Peace Corps Writers

Read John Coyne's interview with Simone Zelitch from the January, 2000 issue of by Simone Zelitch (Hungary 1991–93)
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $24.95
525 pages
August 2000

Reviewed by Susan Hundt Bergan (Ethiopia 1966–68)

LOUISA IS SIMONE ZELITCH’S adaptation of the Old Testament Book of Ruth to twentieth century Jewish history. It is a rich, complex and thoughtful novel told in language that is straightforward but also suffused with longing and regret. The novel explores the quest of the human heart for love and belonging, for forgiveness and reconciliation. A poem that Nora, the main character, wrote in her youth serves as a haunting refrain throughout this fine work:

    What is lost, what is lost
    We can not have back again.
    It is like good bread we’ve eaten.
    We cannot eat it again.
    It was like a breath we’ve taken.
    We can not breathe it again.
    It is like a heart we’ve broken
    Or our own heart, lost in vain.

The story of Naomi and Ruth
The biblical Book of Ruth is the story of the young widow Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi, her husband and sons had left their home in Bethlehem of Judah to escape a devastating drought and settle in Moab. Now, with her husband and sons dead, the grieving Naomi says farewell to her two daughters-in-law and prepares to return to Judah. Despite Naomi’s urging that she stay in Moab, Ruth insists on accompanying her mother-in-law. Ruth’s entreaty to Naomi resonates in the heart: “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you, for wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 2:16)
     The two widows, one old and one young, travel in mourning to Bethlehem, where Naomi is greeted as one brought back from the dead. Ruth, the stranger and foreigner, goes into the harvest fields to earn their food and attracts the attention of Naomi’s middle-aged kinsman, Boaz. Drawn to her, Boaz marries Ruth — although he is not young and she is a gentile — in order to preserve his dead kinsman’s name. Ruth gives birth to a son, Obed, who fathers Jesse. Jesse becomes the father of King David, and from David’s line is born Jesus, revered by Christians as the Messiah.

The story of Nora and Louisa
In Zelitch’s skillful hands, the Book of Ruth is transformed into the story of Nora Gratz and her daughter-in-law Louisa. Nora is a Hungarian Jew born in the early years of the twentieth century in Kisbarnahely, a drab, isolated railroad town. Nora, her parents, and her Uncle Oskar comprise a remnant Jewish population in the town. Her family is not observant and the rich spiritual and theological heritage of Judaism does not sweeten or strengthen their lives. Nora’s existence is constricted, as symbolized by their house, which she tells us is narrow and “fifteen paces long.” She has neither siblings nor friends until her 11-year-old cousin Bela, from Budapest, comes into her life. Bela, who visits for five consecutive summers with his sister and widowed mother, becomes the polestar of Nora’s solitary life.
     Between summer visits, and for years after the visits cease, Nora and Bela write to each other, a correspondence that is the center of her young life and out of which comes Nora’s growing love for her sweet, brilliant and idealistic cousin. Bela’s letters are filled with the dreams and plans of the Hungarian Zionists for a homeland in Palestine.
     The novel begins as Nora and Louisa arrive at an Israeli refugee camp in 1949, in search of Bela, who had emigrated many years earlier. Their story is told by Nora and it unfolds layer by layer, secret by secret, as she reveals it to us. Nora narrates the present happenings of their lives in the refugee camp at the same time she is revisiting her past through flashbacks and reflections. Although at times complicated to follow, it is a technique true to the non-linear, yeasty functioning of human memory. The stories of the main characters flow on a river of prose, narrated in the muted voice of a survivor of horror that has at times an almost surreal placidity given the growing menace of national and international events that are marshalling around them. Inexorably, the evil of the times catches them in its grip.
     The novel gives us a view, through Bela, of the formation of the Jewish state and the origin of divisions that plague the region to this day. As the years pass, the idealism of Bela fades and he is saddened by the deterioration of relations between his kibbutz and their Arab neighbors. As more Jewish settlers arrive and the kibbutz must buy more land to accommodate them, the original welcome of their neighbors turns to resentment and violence. Bela struggles in vain to find a just solution to the impasse.

Two characters — very different, yet with much in common
In Nora and Louisa, Ms. Zelitch has created two women who at first seem to be polar opposites but who eventually reveal strong similarities.
     Nora is not a sympathetic character. Louisa at one point says to her, “You make life so hard.” Nora’s namesake in the Book of Ruth, Naomi, asked that her name be changed to Mara, which means bitter. Nora/Mara is small and dark and has a crabbed personality to which the ordinary joys of life — except for smoking, to which she is desperately addicted — seem foreign. She is judgmental and self-absorbed and seems a stranger even to herself: “I tried to think, was there someone, anyone, with whom I was a human being?” “What was wrong with me?”
     An only child, Nora is antipathetic to her mother. When she is nineteen, Nora boards the train for Budapest and never looks back — her mother learns of her marriage from a telegram. She seems unable to return the affection and interest of her Budapesti relatives, cousin Adele and Aunt Monika. Until her son Gabor is born, it is only Bela, uncritical and openhearted, who lights up her mind and heart. Her mother says to her, “You always say the wrong thing at the wrong time and call it honesty. And you don’t have a feeling heart.” Yet, despite what Nora’s actions tell us, the hundreds of letters that she composes to Bela but never sends for fear of revealing too much of herself (she sends only the most arch and polished versions), show us the possibility of a more loving nature.
     Louisa is the opposite of her mother-in-law Nora in many ways. Louisa is tall and fair; she is German and a Christian. Her heart is simple and loving. She has the voice of an angel and sings lieder with angelic purity. She follows her heart where it leads her, first to Gabor — whom she marries — and then to Nora, and she does not shrink at declaring her love even when rebuffed. Louisa is uncritical, faithful, and eager to adapt to the ways of the beloved, unlike the obdurate Nora.
     Louisa and Nora share the experience of being outsiders, the other. They were both only children who led isolated lives. Nora and her family were not integrated into the life of Kisbarnahely because they are Jews. Louisa, a German, feels herself an outsider in Budapest, and does not even bother to learn Hungarian. In Budapest, as the war approaches, Jews are systematically separated from the rest of the population, gradually barred from certain jobs, removed from the university, from public and artistic life. Eventually, the killings and deportations begin. Nora and Louisa survive all of it, but their family members are killed or disappear during the war years. When Nora and Louisa emigrate to Israel, they are both outsiders in a new way, but Louisa’s otherness is extreme and marks her for persecution.
     In pledging herself to Naomi, the Old Testament Ruth must abandon her family, her people and their pagan gods. She adopts Naomi’s people, their ways, and their one God, Yahweh. Louisa is a Christian, but once she arrives in Israel with Nora, she declares her desire to join the Jewish faith. She plunges into Hebrew study and is fluent within several months; she begins studying the Torah with Rabbi Needleman, who has reluctantly accepted her as a student because no one else will. In this key aspect of Louisa and Nora’s story, the analogy to Ruth and Naomi breaks down because Nora does not believe in God nor practice her faith.
     Nora has no religion, yet Louisa wants to become a Jew apparently to be more like her. Nora is a Jew by birth but exhibits little knowledge or interest in the relationship with God that formed her people and set them on a singular course that profoundly changed human history. If Norah were observant, God’s commandment to “Honor your father and mother” may have ameliorated her relationship with her mother. However, Nora has no standard for human behavior except her own bleak heart and that provides her with a dark and meager view. She has rejected God and shuffles along with no light to guide her as the world around her descends into the hell of World War II, Yellow Star houses and Nazi death trains.

An enigmatic title character
Louisa, who is central to this story, always remains an enigma. That may be so because Louisa does not tell her own story, Nora does. Somehow Louisa’s apparent simplicity and transparency make us search for something other than what we see, for some more complicated motivation. Louisa chooses to emigrate to Israel with Nora, rather than go back to her native Germany, in her search for home. Once in Israel, her appearance and language draw down upon her the hatred and scorn of those who survived the Holocaust. Here indeed, after putting her hopes in Nora and Israel as refuge, she must have felt again the sadness that Keats alludes to in “To the Nightingale”:

    Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
    Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
    She stood in tears amid the alien corn.

Louisa’s longing for a home goes beyond a physical place. It is soul-deep and articulates the inchoate longing we all feel for the transcendent, a yearning that St. Augustine speaks to when he says, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.”

A quest for a comforting home and forgiveness
The characters in Louisa, like the rest of us pilgrims, spend their lives searching for home, for the blessings of love and peace that one’s true home provides. By the end of the novel, light is beginning to dawn on their sadness and there is hope that they may yet be able to forgive each other their offenses — for what they did, for what they failed to do. At one despairing point, Louisa says to Rabbi Needleman: “And no one will forgive me. Christ would forgive me. He forgives everyone. How do Jews live without that? What do they do?” Rabbi Needleman answers, “They forgive each other.”
     One must be able to forgive and be forgiven in order to survive and transform pain into the redemptive. Human suffering is a great mystery. We know in the depths of our being that we are made for life and happiness, yet suffering and eventually death attend us all. How can one make sense of this contradiction without going beyond the human, beyond the physical? Saint Teresa of Lisieux answers us: “Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting. God alone fills us.”

Susan Hundt Bergen lives with her husband, “in God’s country [Madison, Wisconsin],” she says, “amidst family and friends.” Recently retired from the state Department of Natural Resources, she works part-time as an environmental consultant but spends, she writes, “the heart of my days gardening, cooking and in pursuit of wisdom.”
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