At almost the same moment last week that Uri Grossman, the 20-year-old son of Israeli novelist David Grossman, was reported killed in battle, I got news that an Israeli friend who had been called up to serve as a medic in the north of Israel had taken a David Grossman book with him.
When my friend came to California a few days ago for vacation, I asked him why he grabbed that particular book. He responded: “It was right there on my shelf. Anyway, I didn’t have time to get to the library.”
While the first part of his answer suggests the common-sense approach of a reservist going into the terror (and sometimes boredom) of war, the second part — why a soldier on his way to a battle would need time to go to a library — got me thinking more carefully about the connections between war and literature in Jewish culture. During biblical times, we imagine King David as a proud if reluctant warrior, his violence and his Psalms intimately connected in a language of bold faith. But during the long centuries of the diaspora, as Jews became powerless in the lands of Crusades, Inquisition and pogroms, their resistance to tyranny was displaced into texts and liturgy.
And then suddenly, in one generation, the Jews suffered the ultimate exaggeration of diaspora powerlessness — the Holocaust — and then an almost biblical return to being a warrior people with the founding of the State of Israel. And for half a century our best writers have attempted to create a new literature that responds to the perfect failure, and imperfect success, of these two events.
A unique synthesis of these almost irreconcilable experiences is David Grossman’s now canonical novel “See Under: Love,” set among Holocaust survivors just after the founding of the State of Israel. We meet a young boy named Momik who tries to turn the tragedy of the Holocaust into a story whose language will unlock the hidden meanings of Jewish suffering. Finding this narrative becomes a battle the boy, who eventually becomes a writer, struggles with his whole life.
Initially Momik embodies the communal narrative of suffering he senses all around him, and he describes the neighbors who all “came from Over There, a place you weren’t supposed to talk about too much, only think about in your heart and sigh with a drawn-out krechtz, oyyyy, the way they always do…”
But then Momik grows tired of these stories, living as he does in Israel in the 1950s. Channeling the new national sensibility, he tells his grandfather, who is a survivor: “Shut up already, enough already, we’re sick of your story, you can’t kill the Nazi kaput with a story, you have to beat him to death, and for that you need a naval commando unit to break into the room and take him hostage till Hitler comes to save him, and then they catch Hitler and kill him too with terrible tortures…”
Momik, under the thumb of the survivor’s pain, understates the power of the first approach. The diaspora’s literary responses to tragedy have been so vital and creative as to become themselves a source of life and hope to nourish future generations. Indeed, the texts were so powerful that they, and the Jews who read and transmitted them, outlasted the empires that had threatened the Jews. Have you seen a Hittite recently? On the other hand, Momik’s fantasy of Israeli military power has also not created a peaceful community for Jews in the Promised Land. Near the end of “See Under: Love,” which has moved back in time to the camps, the adult Momik manages to merge these opposed Jewish fantasies, imagining his grandfather telling stories to the Nazi commander, Herr Neigel, stories of such rich humanity that the Nazi is undone by them, and commits suicide. Grossman has literally turned the literary impulse into one of violent action. The Jew uses language as a weapon, and a Nazi is defeated by Jewish superior storytelling. Now the Nazis are gone, and the Jews continue with a new text —the story told by the survivor, re-imagined by the young Israeli writer, written by the real David Grossman, and read by Jews around the world.
The book ends with the oldest Jewish literary strategy, a prayer, a new psalm of David: “All of us prayed for one thing: that he might end his life knowing nothing of war. Do you understand, Herr Neigel? We asked for so little: for a man to live in this world from birth to death and know nothing of war.”
For David Grossman and his family, this prayer was not answered, and their tragedy is our tragedy. But Jewish history tells us, if it tells us anything, that his prayer will live on.
Daniel Schifrin is a writer and editor in Berkeley, Calif.