Book review: Displaced

In 1946, when this novel begins, the world was still coming to terms with the horrors of the death camps of Nazi Germany and elsewhere. 

Stephan Abarbanell

translated by Lucy Renner Jones

John Murray, €18

The League of Nations had given the British government an authority, a ‘mandate’, to rule Palestine from September 1923 “until such time as [it is] able to stand alone”.

By 1946 the British had been fighting Arab and Jewish insurgents for many years. 

The novel’s main character, Lilya Wasserfall, is a restless 22-year-old member of the Haganah, one of the paramilitary groups fighting for the creation of a Jewish state. Her superior, Shimon Ben Gedi, gives her an unusual mission.

She is to meet a writer, Elias Lind, who has heard that his brother, Raphael, has died in a concentration camp in Germany. 

She is to learn as much as possible about Lind’s brother and then go, eventually, to Germany and discover his whereabouts, or, if dead, what happened to him. 

Her journey would take her to London before checking out leads in a number of places in Germany and discover that her life is in danger.

We meet, among others, the Haganah, the UK foreign ministry, British Army’s counter-intelligence officers, the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Agency and the officer in charge of the US Army’s depot for valuable books stolen by the Nazis. 

The novel does not make clear why the Haganah would send one of its operatives, Lilya, on a mission to rescue a scientist who had either helped the Nazis or, if he had not and survived the death camps, would be in no physical condition to help the Haganah.

The Haganah was then waging a guerilla war against the British in Palestine. She herself is troubled that she is chosen for this mission and not on more active service.

Luckily for Lilya (and the story) she gets timely help from a number of individuals along the way. 

The role of David Guggenheim, the US representative of UN Relief and Rehabilitation Agency in charge of one of the displaced persons camp in Germany and a man in search of his own displaced German mother, is well delineated.

Lilya’s unrequited love for Yoram, who was taken in by Lilya’s parents after they had died in a gun battle, has, ultimately, little real relevance to the novel. 

Yoram, also in the Haganah, takes up a large part of the first half of the novel. However, this love has no resolution, except in what may be a possible dream sequence.

The irony of accepting the help of the British — the Haganah’s sworn enemy — comes across only to a certain degree. 

Another Zionist group, the Irgun, with the approval of the Haganah, would bomb the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the headquarters of the British in Palestine, in July 1946, leaving many dead. Such was the hatred of the Zionists towards the British administration in Palestine.

The translation itself reads exceptionally well. However, the author in an afterword, tells the reader what the novel was about and why it was written as it was. This is a poor device. 

A novel should speak for itself. He writes that it concerns loss, homelessness, the search for a homeland and “something like deliverance”.

However, these themes do not really gel in the novel. The chaos that would have been evident in post-surrender Germany, particularly carved-up Berlin, is not felt, nor is the outrage that would have been felt by anyone, especially a Jewish guerilla fighter from Palestine, spending time in the former Nazi Germany at that time.

For readers interested in Zionism this book may be of interest. Those who are not might usefully give it a miss.


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