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Sharon Chisvin

The READ HEAD: Novels Depict Israeli Immigrant Experience

By Sharon Chisvin

Having read numerous Holocaust survivor testimonies over the last few weeks, I’ve been reminded about the tremendous hardships that so many survivors faced as they tried to make their way to Israel in the waning days of the British Mandate. This illegal immigration is the subject of Day After Night, the newest novel from Anita Dimant. American author Dimant is best known for her blockbuster novel The Red Tent.

In Day After Night, published by Scribner, Dimant recounts the experiences of a handful of women interned in 1945 in the British military run camp of Atlit, just outside of Haifa. The women are all survivors of the Holocaust, each one of them scared and scarred, and each one burdened by her own losses and grief. As idle days turn into weeks of waiting, the women hesitantly forge new friendships and new bonds of trust. Their shared fate comes to a climax with their breakout from Atlit at the hands of the Palmach and their gradual integration into fledgling Israeli society. Unfortunately, this breakout scene, based on true historical events, and the description of the women’s individual war experiences, are not as compelling, dramatic or as moving as the subject matter merits. The end result is that Day After Night is an easy-to-read novel but one that is also too easy to forget.

Another recently published novel about Israeli immigrant life in the early years of the state is considerably more powerful and memorable. Published by The Toby Press, written by Cairo-born Israeli author Haim Sabato and translated from the Hebrew by Yaacob Dweck, From the Four Winds explores the lives of immigrants living in the Jerusalem area transit camp of Beit Mazlin in 1959. The narrative revolves around an unlikely friendship between a young wide-eyed and awe inspired boy, Haim, recently arrived with his family from Egypt, and the charming, mysterious and mournful Farkash, an immigrant from Hungary. Sabato, who is a Rabbi as well as a prolific novelist, deftly examines the profound differences that existed in that era between the loud and lively Sephardic Jews of the neighbourhood and the unsmiling, shuttered Hungarian Jews who “always asked for silence.”

Both Sabato’s prose and his approach to storytelling are a little unconventional, but the narrative he creates, inspired by his own early experiences, is extremely poignant and engaging. From the Four Winds is a brief and beautiful novel about faith, friendship and forgiveness. It is a novel about the memories and experiences that divide the people of Israel and the memories and experiences that unite the people of Israel. It is a story about the very fabric of Israeli society. 

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