Because the famous actress and activist, Oscar winning, was moved while reading a paragraph from the most successful book by award-winning Israeli writer Nava Semel at the closing ceremony of a historic event: The first International Symposium on Sexual Violence during The Holocaust, organized by the foundation created by Steven Spielberg, USC Shoah Foundation - The Institute for Visual History and Education - and Remember the Women Institute the past 8th November in LA.
“I wish the fighting will end soon. For the sake of all innocent people
– both Israelis and Palestinians”
I am shocked. This is the first time I have ever interviewed someone while their country is under attack by hundreds of terrorist missiles, and the rest of the world remains silent because those missiles are only aiming at killing Jews. Someone whose country is at war.
I never dared to ask how she was until a missile fell in Tel Aviv, her hometown. And then Nava answered me with the same strength and warmth from her previous emails (and that moved me and made me admire her): “We’re fine. Thank you for your concern.”
Even when she told me, because I asked her, that her son was called to the reserve the following day, she did not condemn her aggressors: she was only thankful her son wouldn’t be at the battlefront.
And I don’t know why I imagined that after writing me those reassuring letters, almost always at night, Nava would look for a quiet corner, barely place her forehead against the wall, and turning her back to the war, a couple of tears would roll down her face, silently, the only silence that the missiles soaring her sky let her: an inner silence.
And it is night-time here as I write; the sky is starry, the moon swells and frogs croak asking for rain as the summer approaches and heat rises. Only a commercial flight soars the sky, and it is just one during the whole night. It’s the countryside here. It’s still and peaceful here.
And then I think about Nava’s sky violated by hundreds of terrorist missiles. I think about Nava’s night terrorized by the sound of sirens. I think about Nava’s stars desperate because of the fire. I think about Nava’s moon hidden by fear. And I think about Nava, who is all the women and men, and everyone’s childhood and youth, locked in an air-raid shelter, with her eyes wide open, unable to sleep when death comes falling from the sky, and I cry.
Nava Semel with her mother Mimi Artzi who survived Auschwitz
"We had to become our parents' protectors against the
dangers of memory."
dangers of memory."
Nava, Jane Fonda was so shocked by your novel that while reading it – journalist Daniel Weizmann tells –: “she looked at the ceiling and with her characteristic, pleading voice she said: “How to tell the story?”
I'm deeply moved and honored. I feel that a circle is finally closed. In June 1980 Jane Fonda visited Israel as a guest of the Haifa Theatre. She was invited to launch a theatre educational program in a poor neighborhood. My husband Noam Semel was the Director General of the Haifa Theatre at the time. He hosted Ms. Fonda during her stay in Israel. One day I was asked to accompany Ms. Fonda on a car ride from Tel Aviv to Haifa. I was young than and very shy, so at first I refused, but my husband insisted. Along the way Ms. Fonda began questioning me about the scar of the Holocaust in my family. It was as if she somehow sensed it. She told me about her friend in LA whose memories suddenly came back. Suddenly, my heart opened. I was overwhelmed because I never spoke about my sad childhood and the term "Second Generation" did not exist yet.
I opened up to Ms. Fonda as I never did before, and for the first time in my life the words "I'm a daughter of a Holocaust survivor", came out of my lips. This experience was so deep, 4 years later I wrote the story "One ride with Fonda". published in 1985 in my collection "Hat of Glass", the first Israeli book in prose to address the issue of Second Generation.I always felt that Jane Fonda found the mysterious key to my hidden scar and helped me come out of my dark emotional pit.
Now, twenty five years later our paths are crossing again.
Were you there?
I'm so sorry I missed this event. I had just come back from a 10 days book tour in Italy a few days earlier, so I was too exhausted and could not travel again.
What were you doing in Italy?
And the Rat Laughed came out in January 2012, so I was invited to give guest lecture at a conference in Milan University. Since I recently published a new book in Hebrew which takes place in Italy under Nazi occupation, I was also invited to talk about it in Torino. My last stop was the University of Calabria in Southern Italy where I participated in a two days conference on teaching the Holocaust.
Which story shocked both Jane Fonda and the audience the most?
Perhaps because And the Rat Laughed is a unique book. Unlike other Holocaust-related books that focus on the historical horrific events, this novel deals with the act of remembering them. It resembles a relay race in which the characters transfer memory from one another. The novel got acclaim for its use of unconventional and original literary devices and became a ground breaker for exploring the act of memory itself. I wish I could listen to Jane Fonda's beautiful voice. Her special way in posing the question on behalf of my protagonist: "How to tell this story?"
Does the story change while we recall it? How will our next recipient recall it in their own individual way? Is Art the only way to transfer emotional memory?
I'm troubled by these questions, seeking answers in my books. And the Rat Laughed deals with the influence of the most horrific chapter of human history on man’s relationship with God, on the understanding of human nature, on the need to forget in order to survive, and on the need to remember, nonetheless.
The character of your novel is a 5 year-old girl, victim of Nazis and of rape by a catholic man. Is that a true story?
No. It is pure fiction. Although I always assumed that similar cases did happen during those dark days.
The book begins on the last day of 1999, when a survivor grandmother in Tel Aviv shares her tragic life story as a hidden child in a pit, with only a rat for company with her granddaughter. This rat taught her how to laugh and kept her sanity. The day after – 2000 already – the granddaughter tells the legend of “Girl and Rat” to her teacher and in 2009 those who heard it through her classmates establish an internet website with poems. From now on this memory is spread all over the world and becomes a famous myth. In 2099 the future anthropologist Y-Mee Prana tries to uncover its mysterious roots. In her research, she reveals the first man who created this myth in the past. Father Stanislaw, a Catholic priest, saved that little Jewish girl (who later became the grandmother in Tel Aviv). In his personal journal he documented everything, to make sure the world would never forget. The chain of "remembearers", therefore, moves from the present to the future and back to the past.
The novel is written in five genres: story, legend, poems, science fiction and diary, creating a cycle of 150 years.
When and how was the story born?
This novel is the strangest and most profound experience in my entire life. It took 2 years to actually write it, yet 10 years before the seeds were already planted. While living in NY in 1989, I attended the first gathering of hidden children. At first, they were the image of success and the SHOAH couldn't be attached to them. Later, I detected a frozen child inside, struggling with his memory and torn between a vicious dilemma. On one hand, he yearns so much to remember, wanting to hold a thread of his lost identity. On the other, he's too afraid to recall the most heart breaking moment of his life: the separation from his parents.
When leaving the conference, walking on Park Avenue on a beautiful fall afternoon, I heard a voice whispering in my head: "someone must give voice to these "mute" children". I never thought this someone would be me. For ten years I collected testimonies of hidden children. They were very short, laconic, as if not only memory was suppressed but their entire being is coded into short, formal sentences.
The last trigger for writing was my meeting with a survivor who shared his memoire. During the conversation in a café in Tel Aviv on a winter night in 1998, the door opened and closed constantly and I've noticed his body jumped. His face became that of a boy. He than told me how he is still waiting for his mama to come and take him back, as she promised so many years ago.
The door banging started the book. I heard the grandma's voice in my head.
What happened in Israel when the novel was published?
I feel blessed because the novel was enthusiastically received by both the Israeli public and the critics. It even became a best-seller. Later, it was adapted for the stage. I wrote the libretto-play version for an opera, composed by Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff. It was performed by the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv and the Israeli Chamber Orchestra from 2005-2009. The opera represented Israel at the Theatre Festivals in Warsaw Poland, Sibiu in Romania and Bucharest National Theatre. In 2009 a new production in Hebrew, opened in Toronto Canada by "Opera York".
Can we expect a movie based on your book?
The film rights were bought by an Israeli film producer and I had just finished writing the screen version. Making movies in Israel is a long process because of the need of raising the necessary funds. Yet, I'm hopeful.
You’re a daughter of survivors. How do you feel when writing of the horrors the Nazis inflicted upon people like your parents?
My mother, Mimi Artzi, who survived Auschwitz, didn’t talk about her horrific past. Even on Holocaust Memorial Day she used to turn off the radio and television and barricade herself behind walls of silence. The only story to leak was about Clarissa, her Kapo in her last concentration camp in Germany, who had saved her from certain death. Mom called her "my angel".
Years later, Clarissa inspired my book Hat of Glass which was the first attempt in contemporary Israeli prose to publicly discuss the issue of the second generation to Holocaust survivors. She also inspired the character of Father Stanislaw the Catholic priest who saves a Jewish girl in And the Rat Laughed, written 2 decades later.
The ‘pact of silence’ between surviving parents and their children - “you don’t ask and we won’t tell”- was not exclusively confined to my family. The survivors' private Holocaust had been concealed in the deepest recesses of their souls, so that only the tip of the iceberg continued to surface, through their nightmares or via the mundane routine of Israeli life; a potato peel, a barking dog, a torn garment, a bare foot, a school trip, a railway track, each and every marginal detail or random event could unlock a spike of memory from behind the fragile defensive wall and crush the house.
An entire generation of native born Israeli kids got the same unspoken message. "You don't ask and I won't tell". We had to become our parents' protectors against the dangers of memory. It was our task to shield the survivors from suffering the trauma of remembrance. I was part of it until I became a writer and the texts taught me differently. Writing forced me to look straight into the very edge of the black pit.
“Perhaps all the stories have already been told? say the sceptics." In my latest novel "Screwedon Backwards") Kinneret-Zmora- Bitan, Israel, 2012) again I wrote a Holocaust story. The novel focuses on an Italian Jewish musician who is rescued by his Christian lover in a small village in Piedmont under Nazi occupation. The text in the novel responds to all those skeptics: “Memory must be monitored to its furthest edges so that it doesn’t ever fade away".
Why was your childhood sad?
There was always a shadow lingering above. Mine was a typical childhood in a family of survivors. The parents were devoted to their children, making a good and protected life for us, but there was no laughter. No Joi de Vivre as the French term. I always felt there are ghosts in the house and was a very fearful child.
Nava Semel with Prof. Rochelle Seidel, Dr. Sonia Hedgepeth and Gloria Steinham, in Brooklyn Museum, New York 2011. The official launch of the research book "Sexual Abuse of Women during the Holocaust"
Nava Semel with Oscar winner American actress Olympya Dukakis(Photo: by Itzik Biran)
When will we be able to read your books in Spanish?
One book of mine was published in Spain "Clases de Vuelo". I always hope others will be translated too, especially "And the Rat Laughed".
When and why did you start writing?
I began writing before I even knew how to read and write. I told myself stories all the time. Stories were my safe haven when I felt lonely and fearful. When I was in the dark, hardly able to understand the circumstances of my childhood. I could always find shelter among my imaginary characters. They succeeded in making me happy when life did not.
Are you writing now?
I had just finished a Television drama about new immigrants who arrive to Israel in 1949 when the young state was just established and must face a new harsh reality. The drama was already filmed and will air in the spring of 2013 on Israel's TV public channel.
A new play of mine is running now on the stage. "Gong Girl" is a musical show for children and the entire family about an Israeli girl who discovers an old Chinese folk Tale. It got fantastic reviews, so I'm happy. I'm also busy writing a new fantasy novel for Young Adults.
Do you believe in God?
I believe a superior power does exist, beyond our comprehension. Every person can find his own way to connect to this great unknown power.
Do you think the world is a better place now than back in 1940?
Unfortunately, not. People are still murdering other people. Hate and genocide are still poisoning our world. These are malignant sicknesses in many societies. Innocent people are being killed all over the world every day. I'm not at all sure the lesson of the Holocaust was learnt.
As we speak, missiles fall over Israel, Hamas’ terrorist missiles. Are you scared?
I feel protected by the "Iron Dome" - a genius Israeli invention. I wish the fighting will end soon. For the sake of all innocent people – both Israelis and Palestinians.
Aren’t you tired of the world being so unfair with Israel and the Jewish people?
The double standard is both frustrating and infuriating. Sometimes anti-Israeli covers for the old demon of anti-Semitism.
Nava, If you could have a wish, just one wish, what would it be?
I pray that I won't lose anyone or anything of what I have right now. Just let me keep what I have and I'll be grateful forever.
Tel Aviv-City Bell
November 14-20, 2012
Photos courtesy Nava Semel
The day I turned twenty-six, I found myself by sheer coincidence in the back of a black limousine in Tel Aviv sitting next to Jane Fonda.
Fonda was talking. Not about Sinatra or Bogart or Dietrich or Gable; not about her own successes, even though they hovered about her like an aura. Fonda was talking about someone named Rukhama Sasson, but since it was hard for her to pronounce the guttural “kh,” the woman’s name came out “Ruhama.” As she spoke, her public face seemed to crack along tiny fault-lines.
Well, said Fonda, Rukhama Sasson was a woman of sixty or so – Fonda had known her from back home. Rukhama was liberated from Dachau when she was twenty. A year later she married, and she and her husband immigrated to Israel together. For the next forty years, her life seemed to glide by – she raised her four children, set her house in order, her children had children. The past seemed to have been forgotten. A happy ending. A picture-perfect story.
Rukhama's husband made a lot of money, Fonda went on, and the Sassons were sent to America as emissaries of the state they had helped to build. With their sons and daughters and three grandchildren staying behind, Rukhama was finally free of the demands of everyday life. She was an affluent woman of leisure ready to discover the ends of the earth. But it was precisely then that the images she had sealed-off so long ago began to bubble to the surface. The nightmares started.
She really had not remembered. She had seen none of the films. On certain days of the year back in Israel she had refused to turn on the television or radio. When her children used to ask why, she would respond, “I wiped it out.”
But living in a foreign country now, her nights had become such torment that she sought out a healer to restore her sleep.
“She was too terrified to close her eyes," said Fonda. I felt an inescapable undercurrent seeping into her voice.
"How could such heavy old memories come up after so many years?” she asked.
I turned to her, a meticulously put-together, elegant woman entirely strange to me, and finally opened my mouth. “Rukhama Sasson could be my mother,” I said softly.
“My mother turned off the television and radio on certain days of the year in Israel too…but her pain never went away, never disappeared. Her pain had floated into her amniotic fluid. We, her children, drank it in her milk. To this day I can still hear her lamenting, ‘Maybe I never should have brought you into the world. Maybe I sinned giving birth to you.’”
But as I spoke now, I felt as if I were hugging my mother, as if now, finally, I was old enough to hug her. Mama, I heard myself silently saying, I inherited the scent of death from you, maybe in your milk, maybe in your blood, maybe in a dream, maybe in your screams in the middle of the night all through the 1950's. Like fibers that hang suspended in the air, pulling and twisting…
"My mother never talks of her childhood," I went on. "It’s as if her life before the war belonged to someone else, as if it is split in half by an unbreachable chasm."
Fonda listened like a taut string.
"Israel is full of Rukhama Sassons who beg for forgiveness because the stain of blood and the smell of ashes from their own tormented past have clung to their sons and their daughters.”
Fonda shut the window of the black limousine and stared outside. She was silent and so was I. And then, suddenly, I recalled that Fonda's mother had slashed her own wrists.
Fonda pinched her dry hands together. With the stain of blood and smell of ashes hovering in the air, we did not look at one another again.
Text published with the permission of Nava Semel
Nava Semel: award-winning Israeli and international author and playwright, was born in Jaffa-Tel Aviv and has an MA in Art History from the Tel Aviv University.
She won the Israeli Prime Minister's Award for Literature in 1996 and the Women Writers of the Mediterranean Award in France 1994. She was awarded "Women of the Year in Literature of the City of Tel Aviv" in 2007.
She is a member of the Board of Directors of Massuah - the Institute for Holocaust Studies and The Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel. She was a member of the Board of Governors of Yad Vashem for many years.
Nava Semel has written seventeen books of fiction, plays, scripts and opera libretti.
Her acclaimed novel And the Rat Laughed was published in Israel in 2001 to rave reviews and great success. Published in Germany 2007, Australia 2008, USA 2009 and Italy 2012. An Opera-Play composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff and produced by the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv and the Israeli Chamber Orchestra premiered in 2005. The opera ran for five years. Nava Semel and Ella Milch-Sheriff won the "Rosenblum Award" of the City of Tel Aviv. The North American production of the opera opened in 2009 in Toronto, Canada. A movie version is currently in the making.
Hat of Glass, the first Israeli book in prose to focus on the Second Generation - children of Holocaust survivors (published 1985; new edition 1998; translated into German, Italian and Romanian)
Becoming Gershona, winner of the National Jewish Book Award in the USA (1990); published by Viking Penguin; translated into Italian, German, Romanian, Dutch. Adapted for Israeli television.
Flying Lessons published by Simon & Schuster (1995); adapted for the Israeli television; translated into German, Czech, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Serbian and Albanian. An Opera version opened in 2009 (composer: Ella Milch-Sheriff).
Nava Semel's 2005 novel IsraIsland had received rave reviews and is being adapted to the stage.
Her book Beginner's Love (2006) was published in Italy 2007, Czech Republic 2008, Germany 2010 and Slovakia 2011. The film rights were bought under the auspices of the Jerusalem Film Fund.
Her biographical fiction Australian Wedding came out in Israel 2009 to rave reviews and became a best-seller.
Her latest children's book The Backpack Fairy came out in 2011.
Her latest novel Screwed on Backwards (2011), the story of a Jewish musician saved by his Christian lover in Italy under Nazi occupation, received rave reviews.
In addition, she wrote the novel Night Games (1994) and her one-woman play The Child behind the Eyes, first produced in 1986, ran on the Israeli stage for 11 years.
It has also been produced as a radio play by the BBC London, Radio France, Radio Belgium, Radio Spain, Radio Ireland, six radio stations in Germany, Radio Austria, and Radio Romania. It won the "Best Radio Drama" award in Austria 1996, and has been produced on a CD. On the stage it was performed in Rome (1990), New York (1991), Los Angeles (1996), Prague (1997), Sibiu Theatre Festival (2004), Resita Theatre in Romania (2005), State Theatre of Ankara, Turkey (2005), Lodz Theatre - Poland (2006), Bucharest Theatre (2007). A new production in Israel in Arabic opened in 2006. The play is currently running in Amsterdam, Holland (2012).
Semel's children's book Who Stole the Show? published in 1997, won the Illustrated Book of the Year Award (1998), and was cited at the "Ze'ev Award" (1999). Italy 2003. An English-Romanian bi-lingual edition, was published in Romania 2008. A television series, based on the book was produced in 1999 on Israeli Second Channel.
Other works of fiction include also Paper Bride (1996; Romania 2000, Germany 2003, Finalist of the YA German Book award 2005, Australia 2012); Night Poems (2000) and The Courage to be Afraid (2005) - two collections of poetry for young readers on darkness and fears.
Her latest Theatre work Gong Girl (musical play for children) is currently running on the stage of the Beit Lessin Theatre and the Mediatheque Youth Theatre.
Ms. Semel has worked as a journalist, art critic, TV, radio and music producer. She is married with three children. She lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.