Any author who writes a novel with the Holocaust as its setting bears a moral burden. “After Auschwitz,” as Theodor Adorno famously warned, “to write a poem is a barbarity.”
So I approached “Silent Letter,” a work of historical fiction by Yitzchak Mayer (Mosaic Press), with a certain caution. But I soon was won over by the tale that Mayer tells, an account of what it really meant — hour by hour, mile by mile — to save one’s life by seeking refuge in Switzerland.
Mayer brings to his book the credentials of a survivor. Born in Belgium in 1934, his family fled to France, where they were captured by the invading German army. His father died in Auschwitz, but his mother and siblings were able to reach Switzerland, and he made aliyah to Mandatory Palestine in 1946. Today, he serves as senior adviser with the Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College in Israel.
Translated from Hebrew by Binyamin Shalom, “Silent Letter” has the ring of truth precisely because Mayer’s fictional characters are patterned after himself and his family. The narrator, whose voice we hear throughout the book, belongs to his mother, Roszy, whose heart-tugging letters to her missing husband we are privileged to read.
Like all authentic testimony of the Holocaust, “Silent Letter” offers unsuspected details of exactly how one manages to survive. Before Roszy boards the train toward the Swiss border, she packs a block of laundry soap in which her husband had hidden a few diamonds. At his suggestion, she also carries a box of bleach “so that if they asked, I would just tell them I was on my way to do a load of laundry for myself and the boys.”
We learn, too, exactly what it meant to escape from occupied France to Switzerland. The family heads for a small town called Saint-Claude, which Roszy describes as “an open-air survival market teeming with the amateurish cunning, riddled with money-hungry rogues and traitors.” Her husband, who already has disappeared in night and fog, had supplied her with the Swiss francs that meant the difference between life and death.
But they are not yet safe: “There are things that no man knows which take place in wartime all along the train tracks, and no one knows the key to the code that governs them, buried there in the darkness, dictating unseen stations that do not appear on any schedule whatsoever,” muses Roszy. “Perhaps the trains are held up by spirits and demons.” And the demons whom they encounter are ordinary men in uniforms: “Your papers are in order, Madame,” a police officer tells her, “but you, Madame, are not quite right.”
So begins the ordeal. Roszy is separated from her children, who are placed in the custody of a local convent, and she finds herself in a prison hospital, where she addresses her thoughts to her missing husband. Her reveries amount to an extraordinarily rich autobiography, a recollection of her childhood in Hungary, the journey that took her Antwerp, and the war that forced the family to run. She is pregnant, and she broods over the peril that her unborn child is facing.
But she is not resigned to her fate, and Roszy manages to find an unlikely savior, a priest who also happens to be a physician at the hospital. “Where did this God of ours manage to find him?” she wonders.
Above all, she attests to the heartbreaking way that her two sons are scarred by what they are compelled to endure. “This huge, awful war that people refer to in terms of conquered lands and continents, wide seas and oceans, kings, presidents, government leaders and generals, attacks first and foremost the men, women and children whose names do not mean anything at all to anyone in the world.”
By giving a voice to his heroic mother, Mayer has honored not only her memory but her courage and strength. And, more than that, he has given names to those men, women and children who would otherwise be forgotten. Thus does Mayer discharge the moral duty that he took upon himself in writing “Silent Letter.”
JONATHAN KIRSCH, publishing attorney and author of “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.