Darkness Casts No Shadow, Arnost Lustig

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Children of the Holocaust (containing Darkness Casts No Shadow), Arnost Lustig, Northwestern University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-8101-1279-5, $19.95, p. 407-516

This is the creative writing professor mentioned in the review of Robert Girardi’s The Pirate’s Daughter–since I read something by Girardi, his substitute, I couldn’t very well forget the man who has been teaching me the other twelve weeks of the semester, could I? Well, actually, I was somewhat hesitant about making an attempt at Arnost’s fiction. I’ll admit to being intimidated by him (he is a survivor of three concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkneau), especially when our first assignment was to write the most interesting story of our lives. Right, I thought, like anything that has happened in my measly existence would prove exciting to a man who was nearly shot three times, was interrogated by the KGB, and has won an Emmy award for one of his screenplays. On the other hand, maybe I just needed the challenge, because the story I completed is my best ever (in my estimation).

Darkness Casts No Shadow is a roughly autobiographical story of Arnost’s escape from a freight train (carrying human passengers to Theisenstadt) with another young man. In class, we got the real biographical details, which have been merged and separated in the fiction. The escape was initiated by an American fighter who mistook the train as one ferrying soldiers, and Arnost and his companion (Manny and Danny in the story) watch while the bullets rip apart the prisoners in the early freight cars, deciding that they will risk jumping and running rather than wait for the sure death of the American’s bullets.

It’s an exciting tale of adventure, but the adrenaline is muted by the flashbacks that tell the background to the boys being on that freight car, including their former lives and the deaths of many of their family members. I’ve not read much Holocaust literature, for example, I’ve never read The Diary of Anne Frank, most of my knowledge regarding this time limited to The Hiding Place and documentaries (but not Schindler’s List, which I managed to avoid, somehow). This story is inherently sobering, making one stop and realize the day-to-day horror of the situation. This is not an anti-war story, but one promoting anti-brutality. It is also highly moralistic (in the best sense that all literature should have a moral underpinning). Yeah, I was impressed by it. The ending is a little open to interpretation; I know that Arnost and his friend survived, but the reader wonders if Manny and Danny escape. My feeling is that Arnost selected such an ambiguous ending to reflect the thousands of escapees, rather than just his particular experience. Some did survive; most did not.

[Finished November 1998]

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