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YAD VASHEM'S 2005 BUCHMAN PRIZE
Selected and presented by Yad Vashem
The Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority
The International Institute for Holocaust Research
Reasons Given by the Panel of Judges for Granting The 2005 Buchman Prize For the Memory of the Holocaust in Research and Literature To Mrs. Alona Frankel for her Book "Girl"
Translation from the Hebrew by Margo Eyon
Alona Frankel, a well-known, gifted children's author, began taking her writing in a new direction in recent years, different than anything she had done before. She committed to paper the story of her life during and after the Holocaust, up until her family's immigration to Israel in the early days of the State.
"Holocaust Literature," or writings about the Holocaust (in the broadest sense), is currently at a stage in which mainly the voices of people who were children at the time of the Holocaust are emerging. The Holocaust survivors who were adults at the time and turned to literary expression or writing their memoirs have already told their stories. Now the tales of those who were children back then are being heard more and more. These are men and women who were born during the thirties and whose childhood, and sometimes early adulthood, overlapped the years of the war and the Holocaust.
The story was usually hidden, repressed in the recesses of the unconscious. Most of their adult life was carried out following the Holocaust and far away from it. But now time is of the essence: the children who have become parents and even grandparents feel the years passing and that the time has come to tell the story. The environment has also become more supportive and attentive. And there is likewise the compulsion derived of knowing that we are the last ones to remember firsthand. Soon the story will pass into the sole control of those who were born into a world in which the Holocaust is no longer part of contemporary history.
So many are now telling this story, in Hebrew and other languages, and thanks to them we have been privileged with a considerable number of well-written stories by "child survivors." But Alona Frankel has led this particular genre to heights the likes of which we have perhaps never seen until now. Her storytelling ability, the unique style, the attention to detail, the psychological subtleties, the complexity in representing reality, the marvelous humor - all these lend the text rare momentum and depth. This is precisely the moment in which a testimonial - of which there are probably more quite similar to this - becomes a literary work, by virtue of the "Midas touch" of a true author whose power turns the words to gold. And this miracle does happen, albeit rarely. It happened in Primo Levi, in Jorge Semprun, and before that - in Anne Frank; and now it is happening in Alona Frankel's book - "Girl."
The Holocaust story that Alona Frankel tells is a story of concealment, living in a hiding place, a life taking place from day to day and hour to hour behind a guise. At the beginning of the war the "girl" is hidden in the house of a Gentile woman named Hanya Seremet in the village of Marchinkovitze. Frankel describes with wonderful precision the figure of Seremet, "the foreign woman with the white face and clenched jaw"; she depicts her family members; and reconstructs the sights and way of life in the Polish village that gave her temporary, fragile refuge. Then she is thrown back into the city, sharing with her parents the hiding place at the Yuzak family on Panyenska Street in Lvov. There she spends most of the war.
The story is set up in a zigzag style. One step forward and two steps back. Frankel spreads out the story's chronology, but also chops it up, distorts it, and each time rebuilds it anew. Moreover, whole episodes, or sections of action, are retold over and over again. Time after time. Once one way and once another way. Sometimes there are different versions of the selfsame event, and sometimes it is given different nuances. There are also recurring phrases, as if to reinforce and give renewed validity to those things that seem to be real to the author. Remembering is a tangled matter, full of stumbling blocks, tricky, especially when pertaining to events of early childhood, even more so when the reconstruction is taking place almost fifty years after they occurred. Frankel chose to build this complex process into the text, to create a story reflecting the procedure of remembering and the ever so frail nature of memory.
The text itself is highly condensed and overflowing with details. This is a poetics of minutiae. Everything is delivered in obsessive accuracy - names, places, people, actions, speech, feelings, thoughts. There are no summaries whatsoever, no generalizations. All is tangible and concrete, and out of the details a complete picture spreads out - a picture of a young girl's world in hiding with her parents from the Nazi terror. With them she burrows in a hiding place, lives in an endless night, disguised, silent, halted, depleted, isolated, fear-stricken - and yet, in the face of it all, she builds a world that is entirely hers, an alternative world. In this world are dreams, games, paintings, tiny creatures that may be recruited as playmates, and an abundance of inventions, imagination, and even amusing situations. In the setting of war and Holocaust, the child would seem a defenseless victim, a marionette in the hands of fate. At the same time the child-subject is capable at times (as in the case of Anne Frank) of neutralizing the real environment in which he lives and thereby protecting himself from it. In these moments of grace Frankel's girl, for the very reason that she is a child, emerges triumphant.
Whole sections of Alona Frankel's book refer to the world following the war, the process of rehabilitation and the return to life in this world. The place is the city of Krakow in Poland; the time is the years 1945 through 1949. In these sections the book has great documentary value alongside its artistic value. This is the story of the girl, but also of the Jewish collective feeling its way along and seeking a foothold in the new Polish state, which within a short time would again turn its back on them.
But above all else - this is, of course, the story of the Holocaust survivor girl: at the orphanage, in the apartment building, at her parents' home, at school. This is a story about the surprising, at times embarrassing, meeting with normalcy - orthodontics and physical rehabilitation, the sharp yet inevitable transition from the dark, threatening hiding place to piano lessons with Helena Cherney Stefanska, recipient of the Chopin Prize; from the rags and deprivation of the Yuzak family's hideout to standing with tense obedience in front of the seamstress in Krakow. And all along the freedom to express emotions, and especially - reclaiming the right to cry. "Mother, are we allowed to cry already?" Nathan Alterman quotes Abba Kovner in the opening of the famous poem of the same name; and Alona Frankel writes: "I cried, and I cried, and I cried. I cried, and I cried, and I cried. I cried, and I cried, and I cried. No one bothered my crying at the orphanage... It was the kind of crying that never ends. You can never finish crying it."
The encounter with the Land of Israel - which ends the book - is described by Alona Frankel with a touch, gingerly, in a measured amount of words. But this touch can also amaze. She is standing on the deck of the ship and sees Haifa, Palestine, the State of Israel. She sees and is not seen. The new immigrants shove each other. Her foot, held captive in an orthopedic shoe, steps on a native orange. She sends it into the sea with a light kick. "We arrived and a new story began." The ending remains open. The hope and the uncertainty become intertwined. The pathos is steeped in irony. And after that - the great silence. And perhaps the silence is temporary, and the time for that story has yet to come.
What is so astounding about Alona Frankel, besides this story, is what happened later on: Frankel, an ember rescued from the fire, is a gifted author and artist who became a successful children's author whose writing is aimed mainly at preschoolers. Without listing her many books, we will just mention that books like "Once Upon a Potty" were written about and for children for whom a "normal" childhood is for all intents and purposes quite different from the one the author knew. Unlike Joshua and her other protagonists, Ilona Goldman (Alona Frankel) spent the early years of her life either concealed at Hanya Seremet's house or in the hiding place at the Yuzak family's house. In other words, Alona Frankel wrote most of her books about a childhood she never experienced.
For these reasons, the judges' committee of the Jacob Buchman Prize, on behalf of Yad Vashem, has decided to grant the 2005 prize to author Alona Frankel for her book "Girl." The committee is certain that this book will claim its rightful place among the classics of Holocaust literature.
Signed: Prof. David Bankir, Prof. Yisrael Gutman, Dr. Bella Gutterman, Prof. Dan Laor, Dr. Iris Milner, Prof. Dan Michman, Dr. Tikva Fatal, Mr. Avner Shalev.
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