Prof. Dvir Abramovich Speech at the Book Launch, November 2008

Prof. Dvir Abramovich - Melbourne University:

Speech at the Launch of the Israeli Novel "And the Rat Laughed"
November 9th 2008, Melbourne, Australia.

I am delighted to be here to launch And the Rat Laughed and to say a few words about one of my favorite authors Nava Semel.

Though she is regrettably not here, it is still gives me great satisfaction to celebrate the work of a woman-novelist who is a significant presence not just on the Israeli literary landscape but on the global scene. She is a gifted and astonishingly sensitive writer who marvelously manages to transport the reader into her crafted universe, compressing weighty themes into small spaces. Her work refines and grows more striking over the years.

It is fitting that we launch this powerful masterpiece on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, now regarded by many as the official start of the Holocaust.
It is also fitting that we launch this profound, sweeping novel in a week that a child's work on German culture was displayed on a board near a hand-drawn swastika at a local Melbourne school.
It stated: "Germany has many great things about it, but I will start with only one. This goes back to the Second World War. Adolph Hitler.

Adolph Hitler was one of Germany's ... most powerful dictators ever."
The golden thread that runs through Nava Semel's body of work is the desire to preserve the memory of the Holocaust in fast-moving society that erases history as swiftly as the click of a mouse.

Her book A Glass Hat published in 1986 was the first Israeli book to tackle the theme of the second generation of Holocaust survivors. Semel's collection of stories was the first Israeli work to give literary voice to the sons and daughters of the survivors, a poignant pipeline to the world of those unique relationships.
The idea of the glass hat is worth explaining in brief because it symbolizes the enduring burden projected upon the children of survivors. As one scholar remarked:

A glass hat is cold. It is transparent and insulated, heavy and vulnerable and may break into pieces at any moment. More than it protects it exposes and bears great danger. It concentrates the sunrays and amplifies the heat underneath so much so it can cause fire. The glass hat recalls the glass bell in which divers go down to the depths of the ocean to watch what is happening there without being injured. Yet, as opposed to the glass bell the hat cannot provide similar protection. As well, it hints at the glass cage where the war criminal Eichmann was placed during his trial in Jerusalem.

Semel replays the difficulty of the children living with survivor parents, presenting their anxieties as childhood fragments from a broken home movie. The author proves that the Holocaust, never a static event frozen in history, is a catastrophe that continues to evoke passionate feelings, stir the waters of the soul, generate new dilemmas, and affect relationships for a generation that was not alive at the time, paradoxically offering hope and despair, shame and inspiration for the present and the future.

In her cannon, Semel does not look into the abyss of the actual genocide, does not enter the world of Planet Auschwitz, to use the words of Elie Wiesel.

Rather, she examines the long and painful shadow that the Holocaust casts on Israelis and by extension all Jews, who cannot escape the searing and wounding effect of the past.

Semel's work is a continuous exploration of the conundrum of survival. Her fiction is an attempt to understand how survivors managed to draw on extraordinary reserves of strength, to experience the horror and yet maintain a sense of joy in life.

Semel says that her impression from a very early age, that there was always another reality, stems directly from her experience of growing up in a home where both parents and children needed to protect one another from different and horrific truths.

It is this idea of a parallel universe, realities within realities, that informs her fiction, plays and children's stories. Survivors of the Holocaust themselves, she says, are the greatest inspiration, and she is in some way an emissary, "breaking their silence for them".

In "Children of Job," perhaps the first comprehensive study of second- generation writing, Alan L. Berger, calls the writing of survivors' children an attempt to cope with "the presence of absence," the absence of an inheritance, of a past.
While the Israelis sought to forge a new identity, free from the European legacy of their brethren, Semel reminds us that the death of six million is an event with which we must all come to grips with.

In other words, Semel patches the holes in personal memory and resurrects the repressed European past in Israeli collective memory.
The Holocaust denial around Nava Semel pushed her on like a "forced laborer"
"Over the years," she confessed in conversation with Uri Orlev, the Holocaust survivor and children's author, "I found myself repeatedly touching the open wound."
And: "Through my story-telling I embraced my mother's personal account of pain and loss, and the scar she would carry for the rest of her life," writes Semel. "In the process I was conscious of the virtues of healing, yet I was also well aware of the fact that a complete repair, Tikkun-wasn't possible"
And the rat Laughed is a literary gem, an original book that braids different styles, devices and genres, knitting a quilt of stories and characters to deliver a thunderous, yet beautifully timed and restrained novel. The reader encounters a fable, internet poetry, a diary and a science fiction plot, all sewn up with stunning tenderness and insight.

It is small wonder that the book was published in Israel in 2001 to critical acclaim and enthusiastic reviews.
Commentators praised and zeroed in on Semel's bold, ambitious and refreshing approach to such a weighty and confronting subject matter.
Just when it seemed that nothing new could be offered, Semel, undeterred by the enormous task that lay ahead, provided readers with a book that examines the notion of remembering and forgetting from multiple perspectives and vantage points.
In And the Rat Laughed Semel investigates the attitude of forgetting as it relates to the Holocaust. For the first time in Hebrew literature, an author tries to imagine how the tenth generation will remember an event that has receded in memory. What Semel does brilliantly is to open a window into a future where technology reigns supreme, and the possibility that it may pervert or change the past is all too possible.
Semel dares to imagine, to cast her gaze decades from now and to creatively project how future generations will conceive of the European genocide.
I do not propose detailing the book's plot- that I leave up to you after you buy the book. I will offer the bare bones of the narrative.
The story is told by an anthropologist in the year 2099, Lima Energelly, who seeks an answer to the "Girl and Rat" myth spun around some mysterious poems on the Internet. These poems express the feelings of "the child in the hole" and Stash, the rat who is her only living companion in chaos.

Slowly the whole terrible tale is revealed.
It concerns a five-year-old Jewish girl in Poland during WWII whose parents, in order to save her life, give her to a farmer who then conceals her in a potato cellar for a year. Not only is she denied light and half- starved, but the farmer's son Stefan rapes her repeatedly.
Her only companion is a rat whom she names Stash.
Then, at peril to his life, the kindly village priest determines to save her. Slowly he rebuilds both her body and mind. His kindness illustrates that there was another way to the Nazi's brutality.
Sixty years later, now a grandmother the woman tells her story for the first time to her granddaughter, who's doing a school project on her family's roots.
The repressed memories that was buried deep inside her heart, now surface with a shimmering inertia to be heard. The grandmother justifiably fears the impact her life story may have on her descendants, on their mental state and more broadly on the world's convenient state of tranquility and amnesia.
In 2099, the story and poems about the girl and the rat have become an internet sensation, a powerful narrative of mythic proportions, introduced most likely by the granddaughter.
Semel offers us a glimpse of the future in which the Holocaust has been transformed into a myth, a commercial entity.

The story of the rat that laughed has mutated into a fashionable, commercial product, a cultural phenomenon that transcends boundaries has become a truly global industry. There are comics, interactive shows, religious cults devoted to the rat and the girl, churches, and even Walt Disney jumps on the band wagon.
Scholars unsuccessfully try and decipher the origin of the story. Some come to believe that its origins can be traced to Hindi myth.
The image and the employment of the rat in the story is fascinating.
In the Nazi propaganda films, Jews were compared to rats. In Art Spiegeleman's Maus Jews are depicted as rats, a metaphor for creatures who are constantly hunted. It is interesting to note that Nava Semel did meet with Art Spiegelman and interviewed him about his comics.
Worse, the book cautions not only about the trivialization of the Holocaust but warns against a complete distortion of the Holocaust, so much so that the evil of the Holocaust can once again be unleashed on a world that has relegated it to the dustbin of history.
In 2099 there are alternative versions that completely debase and distort the tale. The girl becomes the daughter of the devil and Stefan, the boy who raped her, is the victim.
Semel is alluding to anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers who are hell bent on turning the Nazis to the innocent victims of a Jewish plot.

The book asks: as holocaust survivors gradually pass away, how will the Holocaust be remembered in 100 years.
In a sense, the book is a rallying cry against the corrupting nature of technology and our consumerist society which commodifies and cheapens the Holocaust and which dilutes and diminishes the legacy of the Holocaust for cheap gratification.
It warns against turning the Holocaust into a metaphor, a brand name that can twisted, fashioned and modeled to such an extent so that it no longer bears any connection to the true meaning of what really happened in Europe of the 1930's and 40's.
And the Rat Laughed is about the nature of memory and creation. While only humans have the gift of laughter, in the grandmother's story to her granddaughter, she makes the myth of a laughing rat because Stash is the only living thing that comforts the child
It is only people who can reverse this frightening trend, who can once again breathe life into the horrors of the Shoah and revive it as a living memory. In fact, the living memory is presented as laughter, the laughter of a rat, which is all that has remained after the terror has been translated into words.
One of the book's core messages is that if we wish to hear that laughter again we must go back to the genuine narrative, to re-explore the dark recesses of that period, to viscerally engage with the stories of the survivors in their original expression.

This novel delivers a blow to the solar plexus of indifference and succeeds on every level. It is one of the most challenging and astute books on the Holocaust to have been written by a second generation author.
And for that courage and dazzling literary energy and creativity, we must all be thankful.

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