Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Waiting Room - Leah Kaminsky

Without actually trying to, I've managed a succession of Holocaust novels in my latest lot of new books. There seems to be a new 'flavour' in them of late, and I don't know if that's due to where we are in history now, with fewer and fewer Holocaust Survivors still alive, or some other factor.
The Waiting Room, by Leah Kaminsky, is definitely a bird of a different feather. It tells the story of a child of Holocaust Survivors. Australia took the largest number of Survivors per capita than any country other than Israel, after the war. Both Sydney and Melbourne had very large numbers within the Jewish communities, with others scattered throughout the smaller communities in other capital cities and smaller towns. 

Life for the children of Survivors was often fraught, many of them growing up without really knowing what had happened to their parents. They were haunted, nevertheless, by the nightmares and horrific memories that affected everyday behavior of the Survivors for the rest of their lives. In my experience with Survivors, there were those who told their stories, and those who didn't. Many who did were prompted by one of two motives - either to honour those of their families they had lost, and/or to teach others what happened in an effort to ensure it could never happen again. What they had with those Survivors who didn't tell their stories publicly, was that many of them had rarely shared their stories directly with their children. Occasionally, they'd tell their grandchildren, but not their children. When asked why not, they used to say that they didn't want their children knowing and being hurt by the stories - or that they didn't want to relive it within their families. Often, it was many years after the events before they started recounting their stories in public, and for those bearing testimony, it was frequently to school aged children in museums or schools, learning the history. That made a certain level of logical sense to me, then, thinking about them deciding to pass the stories on to their grandchildren. 

Dina is an Australian doctor living and working in Haifa, married to Eitan, an Israeli. She met him while travelling, on an unplanned visit to Israel after a medical conference in Europe. They marry, and have a son, Shlomi. As the story begins,  Shlomi is six and she is heavily pregnant with their second child. Eitan proves to be what previous boyfriends and lovers in the past have failed; able to live with the ghosts she carries with her from her parents' past. 

She grew up in Melbourne, the only child of parents who both survived the camps in Europe. Her father was in Auschwitz, having lost his wife and daughter before being deported. None of his extended family survived. Her mother was in Bergen Belsen, and was the only survivor from her family. They met in a DP (Displaced Person's) Camp, and married when they got visas for Australia. Dina's father is a quiet man, a tailor, who never speaks of his previous family. However, her mother, who keeps photos of that first wife and child, cannot stop herself relating countless tales of the horrors she endured, and stories from other Survivor friends. From Dina's earliest days, there are periods when her mother is admitted to hospital, and to add to her mother's ghosts are mysterious things like 'shock treatment' and endless absences that are explained to her as her mother needing 'a little rest'. 

Dina's father dies from a massive heart attack, and she is left caring for her increasingly fragile mother who, eventually, commits suicide by overdosing when Dina is eighteen. After qualifying as a doctor she attempts to escape the past by travelling and falling in and out of short term relationships. Eitan, a sabra (native born Israeli) who grew up on a traditional kibbutz, is a surprise to her. Exotic, calm, persistent, he holds her when she cries, and asks to be introduced to her ghosts, eventually convincing her to marry him. They choose Haifa over other Israeli cities to settle, on the basis that it is 'safer' than Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Beersheva where there are all too frequent terrorist attacks. 
However, the time is the second intifada, and attacks by suicide bombers are more frequent and widespread. Pregnant and vulnerable, Dina begins to obsess about Shlomi's safety, and the ghost of her mother, particularly, becomes more persistent, castigating her for flying off the handle and wanting to leave and go back to Australia where it's safer, telling her that her place is in Israel with her husband, because NOWHERE is safe for Jews. Eitan is struggling with the distance that is growing between them and continues to tell her that Shlomi will only become anxious if he sees her being anxious and overly protective of him. Having grown up in Israel, he is more pragmatic about the risks and understands the need to go on living as normally as possible. Dina is unable to find a similar pragmatism.

The book is, essentially, a story of one woman's struggle to reconcile the fears of the past and those of her present. She finds herself talking back to her mother's ghost while in the middle of other conversations with actual people as her mother's presence begins to dominate more and more as her own stress levels rise. In real time, the story is a tale of a single day when there is a terror warning for Haifa, and Dina ricochets between her surgery, Shlomi's school, the local shuk, and back to the surgery. It is her very panic and inability to stay in one place that ultimately saves her from dying in the attack, as she doesn't make it back to the surgery in time to be inside the building when the bomb is detonated. Instead, she is out by her car, knocked down by the blast and witnessing everything.

At a time when, once again, Israelis going about their everyday lives are being threatened by lone wolf attacks from Palestinian terrorists, this book is chilling. My friends in Israel are living the fears, stresses and anxiety that Dina goes through in that one day. They don't necessarily have the ghosts of Survivor parents haunting them. However, many must have ghosts of friends and family lost in both intifadas. When I was there in 2008, it was a calm period. But one of the Australian in my group studying at Yad Vashem took us one evening to a Jerusalem restaurant for dinner. A restaurant that had been rebuilt after it had been blown up during the second intifada, killing many innocent people, including friends of his. There is a memorial plaque at the entrance with a list of the names of the dead. He wanted to take us there; he always goes when in Jerusalem. 

Although, at the end of the book, Dina goes back to Melbourne with her son and newly born daughter (named after her father's first child), she knows she will go back to Haifa. She knows that the way forward is to be tenacious and grab onto life in Israel with Eitan. My friend goes back to that restaurant to eat for the same reason, and in honour of his friends.

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