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This gripping and slender book opens with the sentence, “My father has camp.”
The camp to which she refers is the concentration camp he survived in the Holocaust during the Second World War.
Although her father’s body survived the experience, his soul was deeply damaged by what he had to endure. And, as opposed to her mother, a survivor who spoke little about her wartime experiences, her father talked relentlessly about what he endured.
The impact at times is painfully comic.
Friedman’s father continually tells his children that they cannot imagine the suffering he went through during the war, so they try to do so. At one point in the book Friedman puts her feet in the refrigerator to try to simulate the cold her father was exposed to during the brutal winters of wartime.
Nothing is to be enjoyed or trusted, according to her father, who takes whatever seems like it might be cause for joy, quickly assesses it and finds it wanting.
Nightfather is written from a child’s point of view, and Friedman skillfully depicts what it must have been like during her childhood to be raised by a man so scarred by what he had lived through.
The generational transmission of trauma is a subject that scholars and psychologists have looked at for decades. In some instances, like in the late Dan Bar-On’s memorable work,Legacy of Silence, children who do not hear directly from their parents what happened or what they did find themselves feeling incomplete or somehow empty.
Friedman’s father represents another extreme.
He is so caught in his past experiences that he is unable to let his children have a childhood that is comprised or more ordinary experiences. Thus, one of his children’s complaining about a scraped knee receives a lecture about nearly being starved to death.
Although Nightfather is a novel, Friedman does explain that at the end of his life her father was in grips of dementia. Tragically, and not uniquely, his final days consisted largely of thinking he was again in World War II trying to survive the Nazis’ atrocities.
This sounds like a brutal way to end one’s life, and was a final indignity to what had been a life defined, but not completely broken by, wartime experiences. Friedman’s slender volume shows how the war did not end with the defeat of the German Army in April 1945, but rather its legacy continues to endure in unanticipated and haunting ways.