“The greatest mystery of my life: living in the aftermath.”
The Teacher by the Israeli writer, Michal Ben Naftali is an exceptional and profoundly moving novel. I cried towards the end of the book and after I closed the last page of this book.
The Teacher tells a story of a woman, Elsa Weiss, born in 1917, a Holocaust survivor from Eastern Europe who after WWII ends up living in Israel working as a high school teacher until she commits suicide in 1982 at the age of 65. It is a story shared by many Holocaust survivors – I read that the author of the book based Elsa’s life on the person she knew in her real life.
It is a story of a survivor whose name is not recorded in any history book, nor in any journal nor memoir; a story of those whose life faded from the living memory, of those with no photos of their faces preserved for the future generations; of those who were busy surviving in a new country, busy assimilating, existing, moving forward; of those who are invisible to others; of those without possessive determiners on their grave’s inscription: they are no one’s mother, father, sister or bother; of those who do not wish to be remembered.
The Teacher is an intense exploration of trauma, survivor’s guilt, loneliness, finding one’s place in the world, learning how to exist or rather just how to survive, the memory and how we perceive and remember people in our life. Elsa Weiss is an enigma, her life is an enigma – she left no trace of her life for others to explore.
We learn about Elsa Weiss from the perspective of her former student who tries to trace Elsa’s life and learn more about her former teacher thirty years after Elsa jumps to her death from the roof of the building she lived in Tel Aviv.
Her student takes us on a journey through Elsa Weiss’s life – from her early childhood in Kolozsvar, Hungary, her relationship with her parents, her stay in Paris in 1937, her marriage to Eric, her disbelief in and her ‘failure to grasp’ what was about to happen in 1939, her ‘lucky’ survival during the Holocaust, her imprisonment in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, being one of the survivors on the Kastner train, finally arrival in Israel after the war, her struggle to crave her own path in Tel Aviv as an English teacher, burning of her possessions including the only one picture of her parents, and finally her suicide.
We also learn about Rudolf Kastner’s trial in Israel in the 1950s and his murder which affected the survivors of the Kastner train . In relation to Kastner, the issue of responsibility versus irresponsibility, privilege and lack of it are also explored in the novel. It is important to note that people like Elsa owed their life to Rudolf Kastner. Years after the trial and murder of Kastner, public discourse in Israel shifted acknowledging that people who did not lived through the Holocaust should not pass the judgments on people who lived through it and had to make ethically extremely difficult life-and-death decisions.
Elsa Weiss is an imperfect victim, with her own flaws and feeling of guilt, trying to create a life for herself in the aftermath of surviving one of the biggest atrocities recorded in the human history. She felt ‘foreign’ in Israel, but with no other home to return to; she accepted the curse of feeling an immigrant in her new home. For years Elsa escaped into predictable, steady, unchanging routine of her daily life in order to exist. She chose a safe path that would make her independent from others and provide for her basic necessities.
Like many people who survived atrocities, Elsa struggled with a profound feeling of survivor’s guilt – she was unable to help her parents, loved ones, she was unable to console them, to ask questions.
Emotionally paralysed by what she saw and experienced in Bergen -Belsen, Elsa suffered from an internal turmoil for the rest of her life, often faced with indifference of people around her in the post-war existence.
Elsa Weiss felt abandoned through her entire adult life with an overwhelming sense of orphanhood, living in fear of forgetting her loved ones.
Ben -Naftali weaves a story of an individual life whose existence was greatly affected by the external forces. The protagonist of Michal Ben- Naftali’s book shared the fate of many other survivors including of Jean Amery, an Austrian – Belgian Jewish writer, born in 1912, a Holocaust survivor, imprisoned in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen – Belsen, committed suicide in 1978 at the age of 65 – the same as Elsa Weiss when she took her own life.
I find the prose in The Teacher beautiful, conveying profound feelings felt by Elsa and the narrator – her student. I highly recommend it to everyone. I would also advise anyone not familiar with Rudolf Kastner to learn a bit more about him before reading The Teacher.