The nightmares made their rounds hours ago. The tossing and whimpering are over. Even the insomniacs have settled down. The twenty restless bodies rest, and faces aged by hunger, grief, and doubt relax to reveal the beauty and the pity of their youth. Not one of the women in Barrack C is twenty-one, but all of them or orphans.
Their cheeks press against small, military-issue pillows that smell of disinfectant. Lumpy and flat from long service under heavier heads, they bear no resemblance to the goose-down clouds that many of them enjoyed in childhood. And yet, the girls burrow into them with perfect contentment, embracing them like teddy bears. There were no pillows for them in the other barracks. No one gives a pillow to an animal.
The Atlit detainee camp was a detention center set up by the British to hold Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazis, trying to reach Palestine and what would soon become the nation of Israel. Refugees were brought in, sprayed with DDT, and put into communal showers. They were kept at Atlit until their papers could be verified, which was understandably very difficult for many holocaust survivors, as they escaped with nothing. While nowhere nearly so horrific as what they had endured and fought against during the war, being held in a camp like prisoners was a bitter reminder to the inmates that they had no real home, no land where they were truly welcome. In October of 1945, the detainees of Atlit are rescued by the Israelis from the nearby kibbutzes.
Anita Diamant, author of the amazing The Red Tent, has taken this piece of history and written a wonderful book of historical fiction. Day After Night tells the story of 4 young women who meet at in the limbo of Atlit. They are Shayndel, a Polish Zionist who questions her own part in the movement; Tedi, a Dutch Jew who spent much of the war hidden away in the barn of a farming family; Leonie, a blonde who spent the war in Paris; and Zorah, a woman haunted by her memories of the Concentration Camp. All four women have lost their entire families. All four are alone in the world, all four had unspeakable experiences which haunt them and linger in their memories. All four are hoping to find freedom and happiness in the new land of Israel, but are hesitant to allow themselves real hope. It has been so long since any dreams come true. For too long, their lives have been more reminiscent of nightmares.
While the story is framed around the historic event of the liberation of the prisoners of Atlit, the real story is that of these four young women, their friendship, and the weight of their memories and losses. As their separate stories come out, their secret fears and secret shames, they are bound closer together. Together, they can begin to find some balance in the world, however temporary, before they part from one another and go their separate ways.
I found this to be a very compelling read. I’m not sure I liked it quite as much as I liked The Red Tent, but that is a tall order. I don’t like many books as much as I liked The Red Tent. Day After Night is a wonderful book, and I would highly recommend it.