Awake in the Dark: Stories
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by Shira Nayman
On her deathbed, a mother tells her daughter of a specific street address in Heidelberg, Germany, where the family lived before immigrating to New York during World War II. The information comes as a surprise to the daughter, now in her forties, for whom much of her childhood in Germany is a mysterious pastiche of memories that her mother has never been willing to discuss. Of her past, she knows only that her father was killed in the early years of the war while fighting for the Third Reich. But she senses that there is something about this address—on a street called Kronenstrasse—that can tell her more. Her decision to return leads her to a shocking discovery.
This story, “The House on Kronenstrasse,” which opens Shira Nayman’s debut collection Awake in the Dark (Scribner), was first published in The Atlantic Monthly’s 2005 fiction issue. Like the other stories in the collection, it is all at once a journey of self-discovery and a haunting excursion into the past. Each of Nayman’s protagonists is the daughter of German or Polish parents—some Jewish, some not—who lived through the Holocaust, and the collection as a whole contemplates the effects of this particular history on the identity of future generations.
Each story is a literary page-turner with a classic O’Henry twist. One story deals with a daughter’s grief over the loss of a mother whom she didn’t know was Jewish until the moment of her death. Then, jumping into the past, the story reveals this mother as a young woman, planning her escape from an abusive Nazi officer who has employed her in his home. In the collection’s novella, a psychiatrist, who has been told nothing of her own father’s past as a Holocaust victim, treats a Hasidic woman who has been traumatized in part by the early stories she heard of her father’s suffering during the Holocaust. As each story unfolds, revelations from both the past and the present come to light.
Nayman’s interest in the effects of the Holocaust is threefold. In addition to a personal interest—she is Jewish and grew up in a community in Australia populated largely by Holocaust survivors—she also has a fascination with history, particularly with what she refers to as the “ironies” of the Holocaust—the many instances in which aspects of German culture that had been created by Jews were turned against them. And finally, in her years as a practicing psychologist she has developed a clinical interest in the effects of both personal and historical trauma.
For now, Nayman has put her clinical hat aside, using her background in psychology to understand the motivations of her characters. In addition to The Atlantic, Nayman’s stories have appeared in The Georgia Review, New England Review, and Boulevard. She is the recipient of two grants from the Australia Council for the Arts Literature Board, and she is working on both another collection of stories and a novel. She presently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. I spoke with her over a cup of coffee in a small café at the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington, on October 13, where she was giving a reading from Awake in the Dark that afternoon.
(Photo by Joyce Ravid)
Like “The House on Kronenstrasse,” the story that was published in The Atlantic's first fiction issue, all the stories in this collection are about the impact of the Holocaust on future generations. How did this subject matter become of interest to you?
I had always been interested in the subject. But while I was living in Mexico two years ago I read an extraordinary book by Amos Elon called The Pity of It All: A History of the German-Jews 1743-1933. It’s an amazing work and really quite beautifully written. It’s all about German-Jewish identity during that period. In a lot of ways, the Jews in Germany were even more German than the Germans themselves. They were pillars of German culture. So when Germany became murderous toward them it was actually sort of suicidal; the culture ended up losing a lot of its own heart and soul.
Embedded in the book are lots of intriguing little anecdotes and footnotes that bespeak some extraordinary ironies. For example, it was a Jewish man named Fritz Haber who developed a kind of a gas that was instrumental in Germany’s successes in World War I. Well, the methods used to make that gas eventually ended up being used in the gas chambers. And it was developed by a Jew! By the time I had finished reading the book, I had marked up the whole back cover with ideas for about twenty-five short stories. I decided in this volume to include all the ones that had a similar emotional resonance—themes involving mother and daughter and confused identity. My plan is that the second one will be much more grounded in historical fact and peopled with important historical figures.
Do you have a personal connection to the subject matter in addition to an historical interest?
I do. The personal connection is that the community where I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, was made up largely of Holocaust survivors. My own family history is that my grandparents fled Poland and Lithuania between 1910 and 1920, during the very last pogroms against Jews, and they ended up in South Africa. But pretty much all of my friends’ parents had been through the Holocaust. They had numbers tattooed on their arms and a lot of their family members had been wiped out.
The struggle to understand identity seems to be crucial throughout each of the stories. There are some characters who want to hide their identities and their firsthand experiences with Nazi Germany, and then there are some in the younger generation who really want to find out about their families’ pasts. In one story, a character asks whether a parent has the right to make a complete secret of the past. To what extent were you thinking about historical identity and the question of who owns identity as you were writing these stories?
For me, it’s critical to at least raise the issue of confronting historical trauma rather than ignoring it or putting it aside. Maybe it has something to do with my training as a psychologist, but I think there’s a lot of pain associated with a failure to confront past trauma. As painful as confrontation is, it can result in resolution and change. If something isn’t confronted it becomes a perpetual stumbling block. In psychological theory, people talk about a compulsive sort of reenactment over and over again of the unresolved issue. I think that can hold true for historical traumas as well as personal, individual ones.
That said, the healthiest character in the collection is the one who never even becomes aware of the trauma in her family’s past. Then there’s the father who tells his innocent little five-year-old child all about his horrendous suffering. You might think maybe he shouldn’t have done that. But he couldn’t help it. By contrast, another father in the collection zips his lips and won’t utter a word about his traumatic experiences. People cope the best they can.