“Did you ever see someone who was killed in the war but who is still alive?” With this trenchant remark, the central character of Ida Fink’s short story “Cheerful Zophia” encapsulates the after-effect of the Holocaust on the author’s own life. As a child, Zophia survived the war in solitude and silence, hiding in a barn and scavenging for food under cover of darkness at night. Years later, a solitary adult, she lives in studied self-sufficiency and with a discordant cheerfulness that she understands is a “symptom,” presumably of trauma.
Zophia’s caustic question pertains to many of the characters that populate the world of Fink’s fiction and drama—survivors struggling with memory, radical bereavement, and the aftershock of atrocity. In a very different sense, the question might be applied to Fink’s oeuvre as a whole, which, through memory and imagination, resurrects victims, survivors and perpetrators of the Nazi genocide. Her writing gives shape to the inner lives of victims and human faces to their experiences, while exposing the callousness of onlookers and the complicated motives even of rescuers.
Ida Landau was born in 1921 in Zbarazh (Poland; today a town in W. Ukraine) to Ludwig and Fannie/Francisca (Stein) Landau. Theirs was a family of secular Jews, well integrated into Polish culture. Her father was a physician and her mother had a doctorate in natural sciences. Part of the Polish intelligentsia, they had a strong sense of identity as Jews, and numbered both Jews and non-Jews in their social sphere. Fink’s younger sister, Elsa, was born in 1922. The family spoke Polish and German at home, rather than Yiddish.
By the time Ida Landau began her studies in gymnasium, the fascist presence in Poland could already be felt. She frequently heard antisemitic remarks, and understood that the changing political climate would radically circumscribe her education and professional aspirations. Interested in literature and music at the university level, she prepared for a career as a pianist by studying at the Lvov Conservatory, but the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939, when Landau was eighteen years old, terminated her studies. In 1941, her mother died of cancer at the age of fifty.
Ida Landau was confined to the Zbarazh ghetto with her family until 1942, when she and her younger sister acquired false identity papers. A fair haired, blue-eyed young woman, Landau did not look identifiably Jewish. The two sisters survived the war in hiding by concealing their identities. A fictionalized account of the war years appears in her novel The Journey.
In 1948 Ida married Bruno (Bronek) Fink, a survivor of four camps. Born in 1905, he was an engineer whose entire family —parents, wife, son, brother, nephew—perished in the Nazi genocide. For a number of years Ida and Bruno Fink remained in Poland, where Fink gave birth to a daughter, Miri, in 1952. In 1957, the family—including Fink’s father, who died in 1964—moved to Israel and settled in Holon. At the age of thirty-six, Ida Fink began to learn the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. She remained close with her sister, Elsa Neuhaus, who became a nurse and lived nearby. Bruno died in 1983. Fink has two grandchildren, Yoav and Mayan.
Although Fink recollects that, while in hiding, she felt a determination to write about her experiences, more than a decade passed before she began to do so. In the late 1950s she began composing short stories based on memories and on stories told to her. Rooted in actual experiences, in Fink’s talented hands the stories took shape as highly crafted, powerful narratives that reveal the daily details of life and death under the threat of genocide, as well as the interplay of memory, bereavement and trauma, years later. Fink has explained that she chose the genre of fiction rather than autobiographical or historical narrative partly to protect the privacy of the lives revealed, and partly to assume the artistic freedom she felt necessary to speak the unspeakable.
Fink’s earliest attempts to publish her stories were discouraging. Editors criticized her writing as too subdued and subtle, not dramatic enough for Holocaust writing. Despite this, she made no attempt to alter her style. Eventually her work was published to glowing reviews. Her first collection of stories was published in Polish in 1983, followed in 1989 by the publication of the English translation, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories. Her novel The Journey was published in English translation in 1992, after its initial appearance in Polish in 1990. A film version of the novel was produced for German television in 2002. A third volume, Traces, containing stories and short plays in English translation, appeared in 1997. Fink’s writing has garnered many prestigious international awards, including the first Anne Frank Prize for Literature (1985), the Yad Vashem Prize (1995), the Moravia Prize (1996), the PEN Club Prize (Poland, 2003) and an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in 2004. In addition to Hebrew and English, her work has been translated into many languages, including German, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Danish, and French. The first collection of her stories in Hebrew translation was published in 2004.
Like the title of her first collection, many of Fink’s works are “scraps of time,” revealing slivers of detail and experience that speak to a complex whole. Many of her works isolate moments of realization—of the radical and irretrievable change brought by Nazism, or of the certainty of one’s death. In “The Garden That Floated Away,” for example, the narrator hallucinates that her family’s yard is drifting off into the air. That surreal image symbolizes the end of normal life for Jews, and the difference between what awaits the narrator’s family and her non-Jewish friends and neighbors. Similarly, in “The Threshold,” a Jewish teenager finds she can no longer deny the reality her elders have spoken of. “A Spring Morning” follows the last hours of a young father who awakens to the sounds of approaching trucks, and realizes appallingly “that he had overslept his life.”
Many of Fink’s narratives focus on intimate moments, revealing the ways in which atrocity insinuates itself into the most private of relationships, such as those between parents and children, siblings, or spouses. Her stories reveal the preternatural maturity of children called upon to protect their parents (for example, “Traces” and “The Key Game”), the horrible regrets of parents who cannot save their children despite their best effort (“A Spring Morning,” “Crazy,” and “Description of a Morning”), the guilt of children who survive thanks to their parents protective agency (“Splinter”), the shifting dynamics of sisters shaped by how “Jewish” each looks (The Journey), and other close relationships marked by the encounter with Nazism.
A recurrent theme is that of youth cut short. Many of Fink’s works feature young people who are old enough to understand that they have been horribly cheated. No longer children but not yet adults, consciousness of what awaits them, they include a student who laments that she will die without knowing love (“An Afternoon on the Grass”), a girl who worries that she will not live to complete the romance novel she is reading (“Jean Christophe”), a teenager who barters her virginity for a false document she hopes will save her and her mother (“Aryan Papers”), a couple who attempt to find a moment’s joy before they are killed (“Behind the Hedge”).
Fink also explores a range of behaviors and attitudes of those not under direct threat of death. Her work exposes the indifference of eye witnesses, the complicated relationships between Jews and those with the power to assist or condemn them, and the antisemitism that survived the war (“Conversation,” “Shelter,” “A Spring Morning,” The Journey).
In all of Fink’s work, the seemingly insignificant detail opens up a profound look at complexities of experience, memory, and motivation. As Fink excavates what she terms “the ruins of memory,” she brings to the forefront the act of memory itself, and the complicated relationship linking memory, imagination, and language. Fragments of the past that resurface in the present, Fink’s writing offers an unflinching and insightful look at wartime experiences and memories. By turns poignant and tender, grim and sardonic, Fink’s lean and unsentimental prose conveys the profound and lasting effects of the Holocaust.
A Scrap of Time: Stories. Trans. Madeline Levine and Francine Prose. New York: 1987;
The Journey. Trans. Joanna Weschler and Francine Prose. New York: 1992;
Traces: Stories. Trans. Phillip Boehm and Francine Prose. New York: 1997;
Collected Works (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 2004.
Ida Fink passed away on September 27, 2011.
Eberstadt, Fernanda. “Images of an Extinguished World.” Review of Traces. New York Times August 24, 1997:12.
Horowitz, Sara R. Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction. New York: 1997.
Kaplan, Johanna. Review of A Scrap of Time. New York Times Book Review July 12, 1987: 7.
Mitgang, Herbert. “Words as a Shield Against the Nazis.” Review of The Journey. New York Times August 19, 1992:18.
Pilling, Jayne. Review of A Scrap of Time. Times Literary Supplement August 26, 1988: 928.
Shaked, Gershon. The Name of the Game: Survival (Hebrew). Yedi’ot Aharonot August 6, 1993: 26.
Shaked, Gershon. Playing in the Theater of the Absurd. Yedi’ot Aharonot August 13, 1993: 31.
Wilczynski, Marek. “Trusting the Words: Paradoxes of Ida Fink.” Modern Language Studies 24/4 (Fall 1994): 25–38.
“Zawsze chcialam pisac” (“I've Always Wanted to Write"). An interview with Ida Fink by Katarzyna Bielas, Gazeta Wyborcza 160(July 12, 1994): 11.
“Fantasy is Harmful.” Interview with Ida Fink by Eva Hoffman. New York Times Book Review July 12, 1987: 9.
Based on “The Key Game.” Le Jeu de la Clé. Directed by Michel Hassan. France: 1995.
Based on The Journey. Das Letzte Versteck. Directed by Pierre Koralnik. Germany: 2002.
Ida Fink: Rishumim Le-Korot Hayyim (Ida Fink: Traces). Directed by Roni Abulafia. Israel: 2004.
Documentary: The Garden that floated away. Directed by Ruth Walk. Israel: 2007.
Based on several of her short stories, Spring 1941. Directed by Uri Barbash. Israel: 2008.
Ida Fink passed away on September 27, 2011.