The Teacher

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

THE TEACHER by the Israeli writer Michal Ben-Naftali is a mystery novel. Not the usual kind of mystery novel, though, with a crime to be solved, justice dispensed. In THE TEACHER the mystery centers around the character of Elsa Weiss, a teacher in Tel Aviv who “ does not wish to be remembered, a woman who wishes not to be, and never to have been.” Why Elsa Weiss felt that way when she jumped to her death is what puzzles--make that, haunts--the narrator of this dark, somber, heart-wrenching book.

The unnamed narrator is a former student of Weiss’s, a woman who desperately tries to comprehend the enigma of her life, only to discover that this is impossible, that “every being cries out silently to be read differently.”

Correction: there is a crime in THE TEACHER: the monstrous crime of the Holocaust. Elsa Weiss was a victim of it: she and most of her Jewish-Romanian family were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Bergen-Belsen. Remarkably, a few hundred Jews were allowed to leave the camp, thanks to a controversial deal made by their leader, Israel Rudolf Kastner. He sacrificed some Jews to save many others (money was involved, of course). Weiss was among the lucky ones, though she never celebrated her luck, because by then her soul had been damaged by the trauma of the Holocaust. She lived and taught with an “icy ruthlessness,” tortured by her demons but never talking about them: a woman “who denied herself all the good that people might bestow. Not because she found it to be false, but because she forgot it existed.”

Still, she was a conscientious and skilled teacher, one who made a lasting impression on her students–-especially the narrator, who, having been devastated by her suicide, writes this book in an attempt to understand why she took her own life.

Because Weiss kept her distance from everyone, the narrator is obliged to make this confession. “I know that she was born in 1917, that she passed away in 1982, that she parted from her parents in July of 1944. I know that she crossed oceans and continents. I know everything and nothing at all. Oh well, I tell myself. From this point forward, it is all fiction.”

What follows is a composite sketch of Elsa Weiss’s life: growing up in an enlightened Jewish household in Romania; her brother Jan became a Zionist and emigrated to Palestine at a young age. In high school she fell in love with “a young Gentile, three years her senior, who swam with her at the municipal pool.” Caught by her parents while necking with him, she was forced to stop seeing him. As a result, “her body gradually withdrew from her. It shamed her like an animal, because she perceived her body and its needs as her real image. In order to fight this animal, she began to contradict her body, to tense a muscle instead of relaxing it, to hold in instead of letting go, to move counter-intuitively, to lose touch with the primal and basic, until these unnatural gestures become second nature.”

This detachment, this “grounding of herself,” enabled her to survive the brutality of WW II, which commenced when the Hungarian army seized the northern part of Romania. Weiss’s family decided to stay put, “to wait for this murky tide to pass.” By then she had married; she and her husband Eric settled into an apartment next to her parents, only to be uprooted and eventually persecuted when the Germans took over in 1944 and began to round up Jews and ship them to the death camps.

THE TEACHER portrays that tragic time with deft, bold strokes. The author keeps Elsa Weiss at the center of her canvas, resulting in a portrait of a Holocaust survivor that is stark, heartrending...and unforgettable.

( The superb translation from the Hebrew is by Daniella Zamir)