Tzili: The Story of a Life is an allegorical history of the faith and fate of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. The novel first traces the efforts of a poor family to ignore its Jewish heritage and assimilate into the Austrian culture. The father and mother demand secular academic excellence of their children while abandoning their cultural and religious Jewish heritage, including its emphasis on Jewish education and values. The focus then shifts to Tzili Kraus, the youngest child, whose anomalously innate ties to Judaism symbolize the strength of the archetypal pull to faith and the enduring nature of Judaism, traceable to its strong advancement by a selected few.
The novel opens with the narrator’s observation to the reader:Perhaps it would be better to leave the story of Tzili Kraus’s life untold. . . . Her fate was a cruel and inglorious one, and but for the fact that it actually happened, we would never have been able to tell her story.
Tzili, symbolic of the quiet, abandoned Jewish faith, spends her first seven summers and falls on the dry, dusty soil in the small plot of earth behind the family’s shop. Ignored because she is peaceful and undemanding, Tzili spends her days alone and at dusk is brought inside the house, where she is also ignored, as conversation focuses on the academic achievements of her intellectually gifted older siblings. When Tzili is seven, she proves herself to be a poor student and is berated by her family and ridiculed by her peers, especially since her dullness is considered an unusual trait among Jews.
Failing to goad Tzili into academic superiority, her parents hire an old, unsympathetic man to tutor their “feebleminded” child in Judaism. Even in this, the child does not excel, leading the old man to despair “why it had fallen to the lot of this dull child to keep the spark [of Sabbath and prayer] alive.” Nevertheless, just as Tzili keeps the spark of Judaism alive, Judaism keeps Tzili alive:[The old man’s visits] filled her with a kind of serenity which remained with her and protected her for many hours afterward. At night she would recite, “Hear, O Israel” aloud, as he had instructed her, covering her face.
Upon hearing news of an imminent siege, the Kraus family flees the village, leaving Tzili behind to “take care of their property for them.” Lying among barrels in the shed and covered with sacking, the child sleeps undiscovered throughout the night of slaughter and wakes to find herself alone. Guided by intuition, Tzili leaves town and wanders to a riverbank, where she meets an old, blind lecher who mistakes her for one of the many daughters of Maria, the Gentile town whore, who is popular with Jew and Gentile alike. Tzili assumes this fortuitous identity, which, along with her quiet stoic strength, allows her entry into the safe but brutal peasant community and enables her to survive the ensuing Holocaust years without being put into a camp. She learns what has happened to her town from a conversation between the blind man and his daughter:“They chased the Jews away and they killed them too.” “All of them?” “Yes.” “And their houses?” “The peasants are looting them.” “What do you say? Maybe you can find me a winter coat?”
After wandering for many days, Tzili works first for Katerina, a prostitute, who walked the streets with Maria and shared the same men with her. Now Katerina is sick and demanding, and when she throws a knife at Tzili because the girl is unwilling to support the two of them by prostitution, Tzili leaves the warmth and femininity of the house to wander alone in the cold and without regular food for many weeks. She then begins working for an aged peasant couple whom she finally leaves because the old man tries to compromise her, and, as a result, his wife beats Tzili continuously.
The young girl then joins a Jewish camp escapee, Mark, who abandoned his wife and two children to their unknown fate because they were afraid to climb through a narrow aperture and escape the camp with him. Because of Tzili’s Aryan features, she is able to procure food by bartering Mark’s family’s clothing, which he took with him when he escaped. Almost two years elapse, and Mark becomes increasingly morbid and guilty about his past. At fifteen, Tzili becomes pregnant, and Mark, discontent with only food, demands that Tzili procure cigarettes and liquor for him with the clothing. One day he tells Tzili that he is going to town by himself; he leaves and never returns. Tzili once again is abandoned.
Tzili resumes her wandering, bartering Mark’s clothing for food. When the clothes are gone, she works for another peasant family, who beat her until she is bruised and swollen, as if they want “to tear the fetus from her body.” Tzili leaves to wander alone again.
She is amazed to discover that her aimless path has led her in a circle, and she is again near Katerina’s house and the place where she and Mark stayed. When the war ends and dazed survivors of camps can be seen walking across the land, Tzili joins a group of liberated Jews who have hopes of reaching Italy. Ill and weak because of her pregnancy, Tzili has difficulty keeping up with the petty, quarreling people who spend their nontravel time playing cards and gambling with one another. In their despair over the past, about which no one can talk, and because they appear to have no future, several survivors commit suicide. Another man, who exhorts the group to repent and return to their Father in Heaven, is tricked into leaving the group. Yet Tzili fears, even more than her nights in the forest, the survivors—thin, speechless, and withdrawn persons upon whom a “kind of secret veiled their faces.”
Although Tzili is quiet and almost unnoticed, when she becomes too sick to continue, surprising help comes from Linda, a former cabaret dancer, who demands that the group stop for Tzili, and from a merchant, who constructs a stretcher on which Tzili is carried the rest of the way. As if ensuring her survival has been the sole purpose of their journey, they carry Tzili aloft in triumph and with the roar “We are the torch bearers.” Finally, the small band of survivors reaches Zagreb, and as soon as the “torch bearers” reach the town of security, food, and provisions supplied by American agencies, they refuse to shoulder their burden any longer and lay the stretcher in the shade. The merchant finally succeeds in summoning an ambulance to carry Tzili away, but he runs after the vehicle, begging in vain to be taken too because “the child is alone in the world.”
The fetus, a product of guilt and a reminder of years of horror, is dead, and in a makeshift barracks hospital, Tzili undergoes surgery, now totally alone. Tzili’s parents and siblings, reminders of assimilation and prewar secular and materialistic aspirations, are never seen again after they abandon Tzili, and the reader assumes that they have been victims of the slaughter.
Yet Tzili, symbol of the spark of the Sabbath and Judaism that her family had abandoned, survives the Holocaust, the dreadful years, as well as surgery and...