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A Scrap of Time by Ida Fink; transcribed from the Polish by Madeline Levine and Francine Prose (Pantheon: $15.95; 165 pp.)

August 23, 1987|Alison Leslie Gold | Gold is co-author, with Miep Gies, of "Anne Frank Remembered" (Simon & Schuster, 1987). and

Scraps, remnants, swatches of reconstituted memory are patched together in this extraordinary collection of semiautobiographical stories by Ida Fink. With a few exceptions, the place is always a small rural village in Poland; sometimes called Lubianki, or N----, sometimes bisected by the river Gniezna, of "the dirty-yellow color of beer." The characters have tongue-twisting names like Wojciech, Ludeczek, Tadeusz. There's always a central square or marketplace into which Jews are being assembled by Nazi decree, and several miles away is a meadow surrounded by woods. This meadow is soggy in summer, and the snow is stained bright red in winter. The source of this wetness is always fresh human blood.

These stories all take place during the German occupation of Poland, if not slightly before, then during--but never afterwards, even if set upon a calendar page after the chronological end of the war, since for those few who survived and do the telling, time and life in a "normal" way will never resume. In some sense, there is no "after"--ever.

We may ask, why must we go back yet again and tell of this monstrosity? This question is answered in the story "Traces" by a mother who has watched her own children deny her in order to spare her life. "They were sitting on straw, one beside the other. They looked like little mice. The SS-man . . . said kindly . . . 'Now each of you go and run to your parents.' . . . But none of the children moved." This mother who survives as a witness to the monstrosity asks the narrator of the story ". . . that what she is going to say be written down and preserved forever, because she wants a trace to remain." And so these traces remain.

The title story, "A Scrap of Time"--(already deservedly honored with the first Anne Frank Prize for Literature and translated into Dutch, Hebrew and German)--plunges us into this world. Ida Fink calls her stories "fragments of biography." She herself is a survivor/witness, born in Poland in 1921, now living in Israel and working at the Holocaust memorial of Yad Veshem. Akin to Marguerite Duras, her style is spare, quiet; there are no theatrics. Instead, she makes us squint to see, lean forward to hear, and unable, afterward, to shake the heartsickness her work has ignited.

With the exception of "The Table," a brilliant play for four voices and basso ostinato, the stories unfold like a deadly hand of cards, loosely ordered from "before" to "after." Each piece is honed down to the barest bones. Besides the title story, several stand out as particularly affecting--"The Shelter," "Crazy," "The Black Beast."

The shortest story is titled only by five asterisks--"*****." It speaks for itself. It tells of all those "reprieved until the next time . . ." who "with . . . faces pressed against the windowpanes . . ." watch the old men of the village being assembled by the SS in the marketplace. Finally, the march begins, and the men "were passing their homes and the children and grandchildren hidden behind their windows."

One door opens, and a pregnant young woman comes running across the marketplace, waving and shouting, "Zei gazunt, Tate, zei gazunt!" (Be well, Papa, be well!)

"And then all of us hidden in the darkness began to repeat, 'Zei gazunt,' bidding farewell with those words to our loved ones who were walking to their deaths."

More than a trace of heartsickness remains.

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