A little girl pays a visit to the zoo. As soon as she approaches a caged wolf, she starts weeping bitterly. The eyes of the wolf remind her of those of her father, who had been imprisoned in a German concentration camp during World War II. Looking at the wolf behind the bars the little girl sobs: “He has camp.”
This remarkable and moving passage occurs in the debut work of the Dutch author Carl Friedman, who was born in the city of Eindhoven in the south of the Netherlands on April 29, 1952 as Carolina Friedman. She grew up in Eindhoven and in the Belgian city of Antwerp, to which her Jewish family moved to when she was a young girl. Her father, Jochel, was born in 1911 and trained to be a doctor. He appears to have spent time in a concentration camp and after the war worked for the Philips Company in Eindhoven. In addition to Carl, he and his wife had two sons, both older than herself.
From an early age Carl Friedman was much concerned with the events of World War II. From her fifteenth year she kept an archive on the war. After attending high school she received training in Antwerp to become an interpreter-translator. Later she moved to Breda, a city close to Eindhoven, where she worked as a member of the editorial staff of the newspaper De Stem (The Voice). After a brief and unhappy marriage Friedman moved to Amsterdam with her son Aron, who was born in 1979.
Initially, Friedman had no ambition to become a writer. In 1986 she even disposed of a large part of her early manuscripts. However, encouraged by publisher Wouter van Oorschot, she made her debut with the autobiographic short story Tralievader (Nightfather) in 1991. Friedman’s first novel describes in a painstaking way the camp history of the father of the first-person narrator from the perspective of the perilous situation in which second-generation war victims find themselves, guilt-ridden and horror-filled. Her novel Twee koffers vol (Two Suitcases Full, 1993) quickly followed. In 1996 De grauwe minnaar (The Grey Lover) appeared, a collection of stories Friedman published in Antwerp. This book was nominated for the European Aristeion literary prize. She also published stories in several Dutch literary magazines, including De Gids en Maatstaf. In all of Friedman’s works, World War II is a central theme.
Friedman’s third novel, Twee koffers vol, is a remarkable work. While the author makes generous use of understatements and writes in a matter-of-fact-tone, she manages to touch the reader with her story about the twenty-year-old student Chaja in Antwerp during the 1970s. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Chaja has renounced God and tries to find consolation for her existential doubts by studying philosophy. However, despite her efforts, Chaja is unable to find anything that accounts for the omnipresent suffering. Looking for extra earnings, she ends up working as a baby-sitter with the Hasidic Kalman family. A special relationship develops between Chaja and the toddler Simcha. Being confronted with the strict Hassidic mode of living, Chaja is reminded of her own Jewish background and especially of the long-suppressed Holocaust-induced traumas of her parents. The tensions between the worldly Chaja and her employer build up and the strictly orthodox father can no longer hide his hatred for her. The difficult situation in which Chaja finds herself suddenly changes after a cruel tragedy occurs: little Simcha has a fatal accident. Sad and confused, Chaja chooses to devote herself to science, abandon religion and switch her studies to physics.
Undoubtedly, it is Chaja’s developing consciousness of her background that makes this modest but dramatic story most appealing. At the start of Twee koffers vol, Chaja feels aversion from everything that is Jewish; at the end of the book she wants to help her father look for the suitcases which he buried during the war. Surrounded by the traumatic experiences of her parents, the strict religious observance of her employers and her own highly secular environment, Chaja manages to develop her own sense of morality. Twee koffers vol, which literally means “two filled suitcases” but which has been translated as The Shovel and the Loom, has been reprinted several times and was adapted for the screen. In 1998 the English-language film based on Twee koffers vol, now translated as Left Luggage and directed by Jeroen Krabbé, appeared. Like the book, it was a success both in the Netherlands and abroad. Left Luggage won several prizes, among them the Blue Angel Award for Best European Film at the 1998 Berlin International Film Festival. The film’s success has reflected on Friedman. All her books have been translated into English. Twee koffers vol and its film version have placed her and her other books firmly on the international literary map. This, together with the style and themes of her books, has made Carl Friedman unique among Dutch authors.
Tralievader. Amsterdam: 1991; Twee koffers vol. Amsterdam: 1993; De grauwe minnaar. Amsterdam: 1996; Nightfather. New York: 1994 (translated from the Dutch by Jeannette K. Ringold); The Shovel and the Loom. New York: 1996 (translated from the Dutch by Jeannette K. Ringold); The Gray Lover: Three Stories. New York: 1998 (translated from the Dutch by Jeannette K. Ringold).
Left Luggage was produced in The Netherlands, Belgium and the USA in 1998 by the Shooting Star Film Company (Ate de Jong, Hans Pos en Dave Schram). Directed by Jeroen Krabbé. Screenplay by Edwin de Vries. English, color, 96 minutes.