Profile: Zdena Berger
Deceptively simple, elegant prose wrings beauty out of the horrors of the Holocaust in one author’s autobiographical novel of her wartime experiences.
Elie Wiesel has said that following his liberation from Buchenwald in 1945, a decade of self-imposed silence passed before he was able to write anything about what he had lived through. Similarly, Zdena Berger, survivor of Terezin, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, waited 10 years to begin to tell her own story. It was only upon her arrival in America in 1955 that she found herself compelled to give words to what had previously been unspeakable. “I was for a very long time the silent one,” she says. “I preferred that people didn’t know my story. Not to deny it, but not to be defined by my concentration camp experience. Not to make use of it.”
Ironically, once Harper and Brothers did publish Berger’s book Tell Me Another Morningin 1961—one year after the appearance in English of Wiesel’s Night—and despite several favorable reviews, it vanished quickly from print. Although Berger had made her peace with this secondary silence, in 2007 Paris Press reissued the book. Jan Freeman—director of the press whose avowed mission is to revive important and neglected women writers—is fiercely committed to bringing Berger’s unique literary voice back into the world. A quote on the back cover of the new edition from no less a luminary than author Ernest J. Gaines says: “It is a classic, and I hope it never goes out of print again.”
I met with Berger on a perfect summer afternoon at her home in California on the Sonoma coast. We drank chamomile tea and talked about her work, her life and the mysterious complexities of history and memory. Slender and vivid at 84, she has retired to Sonoma with her husband and their two cats, surrounded by books and artwork. Outside the windows, filtered sunlight streamed through branches; inside, there was utter tranquillity. When I asked her about the healing power of this place, she agreed with an emphatic nod. “Peace here isn’t just an isolated moment, like one has in the city,” she said. “It’s ongoing, continual.”
Tell Me Another Morning is the only book Zdena Berger ever wrote. It is not a memoir but rather an autobiographical novel, narrated through the character of a young woman named Tania. Berger deliberately chose to use a fictional framework for her story to transform that part of her life and, for the first time, to offer it up. “It was so liberating,” she says. “I didn’t want to write a diarist book at all. And if it’s not too pretentious to say so, this way I could give it form, give it some beauty.”
Indeed, beauty is perhaps the most remarkable and paradoxical quality of this Holocaust narrative. Berger’s own nightmarish journey from Prague through three concentration camps and, finally, to liberation, is described in Tania’s fragmentary chronological chapters, each entitled and brief. The prose is deceptively simple, eloquent in its understated lyricism, simultaneously raw and luminous. The teenaged Tania says of her relentless hunger: “I feel full of hollowness. The round light space in the middle of my body.” The book is written in present tense; Tania quietly describes every moment, in language that is unadorned and yet terribly exquisite: “We sit in these cages and watch the darkness. We take the air and we give it back and each time there is less…. This is what it is. We are in boxes.”
Although Berger had come back to life in Paris for that first decade after the war, she found that in America it seemed there were too many people who “didn’t know.” Among survivors, there are those who constantly talk, obsessively remembering, while others will not, or cannot, talk at all. Berger says she was one who “tended to integrate it and move on.” However, once Berger began writing a short vignette about Prague in which she depicted her first experiences wearing the yellow star, the piece emerged “like a flash,” she recalls. “And something opened up.” Of the many noteworthy features of this book, the camps are nameless, and even the Nazi guards are referred to anonymously as the green ones. Yet in the precision of its details, the harrowing reality of each experience comes through in astonishing power.
Given the near impossible challenge of finding adequate words to tell about the Holocaust, and yet given the equally unacceptable alternative of not telling, Berger chose to write about friendship and dignity, allowing the poetic to reside inside the horrific. For Tania, as for Berger, the two young women who share her journey and who help one another to survive demonstrate a profound and lasting truth: People are capable of treating each other in both the most horrendous and the most generous ways. “I honestly believe that none of us would have survived without the others,” Berger says.
The relationship with Jan Freeman and Paris Press came about as a result of tenacious efforts by Berger’s close friend and fellow writer Bill Broder to find a publisher interested in a reprint. Freeman’s response to the unsolicited submission was both personal and professional.
“When I first read the book, I felt changed,” Freeman says. “It truly is a gift to me.” Explaining that she sees Tell Me Another Morning as the ideal companion to books such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Night, Freeman is hopeful that this is a more welcoming time for a book by a woman that speaks on such a human level about the life-saving power of friendship.
Stanford University Professor John Felstiner, who has been teaching courses on Holocaust literature for several decades, suggests that although 1961 was the year of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, and in some senses represented what he calls “the breaking of the psychic numbing,” it’s also true that this didn’t immediately translate into worldwide recognition of the Holocaust. “Perhaps there was a kind of eddy created at that time,” Felstiner says. Even now, for instance, literary and nonliterary audiences are discovering new ways of considering the ongoing presence of posttraumatic stress disorder—among soldiers and civilians, among those who have lived through war and those who have inherited war stories from their parents.
Since the book’s reappearance, Berger has been visiting high schools and libraries to read from and talk about her work. The book was a finalist for the 2007 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies and has been called by The San Diego Union Tribune “a rediscovered masterpiece of Holocaust literature.” When I ask the author how she feels about revisiting her personal history as well as the book’s own journey, she admits that “There are so many other terrible things that have happened or are still happening. Injustices and persecutions.” We discuss the relevance of the past, and whether it’s truly possible to believe in hope. “I don’t quite know what that word ‘hope’ means,” Berger says. “I suppose there is always a cycle: a time to emerge and a time to descend.”
She smiles at herself for sounding, as she puts it, “so very Jungian.” And then she continues: “Perhaps it’s my age, but I do feel there is a sort of letting go. Not to let go of the hope, but to recognize that the next generation has to step in. What can one do except develop awareness in order to try to change?”
She is thoughtful for a long moment. “Try to be good to others,” she says softly, answering her own question. “Though as we know, it isn’t that simple.”
I remind Berger about a scene from the novel in which Tania is on a train with her parents, en route to Auschwitz: “There is a whole world outside somewhere. The round globe turns under the white finger of my history teacher; mostly blue, so much water in the world, but there are lands too. And people. They don’t know about this. About me sitting here. And where do we go? All those countries she used to talk about. To think that all those people…they just don’t know…. Why doesn’t somebody tell them? But then, how could they believe it?”
When I read this paragraph aloud to her, Berger shyly exclaims, “It’s beautiful!” And then adds, “I remember exactly how it felt to write that part. It all came back 10 years later, the feeling of separateness, of astonishment that people outside didn’t know.” She also tells me she has found herself unable to read certain passages aloud; at her first reading at a bookstore, she broke down and wept halfway through a chapter called “The Safety Pin.” I tell her I’m not surprised, though she laughs bittersweetly for what she calls naiveté about her own remove. “I have never tried reading it aloud again,” she says.
“The Safety Pin,” one of many short chapters in this book, is about the soup line at Auschwitz. In this excruciating scene, Tania sees her father: “The color is gone from his hair. His eyes are empty. There was always pride in his body. Now there is an old man standing here…. [H]e has become like the rest of the men. Now he is everybody.” Worst of all, he is wearing a jacket whose lapels are “pinched together with that [safety] pin. That lock, for which any hand is a key, holding together the helpless—babies and the buttonless.” Tania is furious that his sweater is gone, but he explains that he has “made a good trade” as he hands her 10 sugar cubes. “Father finds his smile,” Tania tells us. “New as it always was, on his old face…. And the tears that come I swallow with the sweetness of the first cube.”
Back in my own home in Berkeley, I try reading this chapter aloud to myself. But I can’t make it through without breaking down, too. Do we still need these books, whether they are memoirs or novels, to tell us the stories we think we already know? I believe we need them more than ever. H
Novelist, poet and essayist Elizabeth Rosner is the author of two highly acclaimed novels, The Speed of Light (Ballantine) and Blue Nude (Ballantine). Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Elle, The Forward and several anthologies.