IT IS WARTIME, and a train is packed with Yugoslav Jews bound for death. A father, using a knife concealed in his boot, pries loose the wooden boards of the carriage’s floor. He pushes his little boy out onto the snow through the hole he has made, so that he can join his younger brother, who slid out easily, being smaller. The older boy, Albert, is only seven years old, and his parents have entrusted him with the care of Elijah, who is still too young to understand what is happening.
Albert squeezes through the narrow gap and scrambles to his feet in the moonlight as the train, carrying his parents, moves off. But he can’t find his baby brother. He never does. All his life he is haunted by that innocent failure; his nightmares and waking hours are dominated by the sound of trains.
That sound […] A moving train. The wheels of a moving train […] It woke me in the dead of night […] There were no tracks or railway stations anywhere near by […] Then suddenly it stopped. Yet I knew it would return. Each time that much louder, that much more insistent, that much more unbearable.
Veteran Serbian novelist and screenwriter Filip David, who was born in 1940, has shaped a remarkably taut and eloquent testament to the tragically under-documented plight of the Jews of Yugoslavia during World War II. Composed of anecdotes, news reports, and individual accounts, and woven together with recurrent motifs and diary accounts of his own experiences, The House of Remembering and Forgetting explores the nature of evil. It is a powerful contribution to the literature of the Holocaust.
Although the viewpoints shift along with the time frame, with various speakers testifying as bewildered survivors, and some, now dead, speaking from long ago in the form of letters and messages, the text is well structured and the prose is deceptively simple. It has now been sensitively translated by Christina Pribićević-Zorić, who remains alert throughout to the subtle cadences of trauma and remorse. Indeed, central to the narrative is the guilt of having survived, and mention is made of Primo Levi’s agony.
David, a co-founder in 1992 of the Belgrade Circle, a group of intellectuals who opposed the then-ruling government of Slobodan Milošević, is a major literary figure throughout the Balkan region. Surprisingly, this is only his first work to be translated into English, thanks to the pioneering vision of the British publisher Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, founder of Istros Books.
In old age, Albert Weisz continues to seek answers from others who also experienced the Holocaust. He keeps a diary, although he’s increasingly sure that some things “must not and cannot be put into writing,” and records a chance encounter he had while participating in an international conference organized by the European Union in Belgrade in 2004. Its theme was “Crimes, Reconciliation, Forgetting.”
Much of the discussion at the conference concerns the definition of evil. At some point, Weisz becomes conscious of the presence of a stranger, a nonparticipant, but an individual with something urgent to impart. The other delegates are busy preparing to dine at the hotel, but Weisz pays attention to the elderly outsider, who recalls being 10 years old when the war broke out. He had at the time been living with his parents in a provincial Serbian town occupied by the Germans. Ethnic Germans then moved into the boy’s house. The newcomers also had a son, who was a little older. The boys became friends. “One day,” the stranger relates, “he told me that my father had been arrested and would be executed that same afternoon along with the other hostages.” The Serbian boy’s own mother disputes this, but the young German boy insists that he’s telling the truth and sets out to prove it:
He took me to the courtyard of a former factory where we hid behind a mound of earth […] The Germans set up two heavy machine-guns, and then a group of people, their hands tied, was led out of the shed. I recognized my father among them. The Germans shot them before our very eyes […] The memory of his senseless death stayed with me all throughout my childhood and youth.
The stranger describes to Weisz how he lost the power of speech and how it took a long time for him to recover it. “For him, theoretical explanations about the banality of evil are futile, he feels it resides within each of us,” Weisz decides. He listens on and hears about the fates of the stranger’s mother and sister, who both perished in the death camps, and the killing of the man’s daughter during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. He is unable to console him. Some time later, Albert Weisz recognizes the man’s face in a newspaper report listing the victims of a terrorist bombing.
As the Croatian writer Daša Drndić does in her recent masterwork Bellodonna, David considers the legacy of children destined to bear the burdens of their fathers’ crimes. Solomon Levy, a lifelong friend and mentor to Albert, spends his life amassing material about the Holocaust. It is his attempt to account for the horror. Yet wise, calm Solomon ultimately sets fire to his apartment and commits suicide, leaving a letter that is delivered to Albert. In it, Solomon explains that his real name is Rubenovich and that his father had collaborated with the Serbian Special Police by informing on Jews with forged documents. Ironically, Solomon survived because his father had obtained false papers for him.
Elsewhere we find the story of Uriel Cohen, who comes to New York City, along with Albert and other survivors, at the invitation of the American Jewish community. Cohen’s grandparents had been Serbian doctors working in Yugoslavia. But after the German occupation, they were only allowed to work in a Jewish clinic. As the anti-Semitism worsened, they feared for their daughter Eliza, and arranged with the caretaker of their apartment building for the girl to live in hiding. The caretaker, who had to tend to his bedridden wife, agreed and expected to be paid. The arrangement continued until Eliza’s parents were killed, leaving the girl dependent on the caretaker, who became obsessed with her. As his prisoner, she was continually raped and eventually became pregnant.
The child born of that torment is Uriel. He would inherit a resentment of his religion from his mother, believing that, for his Serbian grandparents, “their lost ‘Jewishness’ was like a noose around their neck. Despite everything, they became Jewish again because others saw them as Jewish. And, in the end, they paid for it with their lives.”
The House of Remembering and Forgetting is, in every sense, a book of memory, surely inspired by the fact that the survivors of the Holocaust are now dying out. As a musician named Misha Wolf remarks to Albert, it is important to record “[y]our own case, the case of our friend Solomon Levy, all these cases of a dwindling generation where soon no living witness will be left to attest to the terrible evil we lived through…”
For many of this Holocaust generation, survival has loosened their grasp on existence. At times, as with Misha Wolf, it has even robbed them of their identity. In old age, Wolf learns that he had been raised by kindly neighbors, who treated him as their own son. The truth is contained in a tin box discovered by workers laying water pipes on an old fairground in Belgrade, which had previously been the site of a concentration camp. The box had belonged to a prisoner and “contained letters, photographs, documents and sheets of music he had composed in the camp.” Among the papers is a note addressed to his son, Misha, explaining why he had been sent to the neighbors. But, as is sometimes the case, the sadness is undercut by hope. A piece of music begun by the long-dead father in the camp is finally completed by the now elderly son, who survived and at last finds out who he is. Performing the music at the site of the concentration camp, he honors his father and the other victims. David expanded on Misha Wolf’s story in the feature film When Day Breaks (2012), which was the Serbian entry for that year’s Academy Awards.
This is a profound book, immense in its wisdom and courage, and it demands to be read several times. At its huge heart remains the image of the little boy — distantly related to none other than the famous escape artist Houdini — thrust out into the snow. He never found his baby brother, but he was rescued by a German forester still mourning the loss of his son in a swimming accident. He and his wife attempted to treat young Albert Weisz as if he were their own child, as if Hans had been restored to them. But the boy rejects them and runs away, to continue a search that lasts a lifetime.
So many questions, so few answers, and always the haunting sound of a train. Devotedly and painstakingly, Filip David probes our communal bewilderment, as well as the fate of Serbian Jews in particular. A closing interlude, which takes place during a journey on the Orient Express — again, the prevailing image of a train— proves both unsettling and reassuring. Remembering is agony, yet forgetting is impossible, and David, drawing on his own history and that of his country, explains why.
Eileen Battersby was born in California and is based in Ireland. An Irish Times staff arts journalist and literary reviewer, she has won the National Arts Journalist of the Year award four times and was National Critic of the Year in 2012. Her debut novel, Teethmarks on My Tongue, appeared in 2016.