I mustn’t be this sad. It’s just a Holocaust. My Holocaust. After all, there are many other things worth living for, such as love and the simple pleasure of existence. Not everyone has a Holocaust…And I got mine by birthright, never had to do a thing to earn it. So it would not be fair for me to mourn its loss. And it still hurts, losing my Holocaust. It hurts so very much.
I am in bed with a chest infection and a wooze-inducing virus, feeling well enough to sit up at last but not well enough to do anything that involves being vertical or going much further than the toilet. Luckily I have a new book, Noam Chayut’s The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust, so wryly and slyly reminiscent of Shalom Auslander in its opening paragraph. It has alternately been making me laugh out loud and causing a lump in my throat (neither of which feel very good when you are coughing so violently that you fear a lung might plop out of your mouth onto the page, followed closely by your coccyx and everything else in between). But this book is worth the discomfort.
Noam Chayut was in the Israeli army for five years during the Second Intifada, which included both combat service in the occupied West Bank and fundraising PR trips to America. He’s now an activist with Breaking the Silence. Although my attention was caught by the quirky title as soon as I saw it in the East Jerusalem bookshop, I hesitated to buy it. The centrality of army service to Israeli life has spawned its own literary and cinematic genre, commonly known as ‘shoot and cry’, and I didn’t want to read yet another sob story from yet another former soldier who decries the occupation while simultaneously employing it as a plot device in his personal epic of catharsis and redemption. But tears are limited in Chayut’s book. The autobiographical element – thoughtful, often funny, cheerfully self-deprecating – is paralleled by an exploration of just how far the Holocaust shadow stretches, the fears it instills and the social environment it creates. Chayut does not treat it as a justification for occupation or ethnic cleansing, but is acutely aware that it functions as one in Israeli society, and in the short final chapter – which shifts sharply into a letter to the girl of the title – he is grateful to the unknown child for divesting him of the excuses that accompany this historical legacy. In his letter, he is also clear that the book is not just an individual tale (“This is not my – or your – personal story…”). The specific incidents that make up his book serve as windows onto something wider: the secret fable of the pine trees that Chayut creates as he hikes across the country, for example, is a not-so-oblique reference to the ethnic cleansing of 1948, couched in his own experiences. The personal is woven seamlessly into the political, with seemingly disparate events (large and small) coming together in a narrative that encompasses more than the autobiography of just one former soldier.