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First novel sheds light on grief, survival and family secrets

Sari Friedman Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday September 05, 2001

Elizabeth Rosner says she was “the child who asked a lot of questions, always trying to fill in the gaps and mystery” of her parents’ experiences during the Holocaust.  

Rosner’s first novel, “The Speed of Light,” is the result of having had such an abundance of grief and scarcity of answers.  

Calling her book an “emotional autobiography,” Rosner put into prose what has always before, for her, existed either in silence or in poetry.  

Rosner’s last publication was “Gravity,” an autobiographical poetry chapbook. 

In “The Speed of Light,” three characters are haunted by the tragedies of the past. Julian and Paula Perel, the orphaned children of a Holocaust survivor, live in contiguous apartments. But while Julian is a recluse with 11 televisions who does everything in his power not to “feel,” using concepts from Newtonian physics to calm himself and to keep his world feeling controlled and predictable, his sister Paula takes off to sing opera.  

Following the command of her singing teacher to “never look back,” and believing that “only one of us could make it out alive,” Paula leaves Julian behind. Do not be misled, though, for Paula feels just as much fear as Julian. In evocative prose Rosner describes Paula’s state of mind:  

“Here is what I know how to do: How to get away. How to save myself by taking flight, by vanishing. My voice was a ticket of escape, one way to be anywhere but where I was.” 

Stepping in as Julian’s only source of human warmth while Paula is gone is a “cola-skinned” cleaning woman named Sola, who is herself a survivor of trauma caused by the political situation in Central America. At first Sola doesn’t want to take on the disorder of Paula’s existence. Like many “first generation” survivors, Sola does not consciously dwell on the past, and she does not become introspective about the present. In fact, she has trouble feeling emotions at all. Even so, Sola’s thoughts filter through the narrative like a cleansing rain. Sola’s quick-witted and grounded state of mind is an excellent portrayal of the kind of single-minded and one-dimensional sense of purpose that can help a person to survive. Sola stays in the moment as much as possible:  

“I want to clean myself like the window of a house, make myself clean for things to pass through ... Flat and quiet.”  

For both Paula and Julian, though, there is no beginning and no end to their sense of hurt, and no way to feel that they’ve survived trauma. Their father’s experience as a sonderkommando (his job was to take the dead from the concentration camp ovens) fill them like blood, and are a nightmare they can’t escape. 

Talking about family secrets and inherited grief can be excruciating.  

But, apparently, not talking is worse. 

In “The Speed of Light,” every sensation and every realization of each of the characters is talked about at length, laid bare, put into “stop time” and under a microscope – as though such intensity could have the power to restore life, to fix the broken violins of their souls.  

This story is not linear, but it does brilliantly express what it feels like to live in a glass bubble filled with a boundless grief. Helpless to change the past, these “second generation” characters spend their entire lives afraid to feel, unable to trust, every action an impotent and insatiable keening. They are going nowhere, as Rosner describes moving through the infinity of space and loss at the speed of light.  


Sari Friedman teaches writing at local colleges, is at work on a novel, and can be reached at