OpinionJewish & Israeli Culture

New short-story collection sheds light on human displacement in Israel, US

Joan Leegant's “Displaced Persons: Stories” won the 2022 New American Fiction Prize.

Amelia Katzen
Amelia Katzen
Amelia Katzen is vice president and in-house counsel for JNS.org.
“Displaced Persons” Book Cover
Book jacket. Credit: Courtesy.

After the Holocaust, surviving Jews sought desperately to flee the countries in which they had been brutally deprived of their families, homes, communities and dignity. Frantic to reach Mandatory Palestine, the Jews were blockaded by British overseers of the mandate and herded into displaced persons (DP) camps.

The American author and teacher Joan Leegant, a former visiting writer at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan who lives in Newton, Mass., has produced a collection of short stories titled Displaced Persons: Stories.

The book’s allusion to Holocaust survivors is unmistakable, and its descriptions of displaced persons—based on true stories—are intense.

In spare, elegant prose that packs a host of punches, Leegant explores the myriad ways in which human beings are displaced.

Irrespective of nationality or circumstance, her displaced persons suffer loss, confusion, fear and a desperate desire to belong.

Divided into two sections, East (Israel) and West (the United States), the book, which won the 2022 New American Fiction Prize, describes Holocaust survivors scattered throughout both the American and Israeli landscapes.

They are grandparents and parents of Israelis, the guests at a neighbor’s Passover seder, the judgmental matriarch of an insular family and denizens of Israel. In Israel, their stories remain untold.

“Who wanted to hear it? Enough already about the death camps, the forced marches, the mutilated women,” Leegant writes. “Aryeh’s Israeli parents didn’t want to know, his friends’ parents with their identical family histories didn’t want to know. Nobody wanted to know.”

Leegant wants you to know. Her characters embody the trauma of displacement in all sorts of contexts—less extreme than the Holocaust but with an emotional intensity that pierces the reader’s complacency. How they deal with their wounds, including escapes to other worlds, is important.

Many stories center on an American woman of letters who is displaced due to trauma she has suffered as a result of betrayal, injury or abandonment. She encounters other displaced people, whose problems mirror hers.

Other characters are tragically out of joint with their environment: a boy obsessed with the transcendentalist U.S. poet Walt Whitman defies his yeshivah upbringing and descends into madness; and a father on sabbatical takes his family on the road to find “the natural world” out West, where wild animals fill his child with terror.

A mentally ill sister, who terrorized her family as a child, recovers as her dying brother rejects her offer of aid. In one story, the narrator teaches English as a Second Language to young Eritrean and Sudanese refugees living in south Tel Aviv. She had come to Israel to research a thesis on displaced persons, but her students teach her as much about her own displacement as they learn from her.

The students ask her what she misses about her home country, and the narrator can only manage that she misses her mother.

“What else? they ask. I draw a blank,” Leegant writes. “Nothing? They are incredulous. They miss everything: the fields, the sky, the fruits and trees, the quiet. Even what they never had.” Unlike her young students, the teacher isn’t longing for home.

Joan Leegant
Joan Leegant, author of “Displaced Persons.” Credit: Courtesy.

A story called “Beautiful Souls” tells of two young American girls, whose parents suddenly discovered their Jewish identities and took them to Israel. Eager to explore Jerusalem on their own, the girls disregard their promise to be back at the hotel before dark, instead venturing into a cafe in the Old City populated by young Arab men.

The irony of the title—Yofi Nefesh in Hebrew—is that the Hebrew phrase is not meant as a compliment. It’s more like the naïveté of “bleeding hearts.” These girls come perilously close to creating an international incident, endangering themselves and others. They are out of context and manifestly unsafe.

Stories in the book, which was published on June 1, are filled with details about the life of Jews in Israel and America. Leegant’s struggling characters are vividly drawn, sharply observed, living intensely, and are heartbreaking.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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