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Book Review / NONFICTION

A Girl's Horrifying Experience Resurrected

THE BEAUTIFUL DAYS OF MY YOUTH, My Six Months in Auschwitz and Plaszow by Ana Novac. Translated from the French by George L. Newman; Henry Holt & Co.$15.95, 314 pages

August 25, 1997|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Suppose Anne Frank's diary didn't end with her arrest by the Nazis. Suppose, in Bergen-Belsen, she was able to have a further record of her experiences smuggled outside the barbed wire. Suppose these pages (scribbled, let's say, with the stub of a pencil on toilet paper and torn up camp posters) survived, unlike their youthful author.

Then we would have something like Ana Novac's journal of the summer and fall of 1944, which she spent in Auschwitz; in the Plaszow labor camp near Krakow, Poland (described in "Schindler's List"); in Auschwitz again; and later in camps in the south of Hitler's shrinking empire.

At the time, she was 14 and 15. Her name was Zimra Harsanyi. She hailed from Transylvania, then part of Hungary, which the Nazis had invaded in the spring of 1944. She was attending a boarding school in another town when she was arrested and never saw her family again. Confined with 20,000 other Jews in a former brickyard, she tried to escape, then accepted their collective fate.

"After that I was a zombie," Novac says in her introduction to this book, which was published in French in 1968. "It was the best thing that could have happened to me: total apathy about my life and death. . . . Stricken by a benign amnesia. . . . I no longer have any idea about the railroad cars, our trip, or our arrival at Auschwitz. My first memory is of a pencil stub that I found in the sand. . . . From that moment on, my story was the story of my journal."

In crowded bunks and fetid latrines, in breaks from work in a quarry and a clothing depot, in boxcars that held "dead and living in a single stinking mass," Novac wrote and wrote. "Shoes--the only things they returned to us after the 'disinfections'--served to hide the pages. When too many accumulated, I summed up each chapter in a few words, which I would use to reconstruct the journal once I arrived at a new camp."

By then it was clear that the Allies would win the war, though not necessarily in time to save any camp inmates. Novac wrote, in part, for the outside world, for posterity. But mostly she wrote for herself. "Today," she says, "I am convinced that the journal was what allowed me to survive.

"For the rest of my life, it has also been a way to survive that survival. . . . The fact that I had the toughness to live, to function . . . meant that . . . I carried, and still carry, the weight of a solitary crime: having lived."

In another sense, Zimra Harsanyi died as irrevocably as Anne Frank. We can only imagine the collision between Frank's tender sensibility and the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. When Novac's journal opens, that collision has already occurred. She is no longer a girl. She is an ageless creature that only a concentration camp could produce--exhausted, starving, in rags, her head shaven, but also buoyant and grimly humorous, a terrifyingly grown-up observer of the people around her.

Her courage is astounding. She asks a kapo--a trusty given authority over other prisoners--for the blank notebook he is carrying, and he lets her have it. She fills it up and persuades another kapo, who admires her spunk, to send it to Christian friends outside. The messenger is a guard Novac has seen whip a girl to death, but, ignorant of its contents, he delivers the package.

She never meets Schindler, but the Plaszow commandant, Amon Goeth, once leaps over her on horseback as she cowers in a ditch. She watches him sic his pet bulldog on a woman who has broken some camp rule. The woman runs. "The bulldog was calmer," Novac notes coolly. "His superiority was obvious; he's a 'pro.' " The dog kills the woman and comes back belching, "eyes dim with satiety and fatigue."

How can Novac be so cool? How can she be such a mature and controlled writer, shaping scenes for artistic effect? Why doesn't she simply dissolve in fright? This is our difficulty with "The Beautiful Days of My Youth": We can feel for her, but we can't feel with her, as we imagine we can with Anne Frank. She has become something we could never be, outside the camps.

When Soviet troops liberated her in May 1945, she weighed 75 pounds. She spent "two years on my deathbed--to judge from the behavior of the people around me." She blanked out almost all of her wartime experience, went to college, became an actress, a playwright and a novelist--in short, became Ana Novac.

Sixteen years after the war, finding "a large bundle of handwritten pages," Novac "at first wondered what they were." It was the journal written by the person who had succeeded Zimra and preceded Ana, the second self who had died, leaving a crumbling, nearly illegible record--and who, resurrected, still insists on being heard.

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