By Noemi Jaffe
Translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Julia Sanches and from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać
Three generations of women reflect, in their own words, on the Holocaust and bearing witness in Jewish and Brazilian identity.
Publication Date: October 25, 2016
"This is much more than a survival story. It is the story of how the scars of a woman can be and are passed through generations. It is about being a woman, a mother, and a daughter." —Gabriela Almeida, Continente
"An infinite work." —O Estadão de São Paulo
A groundbreaking use of storytelling to bear witness to the Holocaust features three generations of women's own voices—Lili's diary written upon liberation from Auschwitz; daughter Noemi Jaffe exploring the power of memory, survival, and bearing witness; and granddaughter Leda, Noemi's daughter, on the significance of the Holocaust and Jewish identity seventy years after the war.
Recommended in CLMP's 2020 Reading List for Women in Translation Month
Included in Words Without Borders's September 2016 Watchlist
“It is said that ‘we must never forget,’ but, as the world becomes a more volatile place, it becomes easy to wonder if some of those lessons have begun to be forgotten. Compelling pieces of literature from the Jewish diaspora such as Jaffe's novel that make bystanders ask the questions and feel the inexplicable feeling of suffering and survival are more important now than ever.” —Hannah Wise, Dallas Morning News
“A thoughtful and moving addition to the canon of Holocaust literature.” —Jewish Book Council
"Jaffe adds to Brazil’s well-established tradition of Jewish writing, which includes the likes of Clarice Lispector and Moacyr Scliar . . . What Are the Blind Men Dreaming? is an exquisite and original meditation" —Bruna Dantas Lobato, Ploughshares
"An arresting account of the holocaust and expatriation." —The Culture Trip
“A book that fights against oblivion every step of the way—in Stern, writing her story for it to be read by the generations to come, and in Jaffe and Cartum, who meditate on what it means to remember, and to live in the wake of memory. The Holocaust is something that is totalizing in its horror. It resists being thought about or written about.” —Josh Phillips, Moment Magazine
“This is much more than a survival story. It is the story of how the scars of a woman can be and are passed through generations. It is about being a woman, a mother and a daughter.” —Gabriela Almeida, Continente
"This book of Noemi and her mother, however, is not just another painful story; it is the conclusion that there are no answers for what happened. But there is one certainty: 'You have to remember, we must forget.' This is the key to overcoming a past so infinitely bad. So Noemi turns the story into a mosaic of questions — and is thus an infinite work." —O Estadão de São Paulo
When I arrived at the camp, I was wearing a blue checkered dress, with a flared skirt. The Germans asked us to undress and made a mound with all our clothes. After delousing, we should get, at random, any garment from that mound. I got precisely my blue checkered dress.
She plainly believes in destiny. For her, as for all those who believe in it, destiny is a force that determines by anticipation the events in the lives of all beings. Nothing is random. Otherwise, in her opinion, she would not be alive, the strokes of luck that made her survive would not have happened. For her, destiny is not necessarily god, but it also could be. Maybe it is like a divinity; she does not question the statute of that which she simply believes and she doesn’t want to think about it nor discuss it. One does not discuss beliefs. Destiny was challenged by the characters in the Greek tragedies, which were punished for their effrontery. To destiny one must merely submit; neither to think about it, nor to seek to design it autonomously, nor to challenge it. It is already prescribed and will happen, for better or for worse. Destiny is that which one goes through; it is the place one goes to, even if the paths be unknown, undesired, or tortuous. Tragic characters dressed up in goat costumes, thus the name tragedy, from tragos, goat. Their song, odia, is similar to that of a caprine animal in agony, nearing death; a drunken song, dionysiac, of someone whose death does not frighten, due to the state of unconsciousness. It is the scapegoat, which brings about catharsis, feeling of terror or compassion in the one whose guilt is expiated by those who dared challenge what fatally happens: destiny. Thus, tragic spectators, expiated, purged, exit the tragedy cleaner and more fearful of challenging that which happens. Destination, fatality, fact. Destination is a fact and one does not question facts.
It seems easy to understand why she believes in destiny in such a sacred, untouchable way. As if this belief would help her to also expiate the guilt of having survived, as if it were an explanation for everything: for the death of others as well as for her survival. This faith would also have helped her build the pyramid of forgetfulness, starting from which she seems to have succeeded at surviving in the best possible way. If everything was already predicted, it is more conceivable to forget or even to survive. But it cannot be an easy task. Even if remembering or disbelieving fatality sounds more painful or complex, attributing everything to foreign forces, predesigned, is also not simple. It is a cutting pain, of a straight-edge razor, from the impossibility of glimpsing beyond the fact. It is relinquishing the gesture, the memory of the past and the future, muteness, impotence, complete surrender. It can be even harder than believing nothing. Sometimes I think I suffer more now than when I went through it all; I was so naïve.
Believing, or perhaps the word here is not believing, but understanding – understanding that the fact that she found the same dress as a random event and not as destiny is more beautiful, easier and perhaps more poetic. Random is destiny inside out; the inside of destiny, its seams on show. It is mischief that moves inside destiny, challenging it repeatedly, without ever being punished.