Until the Dawn’s Light

If you survived the Holocaust, you haven’t truly experienced it.

It was the above paradox that struck me the hardest during yesterday’s seminar and, after reading the text, it wasn’t a surprise to me why Appelfeld couldn’t talk about what happened in WWII directly, even if he hadn’t “truly experienced it”. It was easy enough to assume there was a parallel between the Adolf in the story and how he behaved and the Adolf that went down in history for mass genocide and tyranny. It’s hard to believe that it was purely coincidence that the boy Adolf punched at school, named Ernst, for being annoying, was Jewish. This book holds a thick undertone of eerie foreshadowing of what would come in the years after this story takes place.

But what bothered me further on a more personal level was the topic of assimilation that was also brought up in seminar yesterday. It is a particularly predominant issue today, even if we don’t think of it as such in a country like Canada that promotes multiculturalism. I often find that my relatives in Asia are surprised when they find out I can speak Mandarin Chinese fluently, as if being Canadian automatically means that I am incapable of doing so; they’re pleased when I tell them I still hold many Chinese traditions close to heart; they’re almost offended that even though I believe in tradition, I still believe in modernism too (“Nose ring? Tattoo? What kind of young Chinese woman are you?” some of them have said [to my face]).

I know it’s worse in other parts of the world, and has been detrimental in the past for many groups of ethnic people. There are some who, in the 21st century, still feel that their culture is embarrassing, and some who are forced into believing that their culture is equivalent to shame. I don’t know what I would do if I were in Blanca’s shoes; my cultural identity is important to me and I’ve always believed that assimilation was not an option, but then again, Blanca and I live in vastly different worlds. Some describe assimilation as merely “washing out” culture; I believe it leans more towards “scrubbing a ‘stain’ clean”. In the text, assimilation goes beyond washing, scrubbing, scouring, bleaching, or any other related cleaning technique; in the text, to assimilate is to attempt to rewrite a history of peoples as if they never existed.

One comment

  1. Thank you for your thought-provoking post. I am especially struck by your statement of assimilation being like scrubbing a “stain” clean. I can’t know what that feels like, and your description of it at least helps. And that’s clearly how Adolf sees it in the text; he wants to not just wash Blanca of her Jewishness, but beat it out of her. And the saddest part is that she goes along with this for so long; she thinks he’s right early on and that she should be more like what he wants. She tries, but she will inevitably fail because he will always see her as stained. Perhaps her belief that he is right, he must be right, expresses the pressure to assimilate that many feel, such pressure that it can make one ashamed of one’s own identity. And her situation is such that she can’t have the option of valuing both her own heritage and her newly adopted culture; she has to go in the opposite extreme to be able to connect back to her religion, to figuratively kill off the pressure to assimilate, the parts of her that have assimilated. Which also is tragic.

    Thanks for helping me think further about this aspect of the text, and that aspects of her experience are actually quite widely shared.

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