It’s challenging to put one’s trust in a narrator who says she needs to invent the life she’s about to reveal after the person’s suicide; and yet, author Michal Ben-Naftali gives her uncertain storyteller the warmth and struggle we need to feel close to and understanding of her endeavor.
My knowledge is of a different kind, the knowledge of what might have happened, or rather, what should have happened and most likely did happen to the one who went to the point of no return.
In the early pages of this powerful story, our nameless narrator dives deeply into how she perceived and experienced Elsa Weiss as her high school English teacher 30 years ago in Tel Aviv: terrified and yet inspired with awe (“we learned because we were afraid”) and unfazed by Elsa’s indifference because “we were her entire world.” Elsa Bloom Weiss kept to herself, a distant, alone, and self-contained woman in her 60s. She demanded perfection and alertness in the classroom, and while other teachers drew ridicule for being strict disciplinarians, Elsa drew respect. She was “exceptional” because of how she conducted herself, a choice we would come to learn was made to assure her sanity.
She thought you could be a teacher without betraying a thing, with a kind of balanced hypocrisy meant to protect her and her students. She had placed a heavy burden on herself, but it was not a matter of restraint. It was a strict forbiddance she deliberately imposed on herself, as if understanding she must not draw her students close to the voids that her teachings concealed.
Elsa’s imagined life starts with a card trick and her six-year-old birthday party. It’s a startling switch by the author that segues from the narrator’s more than 30 pages of musings about the teacher she knows in Tel Aviv — to the teacher she doesn’t know in Romania in the years leading up to World War II. A door of entry is missing, as in “I imagine when she was young…” or “This is how I see she begins…”. Ben-Naftali, however, writes with a seductive draw that overshadows the abruptness and other similar jerky transitions to come. We have to know about Elsa, turning the pages with as much desire as the narrator pursues her history.
Not much time is spent on the early years. After high school, Elsa teaches French and Hebrew in Paris for a year and returns to her native Kolozsvár in Northern Transylvania, which at the time was in Romania, prior to the political agreement in 1940 ceding the territory to Hungary. Elsa marries Eric without love to meet family expectations. Her brother meanwhile immigrates to Palestine. Eric implores Elsa and her parents also to immigrate, due to the German threat, but they want to “wait and see.”
Here the narrator interrupts the past to tell us about a significant event that happens in 1970 at the high school. A new principal shuns Elsa with obvious dislike and then, shockingly, hisses at her with a Nazi comment as definition of Elsa’s cold, imperious demeanor. It breaks her stoic inner being. The story-timing is pitch perfect, as the narrator begins building Elsa’s war story and implicates this as one of three puzzle pieces – the future final one — that will take this teacher to that point of no return.
In March 1944, shortly after Germany invades Hungary, the family is forced to move to the Kolozsvár ghetto. The parents are given passage on a rescue train to Palestine created in a deal with the Germans by history’s Rudolf Kastner, known for his role as head of the Hungarian Judenrat. His endeavor to save lives would later become embroiled in what Ben-Naftali calls the “enigma of collaboration,” which involved a determination of who lived and who died between those who had influence and valuables to trade, and those who didn’t.
Elsa and her husband Eric make it safely to Switzerland on Kastner’s train, with a harrowing stop at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. The narrator struggles with her limited knowledge at this point, again recognizing she cannot know the full story but can likely assume it from other personal accounts of the camps. Her wrestling is not excuse but emotional, relate-able questioning and seeking.
I know Elsa Weiss is destined to one day arrive in Palestine and never speak of what happened to her, and maybe for that reason I should stop here. What business do I have with that thing she struggled to erase from her consciousness so she could carry on?
Elsa lives with her brother’s family in Palestine until she secures her one-room apartment. She finds peace in her routines and her isolation over the years. Two more pieces to the puzzle of the why she took her life come to light when Rudolf Kastner goes to trial over libelous accusations of Nazi complicity (“sold his soul to the devil”) and a fire destroys Elsa’s apartment. The trial becomes a moral devastation and the fire “another holocaust,” destroying all her belongings.
Readers who are not familiar with the history of the Holocaust may not understand the depth of Elsa’s confusion over the issues surrounding Rudolf Kastner’s role during the Hungarian occupation by Germany, let alone references to the little known Kolozsvár Ghetto and to Palestine pre-1948 versus today. The Teacher is translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir, and perhaps not written originally for an American audience where clarifications might be needed. Or are they? Ben-Naftali’s story is compassionately intense, and it will move readers whether or not they know their history. And if not, this fictional account of a woman’s radical asceticism will drive readers to seek more information online. The narrator makes sure of that, with her irresistible pull toward what she believes to be true.