Given the impact of the Holocaust on Israel’s political history and on the personal histories of so many of its Jewish inhabitants, one would expect the experiences of this devastation to figure very centrally in the fiction that was written in Israel since its inception in 1948. But this has not been the case. During the first four decades of Israel’s existence, there were very few literary works that sought to actualize the human experiences of the Holocaust by transmuting them into a fictional discourse that would make them emotionally and intellectually accessible to those who, mercifully, were not part of these experiences but were largely formed by them. The virtual absence of the Holocaust experience from Israel’s early literature is a manifestation of the prevailing cultural orientation at the time. As the Israeli community began to define its identity and its purpose as an emerging society and a new political entity, it was inclined to avoid the tragedy and the horror of the recent Jewish genocide in Europe. 1 The most notable literary exception to this tendency are the stories and novels of Aharon Appelfeld, a highly accomplished writer whose persistent preoccupation [End Page 457] with the Holocaust relegated his early work to the margins of mainstream Israeli literature. 2
The waves of shock and recognition generated in Israel by the 1961 trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann brought forth three novels by important Israeli authors that are set in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust: Yehuda Amichai’s Not of This Time, Not of This Place (1963), Hanoch Bartov’s The Brigade (1965), and Haim Gouri’s The Chocolate Deal (1965). None of these works involve experiences that took place during the actual time of devastation. The Brigade and The Chocolate Deal are failed attempts by Israeli-born writers to connect with the inner worlds of Holocaust survivors. The Brigade and Not of This Time, Not of This Place also present Israeli protagonists who find it impossible to act on their desire for revenge against the Nazi destroyers. In doing so they reflect the futility of employing the Israeli ethos of heroic action as a means of engaging the Holocaust experience. But neither work suggests a more effective way of accomplishing this engagement.
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is correct in observing that these novels “reveal the frustration and futility of the attempts of post-Holocaust Jews to leap over the unyielding gap of time and absorb the Holocaust into the unfolding [Zionist] dream of return and liberation” (Ezrahi, By Words 127). 3 Yet one of these works, Amichai’s Not of This Time, Not of This Place, contains the kernel of what would ultimately prove to be a more promising mode of attempting this necessary leap. In his novel Amichai explores the narrative possibilities of bridging the gap of time and space by departing from the conventions of realism that were predominant in Israel at the time and having the experiences of his protagonist take place simultaneously in Israel and in postwar Germany. The only other significant break in the literary silence surrounding the Holocaust is marked by a similar departure. Yoram Kaniuk’s Adam Resurrected (1969) is the first Israeli novel to attempt an imaginative entry into the world of the Nazi death camps. A profoundly satirical novel populated by deranged Holocaust survivors and operating without regard for the conventions of realistic representation, Adam Resurrected is a solitary harbinger of the changes that were to come almost two decades later. 4
The long literary silence on the Holocaust has been routinely ascribed to a traumatized culture’s deep denial of its most horrible [End Page 458] experience. But in view of the early and persistent prevalence of Holocaust references in Israel’s political and ideological discourses, it is evident that the events of the Holocaust were actually very much a part of Israel’s social consciousness. Hence, it is likely that the prolonged absence of the Holocaust theme from the literature is not a manifestation of a general national amnesia, but rather a specific consequence of a cultural code that controlled the uses to which Holocaust references could be put...