Tonight I am remembering standing in a forest surrounding the Nazi extermination camp called Treblinka. Why? Because I just finished reading Aharon Appelfeld’s novel Blooms of Darkness and, upon finishing it, am feeling somewhat like I did after going to Treblinka.
I don’t think I took any photos there. And after getting back on the bus, I distinctly remember writing in my journal that it would be impossible for me to write anything. I had become numb with sadness and paralyzed by grief – less from what there was to see than from what was evoked by the written testimonies of witnesses and survivors that were read aloud to us, painting a vivid description of what had happened in the very places we stood.
In Blooms of Darkness, an eleven-year-old Jewish boy named Hugo is brought by his mother to a childhood friend of hers named Mariana in order to be hidden during the war. However, Mariana, a Ukrainian Christian, is also a prostitute whose customers are German soldiers. She agrees to hide little Hugo in a closet next to her room from which he can hear angry and frightening voices as Mariana is tormented by her work in “The Residence.”
Hugo is devastated by the separation from his parents and in his imagination, he turns over these words of his mother:
But there is one thing I want to say to you. You know very well that we didn’t observe our religion but we never denied our Jewishness. The cross you’re wearing, don’t forget, is just camouflage, not faith. If Mariana or I-don’t-know-who tries to make you convert, don’t say anything to them. Do what they tell you to do, but in your heart you have to know: you mother and father, your grandfathers and grandmothers were all Jews, and you’re a Jew, too. It’s not easy to be a Jew. Everybody persecutes you. But that doesn’t make us inferior people. To be a Jew isn’t a mark of excellence, but it’s also not shameful. I wanted to say that to you, so that your spirits won’t fall. Read a chapter or two of the Bible every day. Reading the Bible will strengthen you. That’s all. That’s what I wanted to say to you.
Mariana alternates between neglecting Hugo and showering him with affection. The little boy is patient and ardent. He accepts all things and bears them nobly. Mariana, unstable from being victimized by so many aggressive men, is fond of Hugo because he is a child who exudes a child’s innocence, confidence, and trust.
Tragically, Marina’s affection is not particularly maternal, but Hugo depends upon her utterly – promising loyalty, assistance, and secrecy about all that happens between them. They are bound together in their fate of countless sufferings because, as one of the women in The Residence put it, “Whores and Jews are always persecuted. There’s nothing to be done.”
All throughout the Ukrainian city in which the story takes place, Jews are being rounded up and killed. Still, Hugo perseveres in hoping that he will be reunited with his parents. In addition to his safety being jeopardized by search raids, his safety is also threatened by any of the other women in The Residence who could inform on him.
The Germans are murderers and the Communists are heretics. As the Germans retreat, the women from the brothel all fear being raped, hanged, or shot by the Communists. Later, when the Communists find Mariana and Hugo sitting under an oak tree around a fire, Mariana is seized for interrogation and promptly killed.
Hugo is then left wandering the streets of his Ukrainian city, looking for his parents. “Only now, standing before the ruins [of his parents’ old pharmacy] does he absorb what has happened: what was will never return.”
When he wanders back to his former home, an old man calls out to him, “Who are you?” Hugo tells the man his name and explains, “I came to see our house.” “‘Get out of here. I don’t want to see you again,’ says the old man. Hugo quickens his steps, and before long he is back in the square, among the refugees.”
The book is about an inconclusive as a visit to Treblinka. However, my visit to Treblinka was led by two Holocaust survivors with an indomitable strength of soul and so the possibility of these words at the end of the novel managed to mean something: “We have a lot to give. We don’t know yet how much we have.”