Germany and Israel are perhaps the two countries most affected by the Holocaust, and this legacy is felt anew as both nations deal with a contemporary humanitarian crisis: the plight of refugees.
Two authors have written strikingly parallel — but also tellingly divergent — novels that address this topic. In German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, Richard, a retired professor who lives in Berlin, becomes intrigued by African refugees in the city and begins to visit their shelter. In Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions, a doctor, Eitan Green, kills an Eritrean migrant in a driving accident near the city of Beersheba — and decides not to report it to the police. Later, the Eritrean’s widow, Sirkit, blackmails Eitan into working in an illegal clinic she has set up in an abandoned garage. In the conversation that follows, Gundar-Goshen and Erpenbeck discuss their writing, and the ways in which their novels are — and aren’t — emblematic of their respective countries.
It’s not easy to fictionalize a crisis that’s still unfolding, especially when, as Erpenbeck notes, there’s “no ending or solution to the situation in reality.” But these two authors do so with subtlety and finesse. They not only tackle the challenges faced by migrants as well as the layers of internal prejudice in both societies today; they have also created unique, timeless stories that, as Gundar-Goshen hopes, “one hundred years from now, or even twenty years from now … will still be relevant in people’s minds and hearts.”
Becca Kantor: I was struck by the fact that both protagonists have professions that deal with the mind — but in very different ways. Richard is a retired classics professor, and his initial attempts to understand the refugees are cerebral and emotionally removed: he reads articles, writes up interview questions, et cetera. Eitan, on the other hand, is a neurosurgeon. He interacts with others’ brains in a way that’s literally hands-on, and his relationship with the migrants is correspondingly less reflective and more urgent.
How did each of you decide on your protagonist’s profession, and what do you feel is its significance? Can your protagonist be seen as an everyman, representing the attitude of your country as a whole?
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen: I wanted my protagonist to be the everyday man — the typical Israeli. In a way, I wanted him to be my reader, so that when an Israeli is reading Waking Lions, he or she could picture him- or herself in this situation. It’s a story about a man who thinks of himself as a good man, and most Israelis tend to think of themselves as good people. And then his idea of himself is challenged by his decision, which suddenly changes everything. So yes, I wanted Eitan to be the everyday man. But then again, I chose for him the profession of a doctor, which isn’t very “everyday man” because most of the population doesn’t get to be a doctor. But, I thought, a doctor is somebody who is used to knowing things. He uses science in order to know stuff, and to feel that he’s in control over not just his own life, but also the lives and deaths of other people. And I wanted this character — a person who is used to always being in control — to completely lose control over his life, over the life and death of his family, of his surroundings, of himself.
I see Eitan as representative of Israel as a whole because, just like he has this narrative about himself being a good guy, I think Israelis have this narrative about ourselves as being in the right, as being the victims of history — which is of course very much true for most of Jewish history. But sometimes I feel the way we look at the refugee crisis in Israel is more affected by our history than by the actual facts of what’s happening right here, right now.
Jenny Erpenbeck: For me it was important that Richard, my main character, approaches the refugees as someone who has a real, deep, existential interest in their life experience. He understands that they’re people who suffer because of the deep rift between their former lives and their lives as refugees, and suffer because they’re not allowed to work in Germany and are thus confronted with a never-ending situation of waiting. After having retired, Richard also struggles with being thrown from his daily routine of university life, and faces lots of empty time. How can one live in this kind of limbo? How can one stand to be confronted with his memories all day long? The question of how to make sense of one’s own existence without being wanted by society anymore — this question is the initial connecting point between Richard and the refugees.
So in the beginning there’s just interest the driving force for the former scientist, not empathy or compassion. Richard is not someone who wants to help or be a “good” person. He’s kind of naïve about the situation of the refugees in many respects, no doubt, but he demands the same respect for the young Africans as for people who have always lived in Berlin.
That Richard is a philologist has to do with my fondness for Ovid’s Metamorphoses—the book about change over the course of a life, about the good and the evil reasons for taking on a new identity, about the connections between all things in the world. I also had in mind Homer’s Odyssey—which is, in my opinion, the book about someone who has survived a war, but who is mainly famous for his struggle to survive the journey home. I deeply believe in a connection between all human beings based on experiences of death, loss, and fear. By inventing a character like Richard, I wanted to remind readers of the potential for a fruitful discourse between people at the so-called “heights” of European education and people who have a different, but no less rich cultural background.
BK: Richard himself is very aware of the layers of history that surround him in Berlin. At one point in the novel, he reflects, “The Africans probably had no idea who Hitler was, but even so: only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.” I was struck by this statement — could you elaborate on it? How does the legacy of the Holocaust shape Richard’s perspective on the refugees?
JE: Every German knows where contempt of the so-called “other” can lead — all of us have to live with the stories and pictures of the people killed in the Holocaust. It’s very clear to me that Germany’s 2015 movement to welcome refugees had a lot to do with feelings of guilt and shame about all this. But the new German nationalists’ racism and hatred also have a lot to do with the same legacy, which for some people seems to be too heavy a load on their shoulders. So they react by making it worse. Only that now it’s not only the right-wing Germans, but also nationalists all over Europe who seem to be happy about every refugee who loses his or her life in the Mediterranean Sea, or in some refugee camp before even crossing the Sea. It’s an absolute disgrace that many Central European governments refuse to take even one single refugee — and leave the coastal countries of Italy, Greece, and Spain to cope with the problem of hundreds of refugees arriving every day. The official rescue boats have long ago quit their job, and the private ones are hindered, so that month after month, thousands of human beings — men, women, and children — drown in the Mediterranean. This is nothing but selection. The Mediterranean Sea is the Auschwitz of our day.
BK: Ayelet, as you said earlier, Israel’s creation was a direct result of the Holocaust — the country was founded as a homeland for all Jews. It’s implied that Eitan has European heritage, so there’s a good chance that his own relatives in particular were affected by the Holocaust, too. But, unlike Richard, Eitan never thinks about his country’s past, never draws a parallel between the stateless Jews post – World War II (many of whom came to Israel) and the African refugees he comes to know. Could you say more about how the Holocaust and Israel’s past have affected Israelis’ attitude toward present-day migrants? Does Eitan’s attitude mirror one you’ve often seen?
AGG: Eitan indeed comes from a European family, an Ashkenazi family. So of course some of his relatives suffered discrimination and racism in Nazi Germany. And you’re right, it’s not mentioned in Waking Lions because, for him, this is far in the background. I don’t think he, as a character, draws this parallel. But I do hope that the reader thinks about this fact.
As the Eritreans cross the Sinai desert to get to Israel, they’re actually walking the same road as the biblical Israelis walked when they got out of Sinai. But today the journey to the promised land is made by Eritrean people, while Jewish people are the gatekeepers. So there is a lot of historical irony in the fact that Eitan, being the descendant of refugees, doesn’t show — at least in the beginning of the novel — any compassion, or give any thought to the current stream of refugees coming into Israel. In that, I think he’s no different from any other Israeli, because most of us don’t think of ourselves as the gatekeepers. We draw a very clear line from the Second World War to the Israel of today, and of course this line exists — Israel is a nation of refugees. But we don’t always think about the moral responsibility that comes with being a nation of refugees. What does it mean in regard to the way we’re dealing with the situation of refugees today?
BK: I was also struck by the nuance with which both of you portray the prejudice and racism that exists within a society. Ayelet, your characters reveal that being victims of prejudice doesn’t necessarily exempt people from being racist themselves. One of many examples: although Eitan’s wife, Liat, has encountered discrimination for being Mizrahi, she also struggles with her own preconceptions of Arabs. Did this exploration of the complexities of racism evolve organically, or did you consciously include it?
AGG: The attitude of Liat toward the Israeli Arabs is indeed racist, which is interesting because she comes from a Jewish Arab background. But we do see a lot of racism in Israel, which is sometimes really ironic because some of the Jews who hate the Arabs the most are Jews who were born in Morocco, in Egypt — Jews who speak Arabic and share many characteristics with those Arabs whom they hate. So yes, it was important for me to explore not just the racism toward the other — the Eritrean refugees — but also the internal racism: the racism inside Israeli society, and also inside a Jewish society. Liat, being a Mizrahi woman, experienced a lot of racism from Ashkenazi Jews.
BK: The story of an Israeli doctor helping African migrants could easily have fallen into the “white savior” trope — but instead it subverts this cliché completely. Eitan’s patients think of him as an “angel,” and even Liat is ultimately convinced that he acted out of altruism, but we the readers know the truth: he’s motivated entirely by self-preservation. What do you think of Eitan as an antihero, and why are his flaws so integral to the book?
AGG: Eitan wouldn’t help the Eritrean refugees if he weren’t blackmailed to do so — if he weren’t forced to do so. So he’s not a savior; he’s not an angel in a white robe. People always look at him as if he were — most of the Eritrean refugees whom he meets admire and thank him. Only he and Sirkit, who blackmails him, know the secret: that he is not altruistic at all, that he is actually there because he killed somebody and didn’t care enough to stop and call the police because the guy he killed was black. It was very important to me for Eitan to be an antihero, but not in the sense that he’s just a villain. I do hope that something inside of him changes. At the same time, I didn’t want him to be a Disney cliché of a bad guy who turns completely good. I love it that both the bad guy and the good guy are actually the same guy — that’s the way it is in reality.
BK: Jenny, as we’ve discussed, Richard is very much aware of the legacy of the Holocaust. He’s also highly attuned to other parts of German history, like communism and colonization. A key part of Richard’s identity is that he isn’t simply German, but from the former East Germany (as you are, too). What does this mean for him? Were his experiences informed by your own?
JE: Like the refugees, East Germans had the experience of needing to get used to a completely new system from one day to the next. Even if the change was wanted in general, there were many difficulties involved. For example, it was an existential shock when we understood that all of a sudden we had to pay ten times more for our apartments. How would we make so much money? Not to mention that many people lost their jobs at this time because factories were being sold to the West and immediately closed. In universities, the elites were replaced by former West Germans. Even now, you won’t find many former East Germans among the directors of big German companies, universities, and museums. So it was a deep cut in the collective experience — and not in all regards a good one. History, as always, is written by the winner. So interest in biographies of East German figures isn’t very strong — and the same is true of biographies of refugees. But history hasn’t come to an end yet. As long as there’s inequality, there will be change. It’s worth looking at our world through the eyes of someone who’s been denied acceptance.
BK: Go, Went, Gone also does an excellent job of demonstrating the insidiousness of racism. Toward the end of the book, one of the refugees, Khalil, says that while German women have dated his friends, they never actually seem to want a serious relationship with an African. What do romantic relationships reveal about the limits of acceptance?
JE: It’s one thing to have a nice love affair with someone who comes from somewhere far away and perhaps has a different skin color — and a very different thing to connect your life to his or hers, have children together, and present him or her to your parents at the dinner table. How can you trust someone who is perhaps deeply traumatized, has literally no belongings, and maybe didn’t even have the opportunity to attend school as a child? Should someone like this one day inherit the china your grandparents managed to save during the war? In truth, these are very serious questions.
There’s a fear of the unknown in all of us — a fear and a longing at once. We want to lose ourselves by loving someone — give up our personal borders, the borders of our body. But in daylight other things gain importance. More than anything else, the religious questions: would you, as a modern European woman, be happy if your Muslim partner doesn’t want you to drink alcohol? Would he be happy to find a self-confident and financially independent wife? Would a young Jewish man be able to stand his parents’ comments about him marrying a “shiksa”? Would someone with a Catholic background have a problem if you told him that you were brought up without believing in God?
It’s never easy to commit to someone whose political, cultural, and social background is different from yours — it could go well and it could fail. It’s always a challenge. And marrying someone who has a different skin color means that both partners, from that moment on, will have to struggle with the prejudices of their own ancestors. As stupid as it is, combining two different kinds of skin pigment in a marriage still means that each person in the couple will have to “change sides.” Not everyone is strong enough to do so. The task for the centuries to come will be learning how to leave the idea of human races and nations behind and become humankind. And, as we all know, love is the loveliest way to learn.
BK: On that topic, erotic desire is tied up with secrecy and guilt for both protagonists. Their relationships with refugees bring this to the fore — although in very different ways. Eitan initially hates Sirkit, but as they spend more time together, he becomes increasingly attracted to her. Ayelet, when you came to the JBC office a few months ago, you made a fascinating point about this phenomenon: we fall in love with someone when they know our secrets. Could you say more about this?
AGG: When I was studying to become a psychologist, I had an instructor who told me, “People are going to come into your clinic and they’re going to fall in love with you. But make no mistake — it’s not about you. It’s about the secrets that they’re putting in your clinic. That’s what they fall in love with. That’s the source of desire.” We always have desire, or some sort of eroticism, for the person who knows our biggest secret. The knowledge in itself has something erotic in it. In biblical days, the Hebrew word “to know somebody” actually meant sexual intercourse. And I think there is something beautiful about the biblical Hebrew because it really conveys this feeling that there is something erotic about fully knowing somebody else. We are always attracted to those who truly know us. We are terrified of the possibility of being fully known, but we are also very attracted to it.
BK: Richard, on the other hand, has platonic relationships with the refugees he meets. He has a history of infidelity, though, and it’s through his interactions with the refugees that he finally seems able to admit how deeply his affair with a colleague affected his wife. Jenny, could you talk more about this? Did you ever consider giving Richard a present-day love interest?
JE: Richard was used to leading two parallel lives, as many people do: the one he
led with his wife, and the one with this or that lover. Now, after retiring, he’s facing a new kind of loneliness. His wife passed away some years ago, the last lover left him, and the affection he develops for the Ethiopian teacher whom he meets in the asylum seekers’ house doesn’t lead to anything — so he finds himself all alone, forced to contemplate his past, his age, the lack of love in his life, the mistakes he has made. The absence of women, the missing women — in the lives of the refugees as well — is something like the secret core of the book.
BK: What was your experience writing fiction about a contemporary crisis? Were there challenges, and if so, what were your methods for dealing with them?
JE: From the beginning, it was clear that this book couldn’t be planned out in advance. The research and the writing were parallel processes, and many things that I learned and experienced during the research were unexpected. The main challenge while writing this book was gaining the distance that is needed for reflection — and coming closer and closer to the subject at the same time. It was difficult to create an ending for the book while there was, and still is, no ending or solution to the situation in reality.
AGG: When you deal with a contemporary crisis, you’re always asking yourself, “What is the difference between writing a novel and writing an opinion column in the newspaper?” You don’t want your novel to be just one more petition: “help the refugees.” Not that I’m against those petitions — I actually sign them — but I don’t think a novel should be a petition. It should be something much deeper. It should be more about question marks than exclamation marks. So when you write a novel about something that is contemporary, you should always ask yourself, “How can I write about this subject so that one hundred years from now, or even twenty years from now, it will still be relevant in people’s minds and hearts?” And here you have to go beyond the news, into what is not new — into what is old, which is the human condition. The basic questions: what does it mean to be human? What kind of moral responsibilities do we have?
BK: Both of your books deal with language on multiple levels. (To begin with, most Americans, including me, will read both of them in translation from the original Hebrew and German …). Ayelet, you made an intriguing decision with your characters’ dialogue: Sirkit speaks Hebrew, but when she speaks to Eitan, her words are italicized (rather than in quotation marks, as the rest of the dialogue is). Could you tell me more about this, and why you decided to format the book in this way?
AGG: Sirkit speaks in italics because her whole existence inside the Israeli reality is in italics. She isn’t like other Israelis, who can walk straight and tall in the street, because she has to hide, she has to disguise herself — otherwise she’ll be deported in a second. The italics are a symbolic representation of her place — not just her place in the printed text, but also the place she takes, or dares to take, in Israeli society.
BK: Jenny, even your book’s title refers to conjugating a verb in a foreign language — and the importance of language continues to be emphasized throughout the novel. (Early on, for example, Richard is relieved when he has to speak in English with a refugee because it allows him to avoid deciding whether to address him by the informal or formal “you” in German. Mentally, he finds himself addressing the migrants in the informal form, as if they were “inmates.”) Could you talk more about language and its politics?
JE: Of course it is important to choose your words carefully. But language can hide things as well as reveal them. At a time when some people use language to sell lies, and others try to make language as pure and fair as possible, we should step back a bit and pay more attention to the things someone says without words, just by doing good or bad. That should remain the ultimate benchmark for any judgment. In literature, both good and bad words can be good — as long as they seriously try to tell the truth.
Becca Kantor is the editorial director of Jewish Book Council and its annual print literary journal, Paper Brigade. She received a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Becca was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to spend a year in Estonia writing and studying the country’s Jewish history. She lives in Brooklyn.