No one knew the story of Elsa Weiss’s
life. She was a respected English teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, but she
remained aloof and never tried to be friendly with her students. She
concentrated on teaching her students, but refused to educate them, or try to
affect their futures, or to shape their consciences or their consciousness. No
one ever encountered her outside of school hours. She was a riddle, and yet the students sensed
that they were all she had. When Elsa killed herself by jumping off the roof of
her apartment building, she remained as unknown as she had been during her
Thirty years later, the narrator of
the novel, one of her students, decides to solve the riddle of Elsa Weiss. In
retrospect, she realizes that she had learned a fateful lesson from her, a
lesson for life. But what was that lesson? What had her teacher taught her?
This is where the dizzying journey at the heart of Ben-Naftali’s novel begins.
Expertly dovetailing explosive historical material with flights of imagination,
the novel traces the footprints of a Holocaust survivor who did her utmost to
leave no footprints. The lesson she taught is revealed to be an intricate code,
and by gradually deciphering it the narrator comes to some of the most tumultuous
junctions in the history of the twentieth century.
The narrator invents a fictional
biography for Elsa. She describes her childhood in Hungary, her journey to
Paris, her marriage, her experiences after the German invasion of Hungary, how
she was taken on the highly controversial “rescue train,” first to the
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and then to Switzerland; how she decided to
remain silent and to leave no trace of who she had been. But the narrator hears
her teacher’s wordless scream and creates a life for her. Writing it down is a
way to save her from oblivion.
COMPLETE ENGLISH TRANSLATION AVAILABLE (for publishers only).
With a sure hand [Ben-Naftali]
transforms her sad story into an exciting adventure, similar to the discovery
of a new continent. Ben-Naftali handles her heroine, a survivor devoid of
heroism, with reverence … Ben- Naftali touches in her book upon one of the open
sores of Israeli society, without hitting her readers on the head with the
hammer of victimhood and accusation.
The Sapir Prize
A poignant memorial to someone whom no one remembers. . . . absorbing and well crafted. The Teacher suggests that Elsa’s loneliness was her greatest lesson, showing us how the Holocaust could break even those who survived it.
New York Times
A vivid, meticulously crafted look at trauma’s legacy.
Hephzibah Anderson, Guardian
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.
Jay Trachtenberg, Austin Chronicle
An unusual novel … Ben-Naftali
achieves the impossible by choosing to give words to an ineffable reality, that
of the Holocaust. She devises a non-language that goes right to the body and
the soul, and combines with amusement, severe and slow scrutiny, tenderness and
hardship, and intellect alongside a delicacy that is beyond words. Those who
follow her path can grasp the immensity of the task she has undertaken and the
miracle of its implementation … Writing, from Ben-Naftali’s point of view, is a
gradual act of redeeming the other.
Hanna Herzig, Haaretz
This is a lovely, moving novel …
Lovely and moving in a way that occurs as a profound change is taking place in
the reader’s mind … There comes a moment, anticipated but sudden, at which the
plot -- or the writer’s insights into it -- seizes the reader by the throat and
brings them closer to themselves and to the other.
Yael Geller, Yedioth
With a discerning and empathetic eye
Ben-Naftali builds a character and a story which are at their core a
philosophical problem … The essay in the form of a novel by the essayist and
psychoanalyst leaves her literature-reading audience a map of allusions and
symbols. And much material to ponder.
Tsur Ehrlich, Makor
The writing is responsible, meticulous
and polished … This book enables its readers to reflect upon and challenge the
teaching profession and the special relationship between a teacher and her
Esti Adivi-Shoshan, Haaretz
This is not a classical Holocaust
novel, but rather one that actually tries to shed light on the marginal corners
of the period. An important and interesting novel that dares to take on
subjects that are liable to be forgotten.
Hadar Azran, Arutz 7
intriguing crisscross of harsh and lacerating facts and fictional byways which
connects critical historical events and a lone woman who was, and remains, an
enigma … The author’s attempt to provide a testament to her life produces many