Transferring traumatic experience through literature is often problematic, especially when attempting to fictionalize the Holocaust. Literary accounts run the risk of being deemed ineffective, inaccurate, or insensitive to the six million murdered and left without voices of their own. In “The Certainties of History and the Uncertainties of Representation in Post-Holocaust Writing”, Victoria Aarons begs the question, “How can one ‘translate’ such experiences into ordinary language” when even survivors such as writer Ida Fink find their memories broken into sharp-edged shards rather than complete products easily packaged into clear-cut stories (Aarons 2012, p. 135
)? While exploring the Holocaust through the lens of literature, one must account for what language and memory are and are not capable of. That is not to say that fiction should be discounted. Readers should simply recognize a particular phenomenon within Holocaust literature: the paradox of “telling” the unspeakable. Aarons identifies this as “the contradictory language of Holocaust expression, its incompleteness, its characteristic elliptical tropes and omissions, and the resulting syntactical recanting of language’s normative usage [...] [which] give way to a fresh vocabulary” (Aarons 2012, p. 135
). To read, analyze, or even write Holocaust narratives, one must expect to encounter and translate new forms of writing and expression without words—without human language, even. Silence is a recurring and thoroughly discussed theme in Holocaust literature: “Silences takes shape, becomes solid, reified, is given voice, a provocative and evocative silence that invites—indeed, requires—new forms of expression, an undermining of conventional structures, patterns, and genres” (Aarons 2012, p. 136
). In other words, readers must tune their ears to wordlessness—perhaps even to utterances that do not come from the mouths of humans.
Fink’s collection of short stories, A Scrap of Time, certainly ‘tells the unspeakable,’ fictionalizing her memories through fragments that teeter on the border between real and unreal, focusing on singular scenes, narrow perspectives, and inner narratives illustrating emotional turmoil rather than recounting historical fact. In many of her stories, the horrors of the Holocaust are left directly unsaid, yet are nonetheless demonstrated by the difficult decisions undertaken by victimized characters. For example, in “Jean Christophe”, its characters never speak of the train’s purpose or what it will mean when it comes back for them. In “The Key Game”, the family repeatedly rehearses their game, never expressing what it would mean for them to lose. “*****” does not even title itself using words, and its characters use the contradictory, seemingly meaningless phrase “Zeit gezint”/“Be well”, to bid adieu to old men heading off to be massacred. What this paper is really concerned with, however, is not what those capable of speech cannot not communicate; rather, it seeks to analyze what those incapable of speech attempt to communicate through something other than human language. Not the things that characters are afraid to say, making their situation more real through language; not feelings and sensations that cannot be adequately described in words. Rather, this interpretation of A Scrap of Time will tune itself to that which is loudly expressed without words. In Fink’s fiction, nature speaks. At the height of characters’ suffering, rivers have things unspeakable to say in response to human atrocity.
One may ask, regarding both Fink’s fiction and this specific analysis of it: why focus on something non-human in relation to an event that concerns millions of real human victims? The answer to this question is found in the methodology and aims of ecocriticism, a subfield of literary studies that analyzes the function of place in works of fiction. Ultimately, when ecocritics discuss the role of nature in a story, they are not solely exploring non-human concerns. Sometimes, talking about a place, or a particular fixture of nature, is just another form of discourse addressing humanity, culture, and history. In response to complaints that the field has become too “anthropocentric”, ecocritic Nancy Easterlin argues, “Literary works are artifacts of the human mind, language, and behavior [...] Quite simply, since the adapted human mind produces literature, that mind’s modes of perceiving its surroundings are, in all likelihood, central to the literary representations of persons, places, and their interactions” (Easterlin 2004, p. 2
). In other words, representations of nature in literature can only ever be received as a product of human psychology, philosophy, theology, and history. Therefore, scholars in the humanities should avoid “dichotomies that sever humans from nature” (Easterlin 2004, p. 6
). Rivers, forests, seas, and mountains in works of fiction are composed of human ideas, experiences, and perceptions.
It is pertinent that Fink sets many of her stories in proximity to rivers. Even compared to other fixtures of the natural world, rivers are richly symbolic, reflecting life, humanity, creation, and divinity. In the first lines of Genesis, the earth was naught but endless water. Civilizations are formed by riversides. Their prosperity, or lack thereof, depended on the ebb and flow of nearby waterways. Rivers either blessed humanity with bounty or blighted it with flood. In this sense, rivers often resembled God in the history of human thought. In The Meaning of Rivers: Flow and Reflection in American Literature
, T.S McMillan traces such ideas in fictional representations of rivers, seeking to nail down what literary rivers communicate—not within the non-human realm of ecology, but within frameworks that spring from the human mind, memory, and creativity: “We tend to separate rivers from literature in the same way we separate what we think of as nature from what we think of as culture [...] In bringing rivers and literature together, [they] have more meaning and more life in them than we commonly suspect.” (McMillan 2011, p. xiv
). Humanity’s association of rivers with sustenance, life, and even death led them to connect the meaning of human existence with rivers and river symbolism in art and literature. In other words, it is a common trope for purpose, truth, and the answers to all of life’s puzzling questions to be found along the riverbank. McMillan’s observation, “The grand circle of movement of water from ocean to atmosphere to continent and back to ocean is the essential mechanism that allows organisms—including humans—to emerge, to develop, and to live on Earth” (xii), must be compared to Ecclesiastes 1:7, “All rivers run to the sea, and yet the sea is never full; to their place of origin they return again.” Both lines stress the connectedness of rivers, life, creation, and God. By creating connections—as all rivers are connected—humans seek out meaning in their experiences and lives. This is similar to the way in which McMillan seeks the meaning of rivers. However, he never boils down the meaning of rivers to just one message or idea. Just as the sea is never full, there is never one single meaning to be had. Rivers can never be adequately translated into a simple set of words. McMillan writes, “Rivers do not cede their meanings easily” (McMillan 2011, p. xii
), and this is clearly exemplified in Fink’s stories. One simple meaning—or ultimate ‘truth’—cannot be found by the rivers that her characters encounter and converse with.
One may then ask, what significance do rivers hold in the human environment of the Holocaust, and what can ecocriticism contribute to the study of Holocaust literature? Ruth Ginsburg, writing about the function of place in A Scrap of Time
, touches upon an answer to both of these questions. In an essay exploring what she terms “negative chronotopes”, Ginsburg focuses on Fink’s fixation with “sites of absence, [...] places that arrest a time of disappearing, of vanishing into nothing. [...] Reduced, voided, silenced and covered up, [...] settings delineating an excruciatingly long but fleeting moment of dying” (Ginsburg 2006, pp. 205–6
). During the Holocaust, nature became the witness of crimes against humanity. Rivers, such as the Danube, were sights of mass murder and along their banks where the Jews of Budapest spent their final moments. Victims were lined up, shot, and washed away by the current. Countless people killed have yet to be recovered. Thus—though left undiscussed in Ginsburg’s essay—rivers were undeniably “places that arrest a time of disappearing, of vanishing into nothing.” Once associated with comfort, beauty, life, and divinity, places such as those became associated with nothing but death. It is then no wonder that other works of Holocaust literature, like Borowski’s This Way to the Gas
and Bart-Schwartz’s The Last of the Just
, characterize all of nature as being apathetic, turning a blind eye to genocide. In Fink’s fiction, however, nature is depicted differently; “Fink’s ‘negative’ chronotope freezes a scrap of unthinkable time in an elusive yet detailed space that screams
, as it were, the truth of the event” (Ginsburg 2006, p. 207
). Rivers revolt—screaming, in a sense—in reply to being transformed into a mass grave.
David Patterson’s “The Ashen Earth: Jewish Reflections on our Relation to Nature in the Post-Holocaust Era” compares Nazis’ idolatry of the natural world, where it is indeed unconcerned with human suffering and where the elimination of the Jews is beneficial, with the Talmudic perspective, where nature is an extension of God that responds to Jewish suffering: “The former worships the tree; the latter worships the One who created the tree and who commands us as to how we must handle the tree, as well as how we must treat each other” (Patterson 2013, p. 100
). Holocaust narratives that associate rivers with death, disappearance, passivity, and silence find their origin in Nazi perspectives of the natural world which suggest that Jews must be eradicated “for the sake of the earth itself”, […] [devaluing] human life in the name of a nature that has become the ultimate value” (Patterson 2013, pp. 97–98
). This largely comes from the slogan Blut and Boden
(“Blood and Soil”), where race purity is equated with the earth’s purity. Thus, the Nazis were motivated to permeate its soil, air, and waters with the ashes of millions of Jewish dead: “The blue Danube ran red with Jewish blood, and the fresh air of the countryside—indeed, of the entire planet—reeked of Jewish ashes” (Patterson 2013, p. 100
). Paradoxically, they defiled nature for the sake of nature’s purity. However, Fink’s narrative instead characterizes rivers with associations that more clearly match Talmudic views in which nature is permeated with God’s presence, bearing witness and actively responding to the atrocities committed by and against humanity. Rivers indeed reply to suffering, just as God would. They may have no direct hand in stopping it, yet they can give voice to it. In many stories within Fink’s collection, nature appears to be a device through which God, or something else separate from the human realm, can speak. Not in words, and not through silence, but through something else entirely. Patterson’s article also supports an interpretation concerning God’s ability to communicate through nature. From the Nazi perspective, “Made into an idol, nature is rendered mute [...] It is the voice of no one—certainly no one who can command us not to murder” (Patterson 2013, p. 102
). Alternatively, the Talmud depicts all of “nature as utterances of God”, and as such, “All of nature speaks
” (Patterson 2013, pp. 102–3
). Fink’s rivers not only bear witness to and condemn atrocity, they respond violently to it in the form of spoken replies. They express what sounds like “utterances of God.” Their response is never muted or passive. Witnessing the desecration of earth and its inhabitants, Fink’s rivers cry out in grief and rage.
McMillan’s book is worth another consideration because it offers a useful framework for analyzing the function and significance of Fink’s rivers. In what he terms “by-the-river writing”, he identifies “a fundamental connection between flowing waters and formative words. Premised on that connection, by-the-river writing is nourished by and further nourishes, thinking about some of the most basic questions regarding our condition: questions of time, truth, identity, God, self, other, suffering, evil” (McMillan 2011, p. 60
). The first theme that finds itself exemplified in Fink’s work is the connection between “flowing waters” and “formative words.” This notion resembles previously explored ideas, such as “the paradox of the telling the unspeakable”, the connection between nonhuman voices and human culture, and fixtures of nature that “scream
the truth of an event” as possible “utterances of God.” McMillian claims that being by the riverside offers “contact with our thoughts. [...] We can experience a closeness to the river, its motion and sound, that can create a sense of stillness; and at the center of that stillness thoughts form. […] A fair number of American writers, however, have made use of the situation to explore the link between water and words, between streams and consciousness” (McMillan 2011, p. 27
). In other words, the river is reflective in more ways than one. The surface of the water is reflective, responding and changing to match the world around it. The riverside is also a place for human characters to reflect, think, and make difficult decisions. In a sense, fictional rivers and fictional characters are in conversation with one another. The river itself is a character capable of interaction and development. Another theme recurrent in “by-the-river writing” is the act of grappling with divinity, truth, and meaning. McMillan paints rivers “as a prompt for transcendent vision. […] That thinking requires knowing the river’s limits but also understanding that it offers us a chance to ‘glimpse redemption.’ Thinking by the river in these different modes is an art that entails perception, memory, imagination, reason, affection, and the will to expand the scope of our vision, [...] presenting the river as an emblem for the soul’s union with the divine. To be by the river leads to being by God” (McMillan 2011, p. 32
). Simply put, to converse with the river is to converse with God, or at least something similar. It is a way of seeking answers from something larger and more inter-connected than oneself. If the river is an “utterance of God”, then characters seek out the riverbank in order to hear God’s voice. The last theme apparent in the infinite current of literature’s rivers is the passage of time: “Going nowhere and being by a river provide time for thinking, and one of the things [characters] tend to think about is time. […] By-the-river writings often feature a special attention to time and timelessness […] The relations between flowing water and time often in turn merge with thoughts on other relations—between members of a family, between self and place, between self and society, or between human and higher truths” (McMillan 2011, p. 28
). Fink’s collection concerns “time and timelessness” more than all else. Each narrative captures but a single “scrap of time” in the lives of those who have run out of it and who, in a certain sense, are “going nowhere” as they inch closer to death. Perhaps this notion can even be connected back to Ginsburg’s claim that Fink sets her fiction in “places that arrest a time of disappearing, of vanishing into nothing.” The Gniezna River in “A Spring Morning, a nameless river in “Titina”, and the Rhine River in “Night of the Surrender”, all brim with associations and themes concerning these connections between language, time, meaning, God, nature, and human suffering during the Holocaust.
In “A Spring Morning”, the Gniezna River converses with a father who faces not only his own approaching demise, but that of his young daughter. The story follows two separate perspectives: the account of a bar patron who had witnessed a marches funèbres early that morning, and “a scrap of time” through the eyes of a man in that march who was killed along with his family. The opening sentences of both perspectives, the man who dies and the other who witnesses the moments before his death, describe the river below: “The foaming Gniezna River was the dirty-yellow color of beer” (Fink 1995, p. 39
), and then, “The first trucks rode across the bridge over the surging Gniezna” (Fink 1995, p. 40
). These separate openings signal that the river is not simply a set piece within the story; it certainly functions as the setting and perhaps even as an active character within the narrative. It is the common factor and central image linking both character perspectives: “Thanks to him and to people like him, there have survived to this day shreds of sentences, echoes of final laments, shadows of the sighs of participants in the marches funèbres
” (Fink 1995, p. 39
) The overheard lament that renders the dead father’s story even tellable is: “The water is the color of beer” (Fink 1995, p. 45
), and the oddity of this observation catches the bar patron’s attention: “I made a point of looking at it, the water was like water, just a little dirtier.” (Fink 1995, p. 40
). Here, the river serves as testimony to the victim’s experience, creating a communicative link that offers a window into his fear, decisiveness, and impending death. This aspect of the story’s narrative style echoes McMillan’s connection between “flowing waters and formative words.” Through spoken language, the river is brought to life as an active character in the story—a character that passes along the narrative of the young father doomed to die. The bar patron associates the father’s life, death, and testimony with the sight and sounds of the Gniezna. The strangeness of the father’s final lament is what makes his story even worth telling for the bar patron. Without the river, it is a story that may never have even been told.
The Gniezna not only bears witness—it responds violently to the atrocities being committed above and nearby it. Directly preceding, during, and in the aftermath of the killings, the Gniezna rages: “The river had risen; it was flowing noisily, turbulently, eddying and churning; on that quiet spring morning, it was the only sign of nature’s revolt” (Fink 1995, p. 45
). Here, the river is not simply a communicative link between human characters. The river itself is an active character that has its own voice. Though it cannot use words in the ways to which readers are accustomed, Fink’s language concerning the river’s violence effectively expresses the rage and “revolt” of nature in response to human suffering. One could even read this section as the Gniezna speaking directly to the young father. After the violence of its waters is described, the narrator abruptly decides to shirk passivity and take a chance “to find some chink through which to push his child back into the world of the living” (Fink 1995, p. 45
). Perhaps the river, in its call to the father, persuades him to consider the notion of “time and timelessness.” Earlier in the story, he remarks that “time was up”, and that “a terrible feeling of regret tore through him, […] and he understood that he had overslept his life” (Fink 1995, p. 44
). The river’s revolt convinces him to prove otherwise. In what is perhaps the story’s most meaningful line, the father describes the water below as yellow—the “color of beer” and the color of his daughter’s blonde hair. While the child lives and still has a future, he has but a scrap of time left to make an attempt at saving her life: “Suddenly he was thinking very fast” (Fink 1995, p. 45
). He sends his daughter into a crowd of churchgoers, hoping for mercy and charity among them. His plan unfortunately fails, and the river changes its tone: “The water is the color of beer” (Fink 1995, p. 45
) changes to “a gloomy, gray river flowing out to sea” (Fink 1995, p. 47
). After his daughter has been shot and killed, after her future has been robbed, and after the father has truly run out of time, the river is drained of its color; it is cast gray and reflects the procession’s march to the killing field. In this color and tone shift, the river is reflective of the human world outside of it. It rages as hundreds, thousands, and millions of nameless victims are marched off to die. It mourns in the aftermath of a child’s death. It actively converses with victims in the story and bear witness to their suffering. Fink’s rivers, like Gniezna, are never passive or silent, as they “scream
the truth” of the Holocaust.
At the heart of “Titina”, and pervasive in the mind of its conflicted narrator, flows a nameless river. On a night of rapidly increasing deportations, young Ludek is asked to fetch after the mad, reclusive French tutor Titina. Inner turmoil brought on by such an order and chaos created by the forced removal of Jewish residents run parallel to the turbulence of the river that cuts through the ghetto. It cries out its agitation: “The ice was breaking up on the river, and the sound of water could be heard everywhere in town. [...] The river’s voice grew stronger” (Fink 1995, p. 83
). Once more, Fink pushes readers’ attention toward a river that reflects the anguish of the human world around it, refusing to be silent in response to genocide. Ludek associates the decision he is being forced to make with the river’s violence. As an increasingly complicit errand-boy for the Germans, Ludek seems to suspect that the river’s rage is directed his way: “A scream came from the direction of Castle Hill. He stopped and listened. Silence now, nothing, only the sound of the river. The river and his own heart” (Fink 1995, p. 85
). The river’s roar gives voice to Ludek’s indecisiveness and anguish, and it will not allow him to ignore the choice he must make. His choices are not to give up Titina or be deported himself—they are to betray her or to drown himself in the river. The former options are certainly the real consequences, yet it is the latter that plagues him throughout the story: “He leaned over the bridge railing. One thrust of his body and he would be floating away, carried along by the current into the heart of that roar. [...] What does brave and obedient mean? [...] To get crazy Titina? To float away with the river?” (Fink 1995, p. 85
). Ludek conducts a silent argument with the river; or perhaps, something about the river’s increasing roar is pressing the issue. Once again, Fink’s rivers converse with characters, impacting and prompting their decision-making and development throughout the narrative.
Both the story’s overall structure and Ludek’s argument suggest that this nameless river is associated with “time and timelessness.” The plot jumps from fragment-to-fragment, scrap-to-scrap in time, focusing in on connected moments in Ludek’s past and present concerning his history with Titina and his mother’s strong devotion to his survival. These sudden shifts are disorienting and difficult to ignore in any interpretation of the story. Oftentimes, the roar of the river is what prompts these jumps through time: “The river’s voice grew stronger. Titina lived next to the bridge. ‘Good evening,’ He imagined himself saying, and heard Titina answer, ‘Bonsoir, jeune homme’
” (Fink 1995, p. 83
). Outside of the past and present, however, Ludek is constantly plagued by the consequences of each choice that lies before him. This is another way of exploring his thoughts, fears, and uncertainties concerning his future. If he refuses to fetch Titina, he will surely die in her place. He will have no future at all. If he turns in Titina, he will presumably be saved from deportations entirely—at least that is what his mother has been led to believe. He will have a future if he is willing to rob Titina of hers. However, Ludek, while disturbed and incensed by the river’s roar, envisions a third option: even if he sacrifices Titina and lives, he still has no future. In the end, Ludek makes the choice to be complicit in atrocity. After he lies to Titina about her upcoming deportation and death, he describes himself as “filthy scum”, and that “he felt as if he were on fire” (Fink 1995, p. 91
). He seeks out the river, proclaiming it as something capable of both cleansing him and dousing the flames: “He kept falling and getting up and running towards the ever closer, ever more threatening roar of the river” (Fink 1995, p. 92
). If one supposes that Ludek has been silently conducting an argument with the river, then this is the moment when the river’s rhetoric prevails. To whom else would Ludek be presenting the question, “What does it mean to be brave and obedient?” Who is he obeying by drowning but the river itself? The river responds to his complicity—his final act as collaborator in Titina’s murder—and it offers a reply to his plea for penance. Recall that McMillan connected fictional rivers’ divine symbolism in characters’ attempts to “glimpse redemption” along its banks. Ludek seeks deliverance from the sins of his complicity, so he runs to the river to hear the “voice of God”, seeking in its syllables either forgiveness or damnation. What he will not be met with, however, is either silence or apathy. Even nameless rivers in Fink’s fiction find a voice through which to protest suffering and evil in the human world.
In “Night of the Surrender”, a Jewish survivor named Klara, posing as a gentile named Ann, meets an American soldier along the banks of the Rhine River. It is where they often spend their days, “like in a fairytale” (Fink 1995, p. 96
). In many of their moments together, they do not speak; instead, they watch the river and listen to it babble. Like in Fink’s other tales, the Rhine responds to the situation surrounding it. Before surrender has been officiated, it reflects the ongoing war and Nazi atrocity: “The water in the Rhine glittered like fish scales, the reeds flowered in the ruins, airplanes circled overhead and they too were silvery and long, like fish [...] watch them dive, grow huge, and mark the earth with the shadow of a cold black cross” (Fink 1995, p. 96
). It also reflects Klara’s overwhelming anxiety that the Nazi regime has not truly fallen, despite the presence of American troops in Berlin. When an official surrender is finally announced, the Rhine reflects the city’s celebrations, “The water in the river was roaring with the fire of victory” (Fink 1995, p. 102
). Although, as the night progresses and Klara’s anxiety nonetheless continues to mount, the water’s appearance comes to represent her hidden identity and urge to confess to her new lover and future husband: “Only on the way to the Rhine did I remember the gnawing fear inside me. […] The river no longer looked like a silver scale; it was dark and the water babbled against the shore” (Fink 1995, p. 98
). The babbling river is cast in darkness to symbolize Klara’s uncertainty, and the waters become ever more agitated as the couple nears its banks. Here, the Rhine, like Fink’s other rivers, represents an argument, choice, or decision. Klara internally debates whether or not to remain “Ann;” whether or not to make her confession to once again live as herself—as Klara. Fink’s word choice again recalls the connection between “flowing waters and formative words.” The river’s revolt presses the issue throughout the story, convincing Klara to come clean and reveal her true name.
The connection between naming and identity is also vital to “Night of the Surrender.” When Klara shares her real name, Mike tells her to forget it—life would be easier and happier for them if she did. Klara may have survived the war, but this rejection kills her in an entirely different way. To smother the name “Klara” is equal to killing Klara, so his denial of her name is devastating. The river’s roar then drowns out her words, her name, and anything else her careless lover has to say: “It seemed to me that the river was making a lot of noise and that my words were drowning in the noise” (Fink 1995, p. 101
). Without a name, language has lost its power for Klara, so the Rhine’s revolt replaces her ability to express herself in words. Its waters reply violently to the repression of Klara’s identity: “The river was still roaring, the river that was roaring inside of me” (Fink 1995, p. 101
). Similar to the ways in which the Rhine reflects Klara’s voice and identity, its endless current can once more be interpreted as representing the flow of time. To reject Klara’s name is to reject her identity and history, wiping out her past and irrevocably altering her future. Her unspoken history is a burden that threatens to drown her: “I already anticipated the enormous relief it would be to say those three words—their weight was growing more unbearable each day” (Fink 1995, p. 95
) However, when Klara finally says to Mike “I am Jewish”, he does not react negatively; he barely reacts at all. Those three words—which mean everything to Klara—mean nothing to Mike. She expresses to him what those words really mean to her, “Do you know what it means to live in fear, lying, never speaking your own language, or thinking with your own brain, or looking with your own eyes?” (Fink 1995, p. 100
). Yet still, Mike does not understand. He convinces her to let those words die: “Promise me one thing: that you will remain Ann—and not just in name. It will be better that way, believe me” (Fink 1995, p. 101
). Spoken words are robbed of their weight and are replaced by the enraged roar of Fink’s rivers. For one final instance in A Scrap of Time
, a river revolts in the wake of human suffering and gives voice to everything that those victimized during and after the Holocaust cannot say.
Fink’s rivers reply differently in each story; they each carry their own meanings and associations. However—whether they persuade, mourn a loss, call out, demand penance, or rage in the place of another character—they universally refuse to remain silent in response to human atrocity during the Holocaust. A Scrap of Time effectively inverts the paradox of ‘telling’ the unspeakable by giving voice to an aspect of life that cannot communicate in clear and ordinary ways. With so many Holocaust victims lost and uncovered within the world’s rivers and seas, buried deep in the earth’s soil, and scattered out into the open air, perhaps such a voice is necessary.