Literary Bomb Shelter in Tel Aviv

A Creative Writing Course Becomes an Unexpected Safe Haven

School’s Out: Escape ladders line the walls in Rachel Kadish’s bomb shelter classroom at Bar Ilan University.
Rachel Kadish
School’s Out: Escape ladders line the walls in Rachel Kadish’s bomb shelter classroom at Bar Ilan University.

By Rachel Kadish

Published May 10, 2014, issue of May 09, 2014.

(page 3 of 4)

During these sessions, the motion-sensor lights provided occasional ironic punctuation. We learned swiftly that in most locations within the room, our natural gesticulations kept the lights on. But if we positioned our seats in the wrong spot, then someone periodically needed to get up and take a lap — or, in more creative moments, do an interpretive dance to keep the lights from snapping off.

One day, a Finnish woman wrote movingly about the pressure she felt being the first to translate some painful letters for beloved Israeli friends — letters written in German during World War II by doomed relatives. The student wrote and spoke in class about the free-floating guilt she felt being a blonde European Christian helping a Jewish family sort through this material, and the pain of being warned one day by a stranger at a conference that some Jewish readers might feel she had no right to tell this story.

That, in turn, led to a discussion about who has permission to tell any given story and to me returning to my soapbox to talk about the importance of granting ourselves and one another that permission — even knowing how challenging it is to do justice to someone else’s stories (let alone our own).

In the discussion that ensued, my Swedish student mentioned learning only at age 40 that his father had had a prior wife and a baby girl who both died at the hands of the Germans. This fact, he said, only came out when his father ran into his former brother-in-law in Israel decades after the war. In a voice cracking with emotion, my student said he hadn’t yet been able to write about this revelation.

Hearing this, another student responded with this story: A family friend — a Holocaust survivor — was in the market in Israel one day when she heard a familiar voice. Turning, the woman recognized the non-Jewish woman who had hidden her during WWII — and who had also murdered her baby. The Jewish woman had been pregnant while in hiding, and had given birth; the non-Jewish woman hiding her had said, “If this baby cries, then you and every other person here will be discovered and killed.” So the non-Jewish woman had killed the baby.

Now, all these decades later, the Jewish woman didn’t know whether she ought to approach the aged woman she saw in the marketplace as the person who saved her, or as the person who killed her baby. She couldn’t speak. She let her rescuer pass without saying a word.

At this, someone else turned to the Finnish student and said, “Welcome to our traumatized country!”

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