Museum Fellowship Book Reviews

 
 

book cover used by permission of Persea BooksNightfather
Carl Friedman
New York: Persea Books, 1994

Reviewed by:
Barbara Wahlberg

Cranston High School East
Cranston, Rhode Island

 
 

Camp is not so much a place as a condition. “I’ve had camp,” he says. That makes him different from us. We’ve had chicken pox and German measles. And after Simon fell out of a tree, he got concussion and he had to stay in bed for weeks. But we never had camp.

Thus begins Nightfather, Carl Friedman’s brief but potent novel about one man’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps as seen through the eyes of his children. The novel mixes tragedy with humorous poignancy, as the young daughter narrates her experiences in life, along with those of her two brothers, as they are taught about the concentration camps through the stories of their father. Through her voice, we come to understand the pain, suffering and hopelessness which continues to torment their father. His only ability to cope with the pain of the past is to compare their lives with the life he lead while in the camps or on the run.

Although these three young children struggle to understand their father’s experiences, their innocence and inability to grasp the grim reality that existed in the camps creates a definitive gap between who they are and who their father is. The children’s compassion, empathy, loyalty and, to some point, curiosity allows them to keep listening to the stories, but eventually you begin to wonder exactly what this is doing to their own lives. Their own world becomes skewed by visions of camp life. When Nellie, the next door neighbor, asks the narrator (who remains nameless) to join Brownies with her, she is told by her father about the Hitler youth—which he somehow equates with the Girl Scouts. “And that’s the kind of club you want to join?” he asks her. When she tells her friend she is not allowed to join, Nellie says, “Too bad—you’re going to miss a whole lot of things, movies, tracking and things like that. And camp.” “Camp?” I repeated, wide-eyed.” Her only association with the term is a nightmarish one.

The innocence of these children, and their continued struggle to feel their father’s pain, sometimes turns the novel into a tragicomedy. In a chapter entitled “Underpants,” the youngest child has a difficult time dealing with his father’s lack of underwear in the camps. “Once,” my father continues, “there was a rumor that we were about to get new underwear. I didn’t believe a word of it, but I was evidently mistaken . . .And what pants! They were brown paper bags . . . Useless trash . . .” Simon wipes his tear stained cheeks. “How can you go on living if you don’t have underpants?” he says mournfully. To Simon, the simple things in life are all he can equate with suffering: how can one live without underpants? He cannot fully comprehend the vastness of the real suffering, starvation and exposure, sickness and the fear of death. His older brother Max is a bit savvier, and understands more of what his father may have suffered, although he too lacks the experience of age to completely understand.

Yet, Max seems the most haunted by his father’s continuous storytelling. When he asks his father about the worst thing in the camp, his father says it is a silly question, because there is no one worst thing. "Why not?" asks his son. This leads to an argument where Max’s underlying troubles emerge: “All you love is your SS! When we’re at the dinner table, you go on about starvation. When we have a cold, you go on about typhus. Other fathers play soccer in the street with their kids, but when I bring a friend home just once, all you can do is talk about the camp. The camp this, the camp that, always the camp. Why didn’t you damn well stay there!” This outburst leaves him even more troubled as he knows how much his father does love him. The chapter ends with Max sobbing in his room.

Ultimately, these children become victims of the Holocaust years after it has ended. Yet, through it all, they never really lose their innocence completely. During a time when very few shared their experiences with loved ones, here is a father who was determined to let his children know the horror that he saw. At the conclusion of the book, the entire family is liberated when the father tells the tale of his freedom and his search for his sweetheart, Bette. “Tears run from my mother’s dark eyes. We look at her face, shocked. We are seeing it today for the first time. It is the face of Papa’s sweetheart. Her name is Bette, and she waited for him.” Full circle have these children come, with their father, as they witness his will to survive through his stories and his triumph as he is reunited with the woman he loves.

Carl Friedman herself is the daughter of a survivor. She has created a powerful tale of the importance of passing on the stories to the next generation, even at the awful expense it may extol upon their psyche. For in the telling, we don’t forget. 


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