When students packed the library at a Mendocino County high school a few months ago, visiting author Zdena Berger didn’t know what to expect.
Uncharacteristically, the teenagers — even those who had not read her autobiographical novel “Tell Me Another Morning” — were attentive, respectful and inquisitive.
At one point, a girl raised her hand and said, “I wouldn’t be able to survive what you’ve gone through.”
Berger, petite and slender at 83, replied, “You don’t know that. Until you are in a particular situation, you don’t know how you will react. You may be surprised how much strength there is in you.”
As a girl in Prague in the 1930s, Berger was raised in a middle-class family with the typical comforts of the day, including lessons in dance, French and English.
But when Berger — and Tania, the name of her character in the book — was 14 years old, the Germans took over Czechoslovakia. She was forced to wear a yellow star on her clothes and leave public school.
Two years later, Berger and her family were sent to Terezin for about three years. From there, they were transferred to Auschwitz, and after a few months, Berger was sent to a forced labor camp in Hamburg. Her parents were not — and she never saw them or her brother again.
When Berger was liberated from Bergen-Belsen by the British army in April 1945, she was 20 years old and weighed only 75 pounds.
She eventually moved to San Francisco, where she lived from 1958 to 1990 and worked for 20 years at the C.G. Jung Institute for analytical psychology. Now she lives on the Sonoma coast.
Unlike many books about the Holocaust, “Tell Me Another Morning” does not rehash the horrors, though indeed Berger suffered them. Nor does its protagonist sink into self-pity, anger or recriminations.
Instead, the heart of the book is the compelling friendship that grows between Tania and two girls, Ilse and Eva, as they come of age together in the camps. This is what sets this book apart from other Shoah sagas.
“If you are alone, unless you are very strong, I don’t think you are going to make it,” Berger says in an interview near her home, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. “You almost need to have a close friend in order to survive, because there is the support, someone who is watching over you, and, in return, you watch over somebody else. It’s not that they give you a reason to live, but they are there.”
“Tell Me Another Morning” is written in lyrical prose. The small, vivid details convey both sensitivity to the beauty of life’s ordinary moments and to tenacious hope even in the midst of terror.
After arriving in the United States in 1955, Berger started to remember specific incidents — and she began to write.
“For 10 years, I never spoke about the experience at all, certainly not in Paris, because I was among Europeans and we all knew the same thing,” she says. “When I came to America, something changed. I had a feeling that people needed to be told, that they did not quite realize what happened. Suddenly I had a need to share this.”
After her manuscript received some awards, Berger was approached by Harper & Brothers, and her book was published in 1961. Despite favorable reviews, it went out of print within two years; substantial readership for such literature did not yet exist.
After Paris Press reissued “Tell Me Another Morning” in 2007, acclaim rolled in and Berger found herself with new speaking engagements, including the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community’s Yom HaShoah program three months ago.
The San Diego Union Tribune called the book a “rediscovered masterpiece of Holocaust literature,” yet in the book, Berger never once mentions Terezin, Auschwitz or the Nazis — or any other places and people associated with the Shoah.
“I was searching for the universality of it, because this is happening somewhere today, not in the same fashion, but the core inhumanity of it is happening,” Berger says.
The tenderness Berger and her friends shared, even as hunger gnawed at them, surfaced decades later at a poignant reunion in New York.
While waiting at the airport carousel for her bag, Berger saw a white-haired head looking in another direction. Without seeing the woman’s face, she thought, “I know this back of the head, this neck. I walked behind her for so long.”
It was the friend she called Eva in the book. She had come from Israel.
“We didn’t really have much to say in the taxi; we were both in shock,” Berger says. “We held hands and were looking at each other, sort of shaking our heads. We laughed for no reason. There was this incredible feeling of being overwhelmed by disbelief that more than 50 years later,
we are actually these two white-haired women.”
“Tell Me Another Morning” by Zdena Berger (256 pages, Paris Press, $15.95)