REVIEW by Willard Manus
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.
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.
is a composite sketch of Elsa Weisss 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.