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I Never Even Lived The Biblical Story of Joseph

The Biblical Story of Joseph: Mythic Framework

Just how radical it is to choose a woman as the center of this novella may be seen in the way the book relates to its mythical framework, the biblical story of Joseph referred to in the book’s original, Hebrew title, HaKutonet VeHaPasim,(literally, The Coat and the Stripes).34 In contrast to Joseph, the male culture hero, Tzili is an anti-heroine, described more like an animal than a human being:

She was a quiet creature, devoid of charm and almost mute… Most of the summer and autumn she spent out of doors. In winter she snuggled into her pillows. Since she was small and skinny and didn’t get in anyone’s way, they ignored her existence. (1-2)

The analogy drawn between the story of Tzili and the story of Joseph highlights the tension between the biblical story, demonstrating the existence of a divine plan, and the modern one, in which there are questions of religious doubt, and which is far removed from the insights to which the Joseph stories leads.35 This ironic distance also creates the feeling that the ancient order which controlled the culture of the Jewish people for thousands of years has been thoroughly churned up during the Holocaust.

The biblical story of Joseph begins:

This is the history of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a lad with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought an ill report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a long robe with sleeves [literally, a striped coat—tr.] But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. (Genesis 37:2-4)

The robe36 is a sign of his father’s love and the source of his brothers’ envy. Appelfeld splits the term in two, the coat and the stripes rather than the striped coat, to show the destruction of concepts of love and honor symbolized by the archetypal robe.37

The story of Tzili also begins with a description of her family and her place in it: “Tzili was not an only child; she had older brothers and sisters. The family was large, poor, and harassed, and Tzili grew up neglected among the
abandoned objects in the yard.” (1) Unlike the relationship between Jacob and Joseph, Tzili’s relationship with her father is one in which she is rejected by him: “The father’s illness was fatal, but the dull presence of his youngest daughter hurt him more than his wound. Again and again he blamed her laziness, her unwillingness…(3)

Joseph, the son of his father’s old age, remains in his father’s home until sent to look for one of his brothers and inquire after his well being. Joseph leaves home for the world on a mission. In contrast, Tzili is abandoned at home by her family: “When the war broke out they all ran away, leaving Tzili to look after the house. They thought nobody would harm a feeble-minded little girl, and until the storm had spent itself, she could take care of their property for them.” (7) The hatred of the brothers who cast Joseph into the pit is replaced with self-protecting exploitation in Tzili; the weak creature is disowned: “They left in a panic, without time for second thoughts. ‘We’ll come back for you later,’ said her brothers as they lifted their father onto the stretcher.” (7)

Fear provides the starting point for Tzili’s aimless trek:

For the first time she found herself under the open night sky. When she was a baby they would close the shutters very early, and later on, when she grew up, they never let her go outside in the dark. For the first time she touched the darkness with her fingers. She turned right, into the open fields. The sky suddenly grew taller, and she was small next to the standing corn. For a long time she walked without turning her head. Afterward she stopped and listened to the rustle of the leaves. (8-9)

If someone had encountered Tzili and asked her what she was looking for, her answer would have been that, like Joseph, she was looking for her brothers:

And a man found him wandering in the fields; and the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking lily brothers,” lie said, “tell me, I pray you, where they are pasturing the flock.” (Genesis 37: 15-16)

When Tzili joins the convoy of Jewish refugees, her unconscious search for her brothers and lost family is answered.

The shared liminal experience of Tzili and Mark occurs in the most explicitly liminal of spaces — the bunker Mark digs with his own hands. The bunker is described as a womb and a grave at the same time. It defends them from nature, and serves as a place to hide from the gentile peasants, while also, of course, providing a metaphoric womb for a new life, the fruit of their coupling. The bunker also houses ghosts which threaten to take over: Distant sights, hungry malevolent shadows invaded the bunker in dense crowds. Tzili did not know the bitter, emaciated people. Mark went outside and cut branches with his kitchen knife to block up the openings. For a moment or two it seemed that he had succeeded in chasing them off. But the harder the rain fell the more bitter the struggle became, and from day to day the shadows prevailed. In vain Tzili tried to calm him. His happiness was being attacked from every quarter. (98-99)38

The doubleness of the bunker is familiar from the story of Joseph. The pit is a grave as well as a saving place that provides relief.

Tzili’s meeting with the refugees, her distant “brothers,” is different from Joseph’s emotional meeting with his brothers. First of all, Tzili does not meet the members of her original family, who apparently die in the war. Secondly, the difference in social status between Joseph and his brothers does not exist in Tzili’s case:

At that time the great battlefronts were collapsing, and the first refugees were groping their way across the broad fields of snow.. .Tzili was drawn toward them as if she realized that her fate was no different from theirs. (119)

Unlike Joseph, who reunites with and makes peace with his family, Tzili remains alone in the end:

A man came up to Tzili and asked: “Where are you from?” It wasn’t the man himself who asked the question, but something inside him, as if in a nightmare. Tzili felt as if her eyes had been opened. She heard words she had not heard for years, and they lapped against her ears with their whispers. “If I meet my mother, what will I say to her?” She did not know what everyone else already knew: apart from this handful of survivors, there were no Jews left. (130)

In contrast with Joseph’s heroic fate, intended in the divine plan to save Israel from a terrible famine, Tzili remains in a position of great weakness. Even the pregnancy that might be seen as a small contribution to the survival of the tribe is interrupted before it comes to term.

Comparison between the biblical story and the modern one reveals the tragic fate of the tribe, and the great weakness that seizes its heroes in time of war. The fact that the writer chooses a woman as hero is part of the attempt to emphasize the defenseless and abused state of the Jews during the Holocaust. [Index Return]

34 See Genesis: 37-50 [RETURN]
35 About the expression of religious despair in Appelfeld’s works in general and this story in particular, see Schwartz 143-194. [RETURN]
36 The biblical striped coat (more commonly referred to in English as “the coat of many colors”) is a cotton jacket embroidered with alternating, colored stripes. This type of jacket was considered prestigious, granted to loved ones to call attention to the respect in which they were held. Also Tamar wears a striped coat, a custom of the virgin daughters of the king. (Samuel II, 13:18). See Halperin, “Displaced by the Side of the Road,” Hadoar 63, (1984), 506. [RETURN]
37 “This symbol has once again become a real item of clothing, but with negative connotations, as the coat of the ‘lost’ La play on the Hebrew word for stripes-translator]: the striped pajamas of prisoners, worn by the victims of the Nazis in the concentration camps. The image of refugees in ‘the striped coats they had been given by the Joint [Distribution] Committee’ (184) on the ship making its way from Naples to Palestine, may be seen as a meta-realistic picture. On the realistic level, it simply represents the kind of new clothing the Jewish refugees received at the end the war, on their way to a new life. On the abstract symbolic level, it hints at idea that despite their liberation from the German murderers at the end of the war, the refugees have not been completely liberated from the imprisonment and enslavement that made their mark upon them, the uprooting from home, and the torture in the camps.” Halperin, “Displaced”.[RETURN]
38 Schwartz, 174. [RETURN]