By Erin L. Cox
NEW YORK: Bestselling author Anita Diamant spent 48 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list with her novel The Red Tent and later won widespread critical acclaim for her follow-up, The Last Days of Dogtown. Her latest novel Day After Night was published earlier this month. It is the fictional account of a group of young women who escaped Nazi Europe to Palestine. There, the British authorities, who enforced the Mandate over the territory, arrested them and sent them to Atlit, a detainee camp for “illegal” immigrants.
Publishing Perspectives sat down with Anita (who began her book tour this week) and asked her some questions about Day After Night and the true story of the breakout at Atlit — a daring military operation headed by Nahum Sarig and the young Yitzhak Rabin, later Israel’s Prime Minister, where they broke into the camp and freed the 208 detainees — upon which the story is based.
PP: How did you first hear about the story of the breakout at Atlit?
AD: When my daughter, Emilia, was in high school, she spent a semester in Israel. My husband and I went on a trip for parents in the program and accompanied her class on a field trip to Atlit, which is now a museum. The head of her school led the tour and told us the story of the rescue. I had never heard it before, nor have most Americans, though it is relatively well-known in Israel. Yitzhak Rabin participated in the escape and wrote about it in his memoir. When I heard the story, I thought, “Wow, what a great novel.”
AD: I started with various published histories, but there wasn’t much about Atlit or the escape. There are some personal accounts, including those collected in nearby kibbutz libraries, and I consulted those as well. But there were discrepancies and conflicting accounts about that night. After all, it was dark, the walkie-talkies didn’t work, people were tired and carrying children. They were divided into groups, so there were different experiences to begin with. All that give me permission to imagine what happened from the perspective of my individual characters.
PP: How much is based in fact?
AD: It’s a combination of fiction and fact. There were the reported facts of the escape, which appeared in the Jerusalem Post, for example. But there were also stories that I was told about, such as the report that the woman who died during the escape was a Nazi. I also borrowed story-lines from other places; for example, a story about a Polish nanny who brought a Jewish child to Palestine, which I read about in I.F. Stone’s book, Underground to Palestine. I fictionalized the reported accounts and invented the main characters out of whole cloth.
PP: What turned up in your research that surprised you?
AD: As I understand it now, the breakout at Atlit represented a tipping point moment in the Jewish community’s approach to British occupation, from one of passive to active resistance. The attack on the internment camp was their first organized military operation against a British installation. Not long afterwards, the Palmach — the fighting arm of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine — began to attack train tracks and other strategic targets, in an effort to force the British out.
PP: The novel focuses on four women, all of whom are very different and, yet, become friends. Did you write the story in order to focus on their community?
AD: They didn’t start out friends. I knew I wanted four very different characters — four different ways of reacting to the past, four different ways of approaching the future.
They have a relationship because they are thrown together and they needed each other. Celebrating women’s friendships remains oddly counter-culture. The media embraces stories of mean girls and competition between women, but I think cooperation and community among women is at least as if not more normative of women’s lives.
PP: Secrecy is a huge part of the life at Atlit: As you slowly reveal the hidden history of each of these women to the readers, the characters do not all tell one another their stories. Why was it important for them to keep their stories secret?
AD: Right after the war, there was a great deal of silence and secrecy about the horrors of the Holocaust. There was a sense that it was unhealthy to look back; better to face the future and move beyond what had happened. There was no notion of talking as therapy. No one wanted to hear and no one wanted to say. It wasn’t until the Eichmann trial in 1961 that the conversations began in earnest, continuing to this day.
PP: In your novels, The Red Tent, Good Harbor, and The Last Days of Dogtown, you often write about the relationships between a group of women in a particular time, place, and situation. You do this again in Day After Night. Why is writing about women so significant to you? Were there accounts of women at Atlit that you read and that struck you?
AD: No, there weren’t any accounts of women that I found, but I wanted to tell this story from the perspective of the women there. This could be told as a commando, swash-buckling story, but I find that the women’s story is often under-told and I wanted to focus on that. This is The Red Tent meets Exodus.
READ: Anita Diamant’s blog.
LEARN: About Atlit.
MORE: About I.F. Stone’s Underground to Palestine.