The Holocaust is a difficult subject to write about. It is about reliving a human catastrophe at a period of history when all human feeling seemed to have evaporated in a miasma of nationalistic fervour. Then there is the personal trauma for those who lived through it all; the trauma will only pass away when the survivors pass on. And yet, there are those who had to live with them: their children. Alba Arikha, author, poet, musician and daughter of a Jewish family persecuted during WWII, said in a recent interview that writing her memoir had been a “complicated process. It involved dealing with facts, and delving into a darker, more personal place than fiction requires. I worried about hurting people…”
Major/Minor is the courageous result of this process. The title is an interesting one because of its musical associations. The major key is bright and optimistic; the minor key melancholic. The Arikha family lived between Paris and Jerusalem during the eighties. The father was deported to a concentration camp as a child of twelve during the war, and the consequences of his past are something the family has had to live with on a daily basis. Arguments, strained relationships, strong reactions, all these well up beneath the surface of family life, and in the end, inevitably, they cause a rift.
“When my father goes, that atmosphere will disappear with him. Will its residue disappear with me?”
We expect strength from our parents, security. We loathe them if they are weak because it frightens us. It is significant that the only time Alba does not argue with her father is when he tells her how he survived the concentration camp. But it is what he has become as a result: dysfunctional and vulnerable, that drives her to rebel against him. As teenagers we often feel it hard to ‘survive’ our adolescence, but how do you survive the survivors of the Holocaust; how do you survive your parents when their memories intrude so dramatically on every aspect of their lives and your own? The children of the victims may now be the last generation to relive the Holocaust on a personal level, and their testimony matters.
The style of this book is disjointed, as are the emotions it evokes. The title, with its musical connotations, is felt through the prose, which changes key, sometimes aggressively major, sometimes sadly minor as the author struggles to come to terms with her family’s past and her own present. The narrative switches between her life and the story of theirs. The trauma of the past is lightened by the present as the father pauses his account of unspeakable horror to make tea, call someone, or go on an errand.
You have to wonder if the survivors of the Holocaust were scarred to such an extent that they were unable to integrate into the post war world, with all its momentous changes. The Jewish community seen through the eyes of the author in this book appears stuck in a time warp, unable to break free from the past. It is about “adapting history to actuality. About keeping one’s balance without falling back into the trap of pain.” The balancing act is a hard one, for both the author and her father. It ends in anger and ultimately, in a separation.
Any Cop?: As Arikha relates her decision to leave for America at the age of seventeen we feel that she has lived her father’s experience so deeply that his age has become hers; so she takes back her own life, her seventeen years, in the final pages. “I am young, still. Seventeen years old. Young and angry. Time to go.”