Herz Bergner, Between sky and sea

Hans Bergner, Between sea and sky

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Do you read introductions to novels? And, if you do, do you read them before or after you read the novel itself? I read them, but always afterwards because I like to come to  novels as objectively as I can. And so, this is what I did with Herz Bergner’s  Between sky and sea which won the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal for Book of the Year in 1948. I’d never heard of it. (Well, I wasn’t around then, but still …!) However, this year Text Publishing has republished it, which is a pretty savvy decision because, as Arnold Zable suggests in the introduction, it has some resonances for contemporary Australia – but more on that anon. Zable also tells us that while Bergner, a Polish Jew who emigrated to Australia in 1938, wrote the book in Yiddish, it was first published in English, having been translated by another Australian Jewish novelist, Judah Waten.

The novel has a straightforward plot. It tells the story of a group of Jewish refugees from the Nazi invasion of Poland who are passengers on an old Greek freighter bound for Australia where they hope for a new life. (Australians, at least, will see the contemporary resonances now. Think SIEV X, for example). There is, though, an older resonance which Bergner presumably knew – that of the MS St Louis which tried to find a home for Jewish refugees in 1939 after they were turned away from Cuba (and which later inspired the book Voyage of the damned, so titled because, as many of you know I’m sure, they continued to be turned away as they went from port to port). These resonances and more are all referred to in the Introduction. Knowing readers will pick many of them up, but isn’t that the fun of reading? To pick them up yourself? So, read the book, I say, and then the rather fine Introduction.

Anyhow, back to the book. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help also thinking of that allegorical boat trip, the Ship of Fools. This is not that allegory – they are not fools, and the boat does have a captain, but as I read the novel I felt that awful sense of a world out of control that the allegory represents.

If this book were a film, it would be described as having an ensemble cast, because it has no identifiable heroes or heroines, no real anti-heroes either. Rather, it has a bunch of people who are thrown together by circumstance but who have little in common other than that they are Jewish refugees. Their backgrounds are diverse and they vary in their practice of Judaism (if they practise it at all). They include Nathan and Ida (who lost their respective spouses and children while escaping the invasion), the know-it-all Fabyash and his family, the flirty but mostly kind-hearted Bronya and her stolid overweight husband Marcus, Mrs Hudess and her two daughters (whose only remaining possession is one doll), and several others. As you might expect with such a set up, the novel explores the increasing tensions – the arguments, the pettinesses alongside the kindnesses – that occur as supplies of food and water dwindle and people get sick, while the journey goes on and on without an end in sight:

They were ashamed to lift their heads, to look each other in the face, and for two reasons. Because Fabyash had sunk so low that he had stolen food from a child, and because Mrs Hudess, who was regarded as such a refined person, had burst forth with the language of the coarsest market vendor. To what depths suffering can bring a person.

The strength of the novel is, in fact, its characterisation. Despite its almost non-existent plot (though there is a climax that I won’t give away), the novel maintains our interest because its characters are real in the way they relate to each other and their circumstances.We know these people, we are these people. In this regard it is a little different from those Holocaust novels – many of which also deal with “ordinary” people – that work on a larger-than-life heroism-betrayal scale.

Towards the end of his introduction, Zable quotes Waten regarding the translation. Waten apparently translated it with Bergner by his side, and says that Bergner was “very odd because he wanted every word translated, and if the number of words came out fewer in English he wasn’t very happy. He never really mastered the English language”. This makes a bit of sense because there are times when the novel feels a little – well – wordy. This never becomes a big problem, however, because Bergner’s imagery (mostly simile and analogy) tends to be fresh and is often two-edged:

A soft haze shimmered in the summer air, caressing their faces like spider webs. [on Nathan and Ida’s escape from Warsaw]


For a moment the moon shone through, glittering like a lance, and then it was quickly hidden again.


… at midday when the sun was ripe and full like a great golden pear that hung heavily from the centre of the sky.

I enjoy writing like this that contains layers of meaning that make you think a little before you move on. The language is not particularly complex, but Bergner has a habit of inserting a word or phrase that undercuts your expectation and keeps you reading.

The themes are both particular and universal – particular because they specifically depict the anti-Semitism that was rife during World War 2 (to the extent that even the crew on the boat treat the passengers as less than human), and universal because they explore the various ways humans behave under stress. The overriding theme – the biggie, in fact – is the way we continue to turn away other. The irony is that even when we are the other – such as the Jews on this boat – we find otherness amongst ourselves to turn away (until a bigger calamity forces us to reconnect). Will we ever change? I fear not. In fact, that’s what makes the universal, universal, isn’t it?

It is encouraging to see publishers like Sydney University Press and Text Publishing – not to mention of course Penguin –  reissuing long out-of-print Australian classics. I hope it pays off, not only because I like to see forgotten Australian classics brought to life again but because, as in this book, the messages conveyed by these classics can be as valid today as they were when they were first written.

Herz Bergner (trans. by Judah Waten)
Between sky and sea
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010 (first ed. 1946)
ISBN: 9781921656316

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)

14 thoughts on “Herz Bergner, Between sky and sea

  1. I like the sound of the book.
    Like you, I like reading Introductions. I’ve often read them before reading the book, but I’ve found it spoilt the plot too much, so now I read it afterwards.

  2. I never read the introductions before I’ve read the book, there’s always far too many plot spoilers. I usually reserve them for afterwards, which makes me wonder why they simply don’t tack them onto the end — would make far more sense to me.

    This book does sound rather good. The cover design is highly reminiscent of all those Irène Némirovsky books that have filled the bookshops in recent years. I think it’s the cursive font and the black & white piccie with the hand-coloured focus that makes it look like that.

  3. Iris and Kim: Thanks for engaging with my question. I do wonder, like you Kim, why they don’t put them at the end and call them Afterword.

    Kim: You are right, it does have the look of her books doesn’t it? It looked familiar but didn’t click until you wrote this. I haven’t yet read Suite Française. I think I should but it just keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the pile.

  4. I don’t know how you have the heart and courage to read such a sad story! But bravo and more power to you.
    As to your answer, I read the intro to Anna K (Leo Tolstoy) word for word because I needed all the help before plunging into the book. In hindsight, I would have done just fine. Tolstoy is a brilliant writer and he goes into tons of character development but he is not complicated if one pays attention and all that opinion before reading the novel, I quite agree, is unnecessary.

  5. This sounds like a book I’d really love reading. The cover really reminds me of Suite Francaise – I wonder if the publishers were hoping readers would draw a connection between these two works, seeing as they deal with similar themes of family and relationships in the wake, or shadow, of the Holocaust?

    P.S. I’m surprised to find that I quite like the name Bronya, too.

  6. Farnoosh: I know some people can’t read sad stories but I find I can. Maybe it’s because I’m generally an optimist that I can read them and take their lessons without being worn down by them. They make me sad but they also teach me (even if they teach me something I already know, if you know what I mean). And thanks for your answer re AK – I love how you’ve found such great inspiration in Tolstoy.

    Hannah: As you may have seen, kimbofo said the same about the SF cover. And, of course, you know you can borrow it whenever you like. But you’ll have to give me some chocolate first. (PS I’m not so sure about Bronya but there are worse names out there!)

  7. The comment about re-issuing novels is such an important one Sue. I totally support this initiative. Perhaps it will help counter ye olde cultural cringe.

  8. There’s tons of covers like that in the UK now, it’s a very common template to follow. Often the book doesn’t even relate to WWII, it just looks like it does with a couple in colour and in possibly-period clothing against a washed out background reminiscent of a photograph.

    The other common cover that’s similar is of a solitary man in a trenchcoat or overcoat walking in a moody possibly-Central-European city.

    I tend to read introductions later. Too many of them assume you’ve already read the book. An odd assumption since you’ve just bought it and are in the first few pages, but there you go.

    What’s interesting for me here, given how well trod this ground is, is it being written in Yiddish in 1938. The translation sounds a bit problematic though, too much help from the author. Interesting review too.

  9. Steph: Glad you agree – but of course with your professional background it would be sad if you didn’t!

    Max: There are styles and trend in covers aren’t there. I agree that the whole introduction thing is odd. Clearly you are in the “Afterword” camp as well. BTW It was published in 1946 (author emigrated here in 1938) but I agree that it is interesting, particularly given that it was written and published here in Australia. I didn’t comment because I’m just not well versed enough in the history of holocaust novels but I was very intrigued to discover this one.

  10. I agree with you in that I read introductions after the book – then sometimes I forget to go back and read them!

    I am sure this novel deserved to win, but I am not always keen on books which has as you put it an “ensemble cast” (a useful term which I have not heard before). It certainly sounds very Jewish and could go into my growing collection of reviews of Jewish books.

    An interesting review as always

    • LOL Tom, I think I’ve forgotten at times too – but it would be worse to read the introduction and forget to read the book eh!

      I understand what you say about an “ensemble cast”. Early in the novel I thought it was going to focus on a couple – Nathan and Ida – and if you wanted to pick protagonists they would be it because they probably do get slightly more “airplay” but in the end I felt that it wasn’t enough to really identify them as the focus of the book. I’ll be interested to see what you think if you ever do get to read it.

  11. I’ve never heard of this book before but your write up of it has me intrigued. As for introductions, I read them last for almost everything. Sometimes I will read it first if I am worried about understanding the book or if I am hoping to gleen historical context (like with a Greek play).

    • As you will have realised, neither had I, which was a little embarrassing really. I understand your point about reading introductions for context/background to help with the reading. If only “they” would tell us what sort of introduction it is: one the truly introduces versus one that provides some sort of analysis and critique.

  12. Pingback: Between Sky and Sea, by Herz Bergner « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s