Lizzie Doron is a prize-winning Israeli writer. In her work, she often uses autobiographical elements. She was born in Israel to a mother who was a Holocaust survivor. She lives in Tel Aviv. Her books have been translated into German, French, Italian but not English.
Once There Was A Family, as one would translate the Hebrew title Hajta po pa’am mischpacha, is set in Tel Aviv in the 90s. Elisabeth’s mother, Helena, has died. Elisabeth who has left the neighbourhood, in which she grew up as a teenager, returns to observe shiva in her mother’s apartment. During the seven days of the shiva, many people come to pay respect and keep her company. Some she still remembers, some are strangers. The seven days of the shiva are a journey of remembrance for Elisabeth. She dives deep into memories of her childhood, the neighbourhood, and its people.
Born in 1953, like the author, Elisabeth is second-generation, as the children of Holocaust survivors are called. She grew up alone with her mother in a neighbourhood predominantly inhabited by survivors of the Shoah. Everything turns around their memories. Everything is tainted by their memories. Sadness is everywhere. To the sadness of those who survived, often only physically, the sadness of recent wars is added. Many of the children Elisabeth grew up with die during the Six-Day war in 1963 and the Yom-Kippur war in 1973. Like the author, Elisabeth leaves the neighbourhood at eighteen, joins the army and later goes to live in a kibbutz.
I have never read a book like this before. I have read other Israeli authors, but they didn’t focus on the aftermath of the Holocaust. This book is so moving and sad, but never depressing. It allows us to enter a world, that is long lost but has left its mark on many who are still alive. There are so many books about the Holocaust, but not that many, I know of, which tell about the life in Israel, right after the war. There is no escaping the Holocaust. People feel close, because they went through the same. They differentiate each other, often calling others not by their surname but by the camp they have been in. There is one person called Itta Theresienstadt. They all have this in common – they seem to cling to the past. One of them says “I do not want to be well. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to forget.”
And it’s hard to forget as Elisabeth is reminded when the first guests come to the shiva. “One of them was small and scrawny, only bones and wrinkles, the second one tall and big. They stood in the door with crossed arms, as erect as possible, and in the candlelight, one could see the numbers on their arms”.
When there was a festivity in the past, many of the older people got annoyed. “Who are you going to invite? Your mother and father from Treblinka? Uncle Jisruel and aunt Mira from Majdanek? Your grandfather from Dachau?”
Sometimes, the memories are so overwhelming, the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, when asked where they live, still answer with the number of their barracks in Auschwitz, Dachau or Treblinka.
The longer the shiva goes on, the more Elisabeth remembers the good things; not everything was overshadowed by the pervading sadness. Because of the shared past, there was a connection that made them all feel like family. You could rely on your neighbours. They would always help. They would always care. Proof of that are the many flickering remembrance candles in everyone’s apartment.
There is tragedy too. Some cannot shake off the past and eventually choose to kill themselves.
One of the most poignant scenes comes towards the end of the book. Elisabeth remembers the day when she went to the hospital with her mother. The doctor insisted he needed to know something about the family history to diagnose her properly. What illnesses were there in the in the family? Elisabeth tells him that she doesn’t know. “They all died young and healthy.”
“Maybe there are family members you could ask,” the doctor insists. “Oh yes”, Elisabeth says, “of course, we could hold a seance.” The doctor does absolutely not understand why she is so unhelpful and finally gets a social worker who scolds him. “It’s a second-generation case, doctor.”
This last scene is so important because it shows that even in Israel, some might have forgotten that whole families, several generations of them, were wiped out.
I don’t understand why this or other books by Lizzie Doron haven’t been translated into English. It’s a massive omission. This book is so beautiful and important that everyone should be able to read it. Especially if they are interested in the Holocaust and Israel.
In later books, Lizzie Doron focusses more on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. I’m very keen on reading them as well.
Here’s a very short video in which she talks about how she experiences the lockdown in Tel Aviv and her fear of dictatorship.