Book Review: The Teacher by Michal Ben-Naftali
This prize-winning novel's tale of a student piecing together the hidden life of her teacher, a Holocaust survivor who killed herself, is haunting
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Feb. 14, 2020
"No one knew the story of Elsa Weiss."
But how do you go about defining the life of someone who spends much of her existence trying to be undefinable – invisible, if you will? A person who is largely an enigma in her professional life and a virtual cipher in her private affairs? An individual whose inability to forge any kind of meaningful relationships fuels a crippling loneliness? Indeed, on the first page of this haunting novel by Israeli author Michal Ben-Naftali, which won that nation's prestigious Sapir Prize in 2016 and has been newly translated and published by the University of Rochester's Open Letter press, we learn that high school teacher Elsa Weiss has "jumped to her death from her rooftop apartment." We come to find out that she was a Holocaust survivor living in Tel Aviv. But we'll discover that her experiences are in important ways different from the typically harrowing Holocaust narratives we've read over the decades.
Weiss' story is partially told, 30 years hence, through the eyes of an undisclosed student who speaks from seemingly firsthand, observational knowledge of being in class with this cold, aloof, gray-clad taskmaster. But when this student tries to imagine and piece together the particulars of what might have actually happened in Ms. Weiss' younger life, she readily admits that her speculation is purely fiction. That said, the narrator crafts a gripping story-within-a-story of Weiss' pre-war life in Budapest with her family and husband, the German invasion of Hungary in 1944, the family's subsequent deportation via cattle car to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Weiss' transfer to Switzerland, and her ultimate migration to Palestine.
We find out late in the game that Weiss' transit to Switzerland was aboard the historically accurate Kastner train, by which a pre-arranged agreement with the Nazis saved 1,600 Jews from the gas chambers. Years later, however, this would become a huge controversy in the new state of Israel and a real source of survivor's guilt for Weiss as family members had perished in the camps. The incident also helped to crystallize a steadfast resistance to authority that would stay with Weiss to the end.
Ultimately, perhaps, the story is a parable of how uncontrollable events on the world stage affect one particular individual, an individual with an overriding desire to navigate her constricted world in virtual anonymity.
The Teacherby Michal Ben-Naftali, translated by Daniella Zamir
Open Letter, 138 pp., $14.95