In the crowded genre of Second World War memoirs, former Israeli ambassador Yitzchak Mayer has managed to create the unexpected – a lyrical, eloquent account of his family’s escape from Europe that’s written as historical fiction.
Mayer’s book, Silent Letter, is written through the eyes of his own young mother, Roszy, who’s living alone in Nazi-occupied France. His father, a member of the French Resistance, has been taken away (he later died in Auschwitz). Roszy, who speaks barely a word of French and is pregnant with her third child, decides to escape with her children to Switzerland, where the family could remain until after the war.
“I never knew how to tell my own story,” Mayer wrote in the afterword to the book.
As Mayer, the former Israeli consul-general in Montreal, told The CJN, “I’ve been writing ever since I knew what a pen was. I could have written the book quite a long time ago. I felt the urge to write it, yet I couldn’t write it. It was quite impossible.”
What held him back, he realized, was the fact that he was so young – he was only eight years old when the story takes place – and a sense that his own version of events wouldn’t seem reliable, or true. What freed him, he said, was a sudden awareness that, “I’m not the story; the woman is really the story.”
The book, he ultimately realized, must be not about the events unfolding around the family, but rather, must centre around an essential question: “What happens inside the mind of a woman who faces the decision to take her own destiny in her own hands, under circumstances she was never prepared to meet?”
Through the voice of his mother, in letters written to her vanished husband, a story emerges that is both gentle and brutal in its terrifying reality. The book also paints a rather intimate portrait of Mayer himself, who then went by the name Erwin. Since his mother was travelling with French papers but didn’t speak the language, she had to sit silently by, as he spoke for her to French and German officials.
As Roszy reflects in the book, “our son … in just three days had matured beyond anything you could have imagined and had become an independent adult, a man-child.… Erwin could read the fear in my face, I am convinced of that.”
As Mayer explained, “The two children become her allies and she has to look at them as if she can trust them. She entrusts the child with the task of being the translator, being the one who talks.”
Mayer believes that stories that take place during the Holocaust should capture more than just the facts of the matter. “The story has to be not about what happened, but about how you reacted to what happened, how you faced what happened.”
“Nobody was in the whole Holocaust; everybody was in his or her own Holocaust,” he added.
Born in Antwerp in 1934, Mayer came to Israel illegally after the war and was detained at the British detention camp at Atlit. After the establishment of the State of Israel, he worked as a teacher for a number of years and was then appointed as the Israeli ambassador to Belgium and Switzerland. He later took on other jobs within the Israeli government and he continues to write on social issues and politics.
In writing the book, and also in his many talks to students about his experiences immigrating to Israel, he seeks to avoid sentimentality: “The danger is that it can become a kind of schmaltz.”
“When I talk to children, it’s not to tell them what happened, but to tell them, ‘You are Anne Frank. You are there. Imagine yourself there.’ You have to turn a story into an experience,” he said.
The book, known in Hebrew as Isha Achat (One Woman), enjoyed critical acclaim in Israel and has already been translated into French. The French version won the French WIZO Prize for Literature. A Spanish translation is also in the works.
The English-language edition was published by Mosaic Press, a Canadian publisher based in Oakville, Ont., which specializes in works on cultural diversity. The connection was simple, said Mayer: publisher Howard Aster simply “liked the book.”
Mayer said he was “very comfortable” with the decision to publish in Canada, in part because he served briefly as the Israeli consul-general in Montreal and one of his daughters still lives there. He believes Canada is a place that respects human rights and can understand the broader aspects of his tale: “a Holocaust story is not a Holocaust story only – it’s a universal story.”
But he hopes the book will challenge Canadians, as well, in light of Canada’s claim during the Second World War that “none is too many,” when it came to accepting Jewish refugees.
“Canada did say that during the war,” he said. “So I want them to see: look to whom you said that, you said that to a mother like the woman in Silent Letter. She was one of the ones who was one too many.’”