. She was greeted with applause and chatter, which continued through the brief blessing for bread, which was passed and devoured.”
Something slipped over me in reading this that I couldn’t shake off. We’re alive. Our people lived through this hell and multiple others to make it to Israel. I won’t forget.
The one thing that remains alive in that moment is reciting the passages of the past, the same words they heard countless times before the war, only to quietly realize that here they are repeating it in the heart of Israel. Our prayers as a nation are the only thing keeping the past alive and our hope ablaze in the future.
And as much as Zorah resents these moments that bring on memories long repressed, I can only think of this truthful passage from David Bezmozgis’s Natasha and Other Stories: “So what am I supposed to do, let the bastards win? Because who wins if a Jew doesn’t go to synagogue? I’ll tell you who: Hitler.”
With each new description in the book, I stop cold at how masterfully Anita Diamant constructs her characters. I personally enjoy exploring little individual moments that make up somebody’s life, and reading about the day-to-day in that unmoored timeline of 1945 through this group of lost individuals is riveting to revisit.
“It seemed impossible that these could be the same stars she had looked up at six months ago, impossible that she was seeing them through the same eyes.”
This had the potential to be a new favorite with all the elements I love in one: Jewish-Israeli characters, survivors arriving in Israel after the Holocaust which is rarely explored, the prime time of Zionism, and displacement. Day After Night operates on so many levels.
Plus, I’m a known fool for the name Noah (read: My Appreciation For the Name Noah in Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok), so Shayndel’s brother piqued my interest… Only to be crushed in this brutal reality of Polish antisemitism and pogroms. Lest anyone forget:
“The Poles had been just as monstrous as the Germans. The Nazis did not require her neighbors to spit on her family the day they were taken away. They had spit again when she returned, after the war, to see if anyone else had survived.”
The sad reality is that the Poles are already trying to erase history by making themselves seen as innocent and blame it all on the German Nazis. History will never fully wrap all the horrors and pogroms they inflicted upon the Jews.
On another note, here are some points I want to highlight:
- The few hints of romance in here I came to appreciate because sometimes it’s a necessary component in feeling alive, feeling seen. This book drew the important distinction between realizing whether your feelings are for that particular individual and simply for the rush of hormones they provide. This phrase puts the idea together well:
“I guess I wanted to be in love with someone. But not him.”
This explains so much on settling for the wrong guy. And how we look into book-romances to project our own desires on the particular couple to get together. We seek that intoxicating rush of feeling without actually doing something that can hurt like being close with another human. It’s predictable, safe, and follows a script, unlike real life.
- Throw all that away when it comes to Meyer Meyer Meyer, the boy who brings Zorah back from the brink of cynicism. I hung onto his every word. Something about his air of kind honesty left me laser focused on the task at hand: Seeing him interact with Zorah. Their dynamic was so full of promise. He’s the kind-hearted soldier with a sharing packet of Chesterfields, and she’s the rugged girl that loves to say no. I thought at first that the author was pulling us along with an exquisitely outdrawn slow-burn, and it did work at first because I nearly jumped like a cat when he finally arrived in a scene with Zorah after way too long.
“I never heard you sing before,” said a familiar voice at her ear.
Zorah did not turn around. Meyer moved closer and asked, “Did you miss me?”
“Only when I was dying for a smoke,” she said.
“I thought about you all the time,” said Meyer.”
Likewise. Also: why did this make my heart skip a beat?
“I wish I could send you cigarettes,” Meyer said, slipping a packet into her hand. “But they would only get stolen. Still, whenever you get a letter, you should know that I was thinking about sending a whole carton of Chesterfields. I am a romantic, right?”
Zorah fought the urge to face him, to wish him well, to say good-bye.
“Pray a little for my safety, will you, Zorah?” said Meyer. “I will kiss you good night wherever I am.”
Zorah heard him walk away and counted to thirty before she turned. He had reached the gate. Without turning or looking back, he raised his hand to wave. As though he knew she would be watching.”
He’s so damn charismatic.
You know Zorah has it bad when she starts talking to herself in his voice. “Worthy opponent or suitor?” I personally really enjoy seeing this switch happen in books like I mentioned in my review for The Great Alone. There’s something so powerful when you start viewing a person in a different light.
But I guess the author had other things in mind when it came to Meyer, since I can count on one hand the number of times he showed up after, and then never again till the epilogue that I’m not ready to discuss.. (I’m still in the stage of denial, as evidenced by my refusal to even write it down). And I’m too stubborn to let something as powerful as Zorah with Meyer dissipate simply like that. I wanted to see them T A L K deep into the night and share secrets and grow old together… And I got none of that.
- Speaking of loose ends, there are so many that my mind is busy thinking over… What happens with Tirzah and Danny? Did the group of four ever reunite? WHAT ABOUT THE PICTURE?? Who’s the lucky man that married Shayndel? What happened to Lillian aka the running gag of the book with being put in her place by multiple people?
Like a movie, it ends on a group snapshot of the four young women that made this book shine with tiny inscriptions telling us where they all ended up. The epilogue really made the story feel so vividly real that I was tempted to look up the names of the characters, knowing full well that even if they were based on real woman their full names wouldn’t have been used… I JUST NEED THE PICTURE. I tried hunting for it on my own with zero results. The descriptions of it in the book feels too real. It’s these telling signs that tell the whole story of Day After Night. Like Shayndel and Leonie standing so close together in the photograph led the author to chronicle a close friendship in her mind. And the details of their matching white outfits in that shot then rings similarity in the story when people thought them to be the same even though on the outside they were opposites.
“Leonie and Shayndel grinned at each other, knowing these same girls sometimes called them “peas in a pod” and “the Siamese twins” even though they were a pair of contrasts, too.”
Taking notice of these telltale signs made me feel like a tiny Sherlock. First came the picture, then the story. And now I’m pretty desperate to uncover what came first. Does the picture even exist?
I’d had hoped to see them thrive after Atlit, but since it’s so real the end sequence bears too many loses to feel like closure. The epilogue in itself should’ve been more elaborated on, instead of dropping new information that I have no idea how to take in since the book is already over. All I can say is Tedi deserved to have seen that picture.
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