[A review of 1111 DAYS IN MY LIFE PLUS FOUR, by Ephraim F. Sten. Translated from Hebrew by Moshe Dor. Dryad Press (distributed by University of Wisconsin Press), 2006]
Ephraim F. Sten (born Sternschuss) led a full and fascinating life. In post-war Poland, he was an engineering student before becoming a playwright and theater director. By 1950, at the age of twenty-six, he was the artistic director at Gdansk’s Municipal Theater. Then he moved to Israel where he learned Hebrew and worked for Israeli Radio, becoming the director of radio-drama. He later moved on to Israel National Television, published short stories in various periodicals, and wrote two novels. But before all this, young Ephraim was boy with a copybook into which he wrote, “Maybe I’m so anxious because I can’t tell her about Father, who was drafted yesterday into forced labor and Mother still believes he’s alive.”
The burgeoning library of Holocaust literature makes it seem almost impossible to expect something unique and fresh. This is especially true in the area of Holocaust diary and memoir, an area (unlike fiction) tied directly to experience and thus to patterns that repeat and overlap – no matter how unique each survivor’s particular perceptions and recollections. Yet I believe there is something quite unusual and engaging about this recent book.
The author, who lived in a small town in Poland, began a diary at the age of thirteen. This was in July of 1941, and the town was suffering under Nazi occupation. Young Ephraim was relocated and lived in hiding in a neighboring village (now within the Ukraine). He, along with his mother and several other Jews, was protected by a Catholic family until liberated by the Russians. The young man continued this diary, with some lapses, for the stretch of time indicated in the first part of the title. It is one of the most intimate and detailed diaries that we have of a young person’s life under such circumstances.
It would be enlightening and engrossing enough to enter this world of adolescent fear and longing, with the threat of detection part of the daily diet – a diet that is itself an intriguing part of the story. Just as intriguing is the spirit-saving value of gossip – the hints of good news that make hope (usually false hope) possible. What makes this book stand out from others is that Sten saved but essentially ignored this journal for decades and then, as an aging Israeli citizen, began translating it into Hebrew so that his children and grandchildren would know what he had experienced. In the process of translation, Sten could not keep from annotating the entries. In a strange way, the teenager and his older self hold a conversation. The mature, worldly Sten knows more, but at first feels less. Clearly, his post-Holocaust life and his professional and economic success have allowed him to distance himself from the desperate boy.
But as the process of translation and recollection goes on, Sten’s repressed feelings emerge, and his memories and thoughts jotted down in the 1990s become more and more a search for meaning. A part of his identity that he had left behind speaks out to him, demanding respect, honest respone, and integration. Reluctantly at first, but then as if to literally and figuratively save his life, Sten allows a sort of reconciliation to take place. But the process is neither smooth nor complete. It cannot be.
The decision to translate the diary, which had been sitting in the bottom drawer of Sten’s desk, came upon making a visit to Zloczow – the village of his youth – after an absence of fifty years. That visit constitutes the other four days mentioned in the title. Readers can be thankful especially for those four days in Sten’s life that persuaded him to share the earlier 1111, as well as his complex, often searing, ruminations.
At one point, Sten reflects: “It is difficult to accept that the writer of the diary was a boy, a teenager who was supposed to go on living a complete life, maybe even happy. More and more I identify with myself in that time. More and more I think like that boy in the diary. I’m afraid that at the end of the translation we’ll become one. And even worse, we’ll have the same mind. Maybe it’s a good idea to slow the pace of the work, because it seems its end will be mine as well.”
By the time he was involved in he process of translating his long-neglected diary from Polish into Hebrew, Sten had contracted cancer. Thus, even as that cancer was making its advances, of which he was well aware, Sten was preparing this important legacy. He lived long enough not only to complete his Hebrew translation and additions, but also to be convinced of publishing the interacting passages as a book and to review Moshe Dor’s brilliant translation into English. Then, during 2004, the period when publisher Merrill Leffler was putting the finishing touches on the manuscript, Sten was gone.