Ida Fink’s stunning short stories emerged from her wartime experiences as a young Jewish woman in Poland during the Holocaust. When the Nazi invasion of Poland interrupted her training at the music conservatory, Fink and her sister escaped from the Nazi genocide using forged identity papers. Surviving by assuming a series of false identities, the sisters survived the war and eventually moved to Israel, where Fink began to compose short, delicate, and powerful stories based on her own experiences and those related to her by others. Her subtle and nuanced writing brings memory and imagination to bear on a traumatic past.
“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 her 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, perpetrators, and others connected to 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.
Family and Holocaust Experience
Ida Landau was born in Zbarazh, Poland (today, Ukraine) on November 1, 1921, 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 Nazi presence in Poland could 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 studied at the Lvov Conservatory and prepared for a career as a pianist. The Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, when she was eighteen years old, terminated her studies. In 1941, her mother died of cancer at the age of fifty.
The Landau family was confined to the Zbarazh ghetto until 1942, when Ida 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. Fink 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 recollected that, while in hiding, she felt a determination to write about her experiences, more than a decade would pass before she began to do so. In the late 1950s she began composing short stories in Polish, based on personal 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 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 did not attempt to alter her style. Eventually her work was published to glowing reviews. After publishing several individual stories in journals, her first collection of stories was published in Hebrew translation (Pisat Zman) in 1974; a collection in the original Polish followed in 1983. The first collection of stories in English translation, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories, appeared in 1989. Her novel The Journey was published in English translation in 1992, after its initial appearance in Polish in 1990. A third volume, Traces, containing stories and short plays in English translation, appeared in 1997. The first complete collection of her stories in Hebrew translation was published in 2004. In addition to Hebrew and English, her work has been translated into many languages, including German, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Danish, and French. 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), and the PEN Club Prize (Poland, 2003). She received an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in 2004. In 2008, she became the first author writing in a language other than Hebrew to be awarded the Israel Prize.
Themes and Analysis
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 certainly 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, conscious 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 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 genocide. Her work exposes the indifference of eyewitnesses, the complicated relationships between Jews and those with the power to assist or condemn them, and the antisemitism that survives the war (“Conversation,” “Shelter,” “A Spring Morning,” The Journey).
Fink’s stories have served as the inspiration for several films. The 1997 French short film, Le jeu de la clé, based on one of Fink’s early stories, “The Key Game,” focus on a little boy whose parents rely on him to create a distraction that would give his father time to hide from arrest or roundup. Although the parents attempt to turn their frequent drills into a game, the child is aware of the consequences of failure. The 2002 Das letzte Versteck [The Last Hiding Place], a feature film produced for German television, dramatizes the events recounted in Fink’s novel The Journey. The 2007 feature film Spring 1941 pays homage to Fink, beginning and ending with brief quotations from “A Scrap of Time” and announcing itself as “inspired by the works of Ida Fink.” Drawing on plot elements from several unrelated stories and incorporating several elements from the author’s life, the film does not capture the subtle and suggestive restraint of Fink’s stories.
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 post-war memories. By turns poignant and tender, grim and sardonic, Fink’s lean and unsentimental prose conveys the profound and lasting effects of the Holocaust.
Fink passed away on September 27, 2011, in Tel Aviv, Israel, at the age of 89.
Selected Works by Ida Fink
A Scrap of Time: Stories. Trans. Madeline Levine and Francine Prose. New York: Random, 1987.
The Journey. Trans. Joanna Weschler and Francine Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1992.
Traces: Stories. Trans. Phillip Boehm and Francine Prose. New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1997.
“Zawsze chcialam pisa” (“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.
Films Based on Fink’s Stories
Barbash Uri, dir. Spring 1941. Israel: 2007.
Hassan, Michel, dir. Le Jeu de la Clé. France: 1997.
Koralnik, Pierre, dir. Das Letzte Versteck. Germany: 2002.
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: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Kaplan, Johanna. Review of A Scrap of Time. New York Times Book Review July 12, 1987: 7.
Milner, Iris. “Towards a New Reading of Ida Fink’s The Journey.” In Comparative Central European Holocaust Studies, ed. Louise Olga Vasvári and Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, 147-157. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2009.
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. “Shem ha-mis’ak: hisradut” (“The Name of the Game: Survival”). Yedi’ot Aaronot August 6, 1993: 26.
Shaked, Gershon. “Lesaek b’te’atron absurd” (“Playing in the Theater of the Absurd”). Yedi’ot Aaronot August 13, 1993: 31.
Wilczynski, Marek. "Trusting the Words: Paradoxes of Ida Fink." Modern Language Studies XXIV.4 (Fall, 1994): 25-38.
Documentaries about Ida Fink
Abulafia, Roni, dir. Ida Fink: Rishumim Le-Korot Hayyim (Ida Fink: Traces). Israel: 2004.
Walk, Ruth, dir. The Garden that floated away. Israel: 2007.