Israeli writer finds meaning in small things
Thanks to the very, very short stories he writes and the very, very tiny house designed for him in Warsaw, author Etgar Keret has become a very, very big name in Israel.
Speaking Nov. 10 at Princeton University, Keret explained how the house came to be and how it connected to the themes of his work, including the Holocaust, memory, and concision.
In 2012, Polish architect Jakub Szczesny completed a sliver of a house — barely four feet wide and two stories high — that fit in the space between two apartment buildings in Warsaw. Keret, whose films and stories have made him a celebrity in Israel, was its namesake and first tenant.
“The idea was to build a house in the proportion of my stories, which are minimalistic — the smallest possible text that can still be a functional story and have all you need for a story, plot, characters, etc.,” he said, in delivering the Rose and Isaac Ebel Memorial Lecture for the the university’s Program in Jewish Studies.
Szczesny, Keret said, “wanted to build a house as tiny as possible as a functional house can be.”
In turn, the house turned out to reflect Keret’s family experience. His mother, a native of Warsaw, was six when the war began. When she saw the first simulation of the house, she said, “This is Chłodna Street,” and stated the exact address.
“The house is located in just the place where the bridge was between the small and big ghetto,” Keret explained. “It was the point she had to go through when she smuggled food into the ghetto.”
Knowing that the Germans would kill her if she fidgeted or appeared nervous, his mother told him, she would focus on the surrounding buildings and memorize every detail of their construction.
For Keret, the Warsaw House also connected to the divergence between the way his parents talked about the Holocaust and how it is taught in Israel.
“When I was a child, I learned for the first time in school about the Holocaust. My father said, ‘What did you learn?’ I was eight years old and said, ‘What I learned was if you weren’t there, you would never be able to understand.’ It got my father very annoyed. He said, ‘Why won’t you be able to understand? Is there any human emotion you can’t understand — being cold, hungry, afraid? Multiply them by 1,000, and you’ll know what I felt.’”
Keret continued, “My parents felt in some way the respect for the memory of the Holocaust dehumanized them and turned them into something less than humans.”
Keret — who has just finished a memoir Seven Good Years, documenting the time between the birth of his son and the death of his father — mused about two types of Holocaust memory. In the first, the Holocaust is a symbol of the fight between good and evil and, he said, has no complexity and ambiguity in its nature.
“I think my parents yearned for a different kind of memory,” he said. “Not one that fills you with awe and paralyzes you — the ones I know from museums and the Holocaust museum, where they first say, ‘You are not allowed to touch anything, to speak; and you are petrified but don’t feel.’
“But when my mother told me how she was able to get a piece of cheese but didn’t want to eat it; she wanted to smell it and hide it in different places — but a rat ate it.
“When she told me this story, I could cry with it.”
One of Keret’s stories is about a child who comes to believe that his German-made Adidas shoes are made from the bones and flesh of his dead grandfather. After recounting the story, Keret observed, “I tried in my story, when I wrote about the Holocaust and memory, I tried to integrate those two types of memories that were dominant in my life, unlike colleagues who could keep the Holocaust ‘out there.’”
For Keret the Warsaw House is in its own way a memory, but one that points to the future.
“Usually when you see monuments, they refer to some point in the past and stay fixed and captivated to that point in the past,” he said. “This thing that has connected to the past and reflects the present and implies some kind of future gave me some happiness.”