I have been trying to collect my thoughts on Shira Nayman’s Awake in the Dark, a collection of stories about the children – well, the daughters – of Holocaust survivors. Putting my reaction into words has been harder than I thought it would be. The stories aren’t superficially difficult; the writing is simple and direct. In fact, while I was reading them, I felt they were a little too simple: predictable stories that we’ve all more or less heard before. (It is difficult to make art from the horror of the Holocaust: predictability means a different thing when you know how the story ends because everyone dies.)
Still, after I finished the book, I found myself thinking about them, and thinking again. The stories are linked by themes of identity: who am I if I don’t know my parents’ past? Who am I if I know their past and I am horrified by it? Who am I if my past is different than I believed it to be? Secrets are always destructive in this world, robbing the present of meaning and richness. And why are all the survivors’ children daughters? There are images of new life: pregnancy, birth, love for children. Are women the only people who can, eventually, make sense of the death and grief and loss, because they bring life into the world? (This redemptive possibility is questioned and turned problematic in the final story, a novella called Dark Urgings of the Blood.)
There is no real redemption in these stories. The attempts at redemption and reconciliation ring hollow and sometimes seem perfunctory. The questions are what seem true, and they also seem universal: who am I? How am I different from my parents? Does the past have to repeat itself? Can loss ever be healed? Even if the answer to that last question is “no,” Nayman’s characters are still trying, working, weeping, reaching out for answers. That’s the real value of this collection, and it lingers.