Moving and memorable
Marga Minco is the only member of her immediate family to have survived the Second World War. Her father, mother, brother Dave and his fiancée, her sister Bettie and husband – all were deported to concentration camps. None returned.
Minco’s entire oeuvre is informed by these dreadful, incredible facts. She once said in an interview, ‘Whether I want to or not, I always return to 1940-45. Those were the years that made the most impression on me.’ The inability to let go of the past is undeniably the overarching theme in Marga Minco’s work.
Bitter Herbs, which dates from 1957, was Minco’s debut novel. The title refers to a ritual which is part of the Jewish Seder, when unleavened bread and bitter herbs are eaten, partly to commemorate the exodus from Egypt, and partly to symbolize the hospitality offered to strangers. She calls her ninety-page novel ‘a little chronicle’, and in it she evokes her memories from the war years: the evening the whole family gathered to sew Jewish stars onto their coats, the day the call-up came for the ‘work camp’, a forbidden train trip, and the razzias which emptied whole streets.
As in the work of Primo Levi and Imre Kertesz, it is not only simple facts that make Minco’s work so impressive, but the manner in which those facts are presented. Bitter Herbs is written in a limpid, immediate, almost casual style. The scenes in the book are deceptively ordinary, except that their context is vicious. Minco is never explicit; she says more by saying less. Her reminiscences leave a lasting impression upon the reader, because of the open sincerity of the writing and her refusal to resort to any form of literary dramatisation to tell a story that is in itself poignant and dramatic.