Questions and Topics for Discussion
In the bible, Ruth the Moabite leaves her native land to follow her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi and take on her people and her God. In Louisa, Nora Csongradi, a perpetually cranky, chain-smoking Holocaust survivor arrives in Israel in 1949 with her German daughter-in-law, Louisa. Nora is certain that she will be welcomed by her cousin Bela, a Zionist pioneer whom she has loved since childhood, but Bela fails to appear and the women enter an absorption camp for new immigrants to face an uncertain future. Nora’s search for Bela proves futile. His kibbutz does not exist on any map, and it is clear that the Palestine he had described in letters over the years has transformed into a place she cannot recognize, and where she does not feel welcome. As weeks pass, Nora is forced to take stock of their relationship and of the world she left behind in Hungary: the loss of her family, her failed marriage to a Communist, and the death of her only son.
As memory leads back to memory, it becomes clear that the emotions that bind Louisa and Nora are complex, and that it is often difficult in the course of living one’s life to know what acts to call heroic and who to blame. Nora owes her life to Louisa, who kept Nora in hiding in her family’s cellar during the war. Now Louisa, the German, clings to Nora and wants to take on her people and her God. In the end, it is Louisa, rather than Nora, who finds Bela. She appears, like the biblical Ruth, as her mother-in-law’s proxy, working in the orange grove where Bela is the foreman and declaring her need with a directness and a vulnerability that Nora herself could never match.
Although the novel is told from Nora’s point of view, Louisa herself is the classic heroine who will risk all for someone she loves. Yet, as Nora’s own life suggests, not everyone wants or can offer that kind of love. Stranded in a new country that asks them to look to the future, both women must face the past and the responsibility each bears for what she has lost. Nora knows how to survive, but Louisa must teach her how to forgive.
ABOUT SIMONE ZELITCH
Simone Zelitch was born in Philadelphia, where she now lives. She attended Wesleyan University, where she wrote an early draft of her first book, The Confession of Jack Straw, a novel that combines original folk-tales with the story of a medieval peasant revolt. The novel won a Hopwood Award. After receiving her MFA at University of Michigan, she taught Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University. In the early 1990s, Zelitch joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Hungary where she trained former teachers of Russian to teach English. The toughness and indelible sense of humor of these students helped shape the voice and attitude of the Hungarian characters in Louisa. (Read John Coyne’s interview with Simone Zelitch at http://peacecorpswriters.org/pages/0001/001talkzelitch.html.) Currently an instructor at Community College of Philadelphia, where she co-directs the college’s Poets and Writers Series, Zelitch lives in a century-old house with her husband, Doug Buchholz, and her stepdaughter, Jane.
“I admire Simone Zelitch’s ability to capture the essence of life in pre- and mid-Holocaust Europe; her understanding that the European Jews are an urban species, not made for physical labor, a people of café life—smokers, drinkers, cultural sophisticates—and of the contrast they present to the kibbutz settlers who are farming the land. The parallel to the Book of Ruth lends new insight to both stories.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review):
“Zelitch’s narrative teases with emotional puzzles and surprises with unexpected developments. She shows virtuosic skill with background and atmosphere [and] transcends historical events with a provocative depiction of the enduring mysteries of human relationships.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review):
“A seamless interweaving of observation, memory, and imagination and an important contribution to the literature of Holocaust and Exodus…Superb.”
Booklist (boxed, starred review):
“Zelitch’s talent shines in this well-paced epic novel, and the combination of Nora’s frank, realistic voice with romantic imagery is striking and beautiful…we begin to understand that her happiness does not lie in the claiming or ownership of land, but in the human connections she has made throughout her life.”
Boston Globe, Sunday, October 1, 2000:
“Honest, brave, intelligent, and highly entertaining.”
Baltimore Sun, September 24, 2000:
“A masterful concoction…smart, ironic, original, a hard-core work of art.”
“The steady voices of the characters hold the reader through [this] fascinating book.”
“Remember the genius with which Jane Smiley retold the story of King Lear and his daughters on a thousand acres of Iowa farmland? With the same such genius Simone Zelitch transforms the biblical story of the widow Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. What a fine book it is, and utterly compelling.”
AN INTERVIEW WITH SIMONE ZELITCH
“In Her Own Words”
Simone Zelitch on Louisa
Someone once asked Chekhov how he wrote. Chekhov replied by picking up an ashtray and saying, “Tomorrow, I will write a story called The Ashtray.” Of course it should be that easy. We find stories everywhere, and we simply need the courage to tell them. I began Louisa in just that spirit. After completing two dense, ambitious, novels, I longed for a way to shrug off all pretensions and simply write. Why couldn’t I just start something simple, something called, say, The Ashtray? I typed that title on top of the first page, and then began: “I started smoking when I was six years old…”
Who started smoking? A woman who was not so young, not terribly attractive and—this came to me slowly—in a perpetual foul temper. Why was she in a foul temper? Because she couldn’t get any cigarettes. Why couldn’t she get any cigarettes? Because, I thought, she is dependent on someone, and can not bring herself to ask for a favor. So began a stream of emotionally charged questions, and I realized that I had entered deep waters. It would take a long time to do justice to this story about a prickly, strong-willed woman who is in somebody else’s power. She was a survivor, a—it came to me—Holocaust survivor named Nora who arrived in Israel after the war with her German daughter-in-law, Louisa.
According to the Bible, another survivor once appeared in Israel with her daughter-in-law. The survivor’s name was Naomi, and the daughter-in-law was Ruth, a non-Jew who clung to Naomi and took on her people and her God. I had received at least a skeletal religious education, and knew the story of Ruth and Naomi well enough to be aware that Ruth was a model of selfless devotion. However, as I re-read the story, I found myself struck by Naomi’s consistent bitterness, the way she never expresses affection, or even gratitude, towards Ruth. Is it possible that not everyone wants to be loved as much as Ruth loved Naomi? In my novel, Louisa saves Nora’s life by hiding her in her family cellar. Now, Louisa refuses to leave Nora. Can any such relationship be simple?
Once I began to do some research, matters became even more complicated. After all, in choosing Nora, I had taken on two impossible subjects, the Holocaust and Zionism. One of the most difficult parts of writing historically based fiction is to know when to stop doing research. At some point, I would have to reign myself in and focus on the story at hand. Unfortunately, given the material, I could take Nora’s story in so many directions that the most likely final outcome would be complete paralysis. I managed to figure out that Nora is Hungarian and that she is in Israel searching to search for a Kibbutznik cousin. However, those two facts alone could have kept me in the library for the rest of my life.
Then I got lucky: I joined the Peace Corps and they sent me to Hungary. There, I taught for two years in Veszprem, a town just west of Budapest, and I went through a period when I didn’t read or write a word. My full-time job was trying to make sense of where I’d landed. Veszprem has a famous zoo, a castle, a scenic overlook, an enormous Jewish cemetery, and no live Jews.
I remember the first time I looked through the gate of that cemetery and tried to read the Hebrew inscription through a tangle of weeds. Once, I returned from a trip to find that the undergrowth had been cleared by a volunteer troop of youths from Israel. The stones looked less forlorn, but I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something dishonest about weeding that cemetery. It seemed to deny a basic truth: once there were Jews in Veszprem; now there were none. As I traveled east, I made a point of searching for abandoned synagogues. They weren’t hard to find. Some of them were shells, filled with old tires, car parts, and wildflowers. Some of them had been cleaned up turned into something else altogether, such as the Great Synagogue of Kecskemet, which is now a Technical Museum and Dance Club. I walked around that museum for a few minutes, searching for some sign of what it had been. Then, without warning, I had to rush outside and cross to the park across the road, where I sat on the grass and cried. Somehow, I had never felt so Jewish as I did in Hungary. It made me wonder how we define identity. Can we only know who we are when we know what we’ve lost?
The years in Europe allowed for a few trips to Israel, where I did some research at the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, and explored the Galilee where Nora’s cousin founded a kibbutz. I will admit to a long-time fascination with Kibbutzim and their founders. Even as I developed a critical ambivalence towards Israeli policy, I still loved those early pioneers. The first Jews who left Europe to make a home in Palestine believed that as they transformed the land, they would transform themselves. The Israel I found was still a land shaped by that spirit, what might be called “heroic optimism.” Logically, when I came to that country, I should have felt what all Jews are told they ought to feel in Israel: proud, secure, and completely at home. Yet somehow I didn’t. It might have been those years in Hungary, but the thought of transformation set my teeth on edge.
At one point, I came across a deserted Arab quarter where an empty mosque had been turned into an artist’s studio. When I asked my Israeli companion how he felt about the way the building had been used, he shrugged. “It was a war. They were here. Now they’re gone.” I told him about the synagogue in Kecskemet and he nodded. “Same thing. There was a war and now they’re gone.” I felt a little sick. Admittedly, the analogy had been my own, but I’d never expected him to agree. Once he had, I almost wanted to start an argument, to insist that there was no equivalence between expulsion and extermination. Still, was that the question at hand? I had asked about some empty buildings. What did I want the Israelis and the Hungarians to do with their mosques and their synagogues? Turn them into museums of displaced persons? Re-populate their countries with the people they had dispossessed and shepherd them inside?
I imagined Nora and the other survivors arriving in Israel in 1949. Some of those newcomers moved into emptied Arab villages. How did they fit into this society that did not believe in looking back? Nora, in any event, was neither heroic nor optimistic. In fact, her refusal to let go of the past, and to become a new woman, is an essential part of her character. Would she feel at home in Israel? Hardly. Yet she had no other home. And with her was her German daughter in law, Louisa, who, like the Biblical Ruth, was as flexible as mercury, a genius at transformation, in some ways the perfect Israeli. Nora responds with a cranky and ironic distance that rises like a wall of barbed wire. What does she protect behind that wall? The past, and its secrets.
Above all else, Nora was what drove the novel on. I let her voice shape the book’s structure, as memory gives way to memory, and she tries to reconcile what she has lost with where she has landed, in a country she can not understand with a girl who will not let go. It was a matter of telling the story on her terms. It was also a matter of trying my first cigarette at the age of thirty. It was an unfiltered Chesterfield, and it smelled like a Fig Newton, and gave me a head rush that took me by surprise. For just one moment, I held the world at arm’s length, and everything made sense. Then, just as suddenly, it didn’t. No wonder Nora wanted another cigarette.
Ultimately, it is not such an easy thing to write about an ashtray. When you have a certain kind of imagination, every object turns into a metaphor, and those metaphors have their own momentum. In the years it took me to figure out the best way to tell Nora’s story, I have always returned to the woman who put between herself and her circumstances a little smoke.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSIs Louisa a love story? If so, whose love story?
Louisa is narrated by Nora, who has no trouble revealing the interior lives of other characters, such as Gabor and Bela. How does Nora get access to this information? As she tells their stories as well as her own, are there certain aspects of their lives that she doesn’t understand, or will not admit?
In the camp for new arrivals, several of the Israelis express their disgust for the Holocaust survivors. What might be some of the sources of this attitude? To what extent is it consistent with other aspects of Israeli society as depicted in the novel?
Why does Louisa follow Nora? At the novel’s outset, she answers the question by simply saying that she loves her, an answer Nora finds unsatisfactory. What does this exchange tell us about Nora and Louisa? By novel’s end, have Nora’s judgments about Louisa become more complicated?
Rabbi Needleman tells Louisa that wanting to help her mother-in-law is not a reason to convert to Judaism, and he encourages her to explore her life and see what has drawn her to Jews and ultimately to Israel. What do we discover about Louisa’s motives for conversion? How does she understand Judaism? By the novel’s end, has her understanding changed, and do her reasons ultimately fit the rabbi’s criteria?
Before the war, Bela asks Nora, time and time again, to immigrate to Palestine, but Nora consistently refuses to go despite her knowledge that anti-Semitism exists in Hungary. Given these circumstances, why does she remain in Budapest during the 1930s? Which of Nora’s reasons seem unique to her own set of circumstances, and which seem true of other European Jews, such as Bela’s sister and mother, who do not leave?
When Nora first hears Louisa sing Gabor’s composition, which includes words she had written to Bela, she feels a shock of recognition. She says, “I could not tell where those words ended and her voice began.” Do Nora and Louisa have anything in common? What are the parallels and distinctions between Nora’s feeling for Bela, and Louisa’s for Gabor?
Towards the novel’s end, Louisa tells Bela her version of the story we have heard from Nora. In Louisa’s version, she did not save Nora’s life; in fact, Nora saved hers. Does this declaration have any legitimacy? How does Louisa’s perception of events differ from Nora’s?
Louisa is, in some ways, a multi-lingual novel: Nora writes to her cousin and speaks to Louisa in German, converses with her compatriots in Hungarian, hears Janos address occupying Soviet soldiers in Russian, and, after her emigration to Israel, is faced with “incomprehensible” Hebrew. What associations do these different languages have for Nora, for Bela, and for other characters in the novel?
Midway through the novel, Rabbi Needleman reviews the Book of Ruth, a story with strong parallels to Louisa’s. How does familiarity with the biblical Ruth and Naomi change the way you read the story of Louisa and Nora? In what ways do the stories diverge? How does taking the point of view of Nora/Naomi change the tone and the content of the narrative?
Consider the ambitions of Zionism as articulated by Bela and as put into practice by the original settlers of Kibbutz Tilulit. Why did these European Jews want to live in Palestine, and what sort of country did they hope to build there? To what extent, from Nora’s perspective, are they successful? How does Bela’s perspective on Zionism change in the course of the novel, and why does he ultimately choose to leave the kibbutz?
In the novel’s final line, Nora remembers Louisa insisting that Nora would eventually go to Palestine because “‘…it’s the Holy Land.'” She also recalls telling Louisa that there is no such place. Yet Nora leaves Janos to rebuild her life in the new state of Israel. How realistic are her expectations of that country, and of her cousin? Given that Bela marries Louisa, might Nora have been better off staying with Janos in Hungary?