April 1941 was a dire time for Ava Hegedish.
She and her family had moved from Novi Sad, a small city about 50 miles north of Belgrade, to the Yugoslavian capital to escape the Nazi regime that had waltzed through her homeland in a week.
Her father Leo, a gifted amateur violinist, saw through the Nazi assurances of safekeeping for his and other Jewish families. Leo told his family the only way they could survive was to split up.
And so, having just turned 15 years old, Ava was sent to live in a farming village with relatives of her older sister Susanna’s fiance.
Her home was a small wooden structure between the family’s pigsty and chicken coop.
Her possessions: art supplies that she managed to stretch and make last for 18 months and a 17-volume, leather bound German language encyclopedia she lugged from her over the course to several trips through the woods to her former home.
Because she was educated, Ava had to pretend that she could neither hear nor speak.
To speak would reveal her accent, her education, her outsider status and her Jewishness.
To speak would mean death for her and her hosts.
So she pretended she was deaf and mute for four years.
After the war, Ava discovered that her father and sister had been killed and that her mother, who had survived, had been shattered by her experience and the loss of her husband and daughter.
After the war, too, Ava also realized that she would never belong in Communist-era Yugoslavia. In 1949 she abandoned a career in art, broke off a two-year relationship with a lover, signed over whatever the deeds to the two houses she owned and moved with her mother to Israel.
Ava tells the story of her family, her survival and her depature to Israel in Soundless Roar: Stories, Poems and Drawings, a fascinating and gripping book that haunts, challenges and inspires.
Full disclosure: Ava is a cherished family friend.
As the title suggests, Soundless Roar is replete with contradictions. During World War II and after, the comfortable existence she had known in the years before the Nazi takeover was utterly uprooted and torn asunder.
Ava tells her story roughly in chronological order through the tales, which tell of her being her Grandfather’s “bundle of morning joy,” taking the reader through her years in hiding and ending with her 1949 departure for Israel.
But Soundless Roar is much more of a multi-layered and interconnected set of expressions than a simple recouting of her wartime experience, as valuable as those accounts from any genocide survivor are.
The stories are filled with intimacy formed of alienation, with animals being better and closer companions than humans, with the aching longings of an unlived adolescence and with the haunting memories that Ava has continued to grapple with in the more than 60 years since the war ended.
At the end of the story “Trapped,” for instance, Ava writes about the combination of fragmentary memory and moments of insight that has been her condition since the war:
“One feels as though one is hanging in the air, while elements around us in turmoil. At those times I would identify with bats, who try to survive in the invisible existence of darkness, hiding and silent. The Nazi era killed 6 million people. It maimed us survivors for life.”
Many stories in the book are drenched in pain and longing for the knowledge that will permit closure. In the story “Spirits,” Ava describes how she and her mother desires to find out conclusively that Susanna would never return. Her mother chooses always to hope, but Ava comes eventually to accept the reality of her sister’s death.
She closes the piece with the following:
“I would have loved to have possessed the firm Buddhist faith and conviction to trust messages from the mountaintops that would be carried by the winds for my sister.
I still would.”
The short sentences, the invoking of another faith tradition, the connection with nature and the admission of enduring uncertainty and longing contained in those two sentences give Soundless Roar much of its power and resonance.
Another aspect the stories explore is how wartime memories can be activated many years later by seemingly mundane experiences. In “Ride Into The City,” a cab ride from an airport terminal in a nameless city brings Ava back to the war so vividly that she is drawn back to the war. In this case, the driver’s head reminds her of a young man’s head as he was pushed into a deadly black car and toward his certain death.
She ends the story:
“He did not turn toward. I remained safe. That whole event probably took seconds; it hounded me for years.”
Again, in the conclusion, one sees how tenuous the hold Ava has on the current world, how quickly she can be plunged back into her wartime condition, her awareness but uncertainty about the precise duration of the incident and the continual nature not only of her original experience, but also of the cab ride that triggered the potent memories.
It is important to be clear, though, that Soundless Roar is not the work of a broken woman, nor are the stories the only element in the book.
Indeed, in many cases, loss is matched by memory, death by survival, absence by presence, and destruction is met with creativity and resilience.
Ava’s sketches merit attention, too.
Drawn in shadowy lines, the one before the story “Diary” shows a young child holding a limp toy in its right hand and the hand of an adult figure – possibly a parent? – in the left. The child’s face evokes a Picasso-like head, with the facial features uneven and turned into each other. The child’s face appears to have two mouths that turn toward each other. There, as in the stories, themes of connection, disconnection and loneliness course through the image.
The child’s hand is reaching out and met by the larger figure, but warmth is absent from the holding. Similarly, the toy, possibly a doll, which should be a source of pleasure, dangles loosely and in a parallel relationship to that of the child and the adult.
The poems, which also precede each story, have their own potency.
The title poem, for instance, captures the inadequacy of language, the disorientation caused by the apocalyptic event, the fragmentary nature of life and memory and the necessity for each person to decide for herself life’s meaning:
soundless roar the title says
construct your own meaning from the image
of mute din
where a vague maze of lines
limited by size and form
just indicates the space it evolved from
no place to fit a key
mind must break open closed entry
and cross the threshold
stare into obscurity of revealed insight
face glare of unfeigned depths
and then the way back to innocence
has lost all road signs
hence time is nameless too
and word’s abundant treasure inadequate
even with novel terms
Other survivor accounts have mined the themes that Ava explores in her work. The lack of periods and possibly circular structure of the poetry evokes Dan Pagis’ Written in Pencil in a Sealed Boxcar. Ava’s pictures of children in a shattered world and the impossibility of its reconstruction are also dominant themes in much of Samuel Bak’s work. And Elie Wiesel’s Night tells a harrowing story of child survival in Auschwitz – Ava makes it clear that she was in the antechamber of hell, but not in hell itself.
But few books of any genre or period bring each of these elements together in a single work and with such thought provoking intensity, insight and wisdom. If Ava’s survival cannot be easily packed into a narrative of hope, neither can Soundless Roar be described as a cathartic exercise by a destroyed woman.
Wounded yet intact, Ava demonstrates remarkable resilience through her survival, and her efforts, however admittedly imperfect, to render her experience with the range of tools at her disposal. While neither a comforting nor a straightforward work, Soundless Roar is unflinchingly honest in its recounting of her life before, during and after World War II. The work sounds a clarion call to the reader not to live by ultimately empty slogans like “Never Again,” but to continually forge one’s own meaning in a chaotic, contradictory and often dangerous world.
We are the richer for Ava’s survival and her work.