Thursday, August 18, 2016

Between Sky and Sea

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Herz Bergner's harrowing story of a group of Jewish refugees trying to get to Australia on a Greek freighter is eerily relevant today.

Herz Bergner was born in the Polish town of Radimno, in 1907. Fleeing war torn Europe, he emigrated to Australia in 1938. Bergner settled in Melbourne. His first novel, Between Sky & Sea, written in Yiddish and translated into English by Judah Waten, first appeared in 1946. Although this wasn’t his first book of fiction: Bergner had published a collection of stories, Houses and Streets, in his native Poland.

Between Sky & Sea tells the harrowing story of a group of Jewish refugees on board a Greek freighter. Having seen terrible things in their native Poland, they have had to leave their homes in a hurry. Many have had to leave loved ones behind in the confused rush. They are all hoping to make it to Australia. 

Life on board the freighter is full of difficulties. The food is meagre and of a terrible quality, maintaining hygiene is difficult and sickness festers everywhere. There are arguments, clashes and petty squabbles amongst the refugees. The difficult conditions only make things worse, ensuring everyone’s nerves are completely on edge. There is also a language barrier. The captain of the ship is Greek. The refugees’ native language is Yiddish and their Greek is barely sufficient for purposes of communication. They argue over who is the most competent speaker of Greek to approach the captain and find out exactly where they are and how long before they will be able to port.

Tragedy strikes when a bout of typhus makes its way through the ship. Some of the refugees are hit very hard by it. There is much panic, worry and suspicion. Those thought to have typus are disinfected in the most brutal way, their hair shorn off. When some refugees die, their bodies thrown into the ocean, it’s so unbearable none can speak about it.

This is an extraordinarily moving short novel. Bergner writes in a beautifully simple and elegant prose, capturing with balletic grace all the tensions and personal traumas that are part of such a fraught journey, one that is so full of uncertainty. Between Sky & Sea is a minor classic. Mysteriously absent from literary consciousness for so long, it deserves a wider readership. It is also eerily relevant today, a novel that echoes closely the many recent sea tragedies of asylum seekers on Australian waters.

Between Sky & Sea, by Herz Bergner. Published by Text Classics. ISBN: 9781925240450  RRP: $12.95

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