As I’m sure this list has suggested, I’m no expert on the short story. If I’m an expert at anything it’s Holocaust literature. But I don’t usually teach this material in my class on the short story. Students struggle to make sense of Holocaust fiction without a lot of context this course can’t provide. But in recent years I have added Ida Fink’s ‘A Spring Morning’ to the syllabus, with good results. Fink was born in Zbarahz (then Poland, now Ukraine) in 1921 to a secular and accomplished family (her mother had a doctorate in the sciences). Her studies at the conservatory in Lvov (Fink was a pianist) came to an end with the beginning of the war. She was interned in the Zbarazh ghetto until 1942, when she and her sister acquired false papers, smuggled themselves out of the ghetto, and began a dangerous life as Ukrainian volunteer workers in Germany. After the war she returned to Poland before emigrating to Israel in 1957. There she began writing stories, but for decades no one would publish them. Today she is considered one of the major writers of the Shoah, her beautiful, enigmatic, and often very short stories earning praise for their depiction of the devastation wrought by the Nazis’ invasion of the Soviet Union and the trauma of survival.
In teaching ‘A Spring Morning’ I am guided by the Holocaust scholar Sara Horowitz’s influential reading of the story as an example of how literature challenges history. The story tells the events of one morning in an unidentified town much like the one Fink grew up in. At first, we see events through the eyes of a bystander, a former town official who watches the Nazis march the local Jewish population over a bridge and into a nearby forest, where, as he both knows and doesn’t know, they will be murdered in a mass execution. Incredulously he tells his cronies at the bar about what he overheard one of the victims say as the terrible cortege made its way across the bridge: “The water is the color of beer.” Abruptly we shift perspective, experiencing events through the eyes of Aron, the man on the bridge. We see his last conversation with his wife and small daughter, his desperate attempt to save the child by pushing her into a crowd gathered on the steps of a church, and his remark, on seeing the river turbulent after a night of rain and made to no one in particular, that the water is the color of beer, a moment the story explains with great pathos: “He was gathering up the colors and smells of the world that he was losing forever.” ‘A Spring Morning,’ then, gives us two stories: one that is possible but incomplete, compromised by a terrible misunderstanding (the bystander’s), and another that is impossible but complete (the victim’s—impossible because it’s from someone who is not alive to tell it). Fiction, in other words, can contribute to testimony in ways history cannot. I love all the stories on my list, but I wish above all that Fink would have more readers.
First published in Polish in 1983. Published in English in A Scrap of Time and Other Stories, Pantheon 1987. Read the story here