Yehudit Hendel’s “Small Change,” a harrowing tale of familial disintegration and the impact one generation can have on succeeding ones, presents pictures of mental disturbance so gripping that to find a grain of reality among all of the hallucinatory images might seem a daunting task. However, to read this work simply as a story of a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship that goes from bad to worse ignores the deeper implications of the layered images Hendel uses to tell her story.
As an example of such a limited reading, Gershon Shaked, in his introduction to Hendel’s novella in the collection Six Israeli Novellas, erroneously and unfortunately states that what happens to Rutchen can be classified as the ‘ ‘paranoid experience of an Israeli woman in a foreign country.” True, Rutchen’s character is in severe need of professional psychiatric assistance—anyone who burns cigarettes into her arms and regularly experiences hallucinations cannot be mentally stable. But to dismiss what happens to Rutchen in Switzerland simply as paranoia is to overlook that, throughout the story, Hendel calls forth visions of the Holocaust and reminds readers that evil can be handed down from one generation to the next, despite noble intentions. With this legacy haunting her, it is no wonder Rutchen’s mental health is vulnerable.
After the Swiss authorities catch Rutchen attempting to exchange worthless Israeli lira for valuable Swiss francs, she enters a hell that is Kafkaesque in its malevolence. She is caught in a situation over which she has no control and of which she has no understanding. Everything that happens to Rutchen is confusing but softened eerily by the insincere assurances of the state operating at peak efficiency.
To begin with, Rutchen’s Jewishness becomes an issue when she is arrested. When the man who interrogates Rutchen asks her where she is from and she answers ‘ ‘Israel,” he responds that he knew this already. He and the two women who brought Rutchen into the interrogation room begin to laugh in a malicious way about her being from Israel, speaking in German and agreeing that, yes, the people they pick up are always from Israel. Rutchen asks the interrogator how long she will be held; he says he does not know.
Rutchen feels trapped and shrieks in terror, realizing that she feels “a quiet steady vicious hatred .. . inside the deep memory of her body.” Even though Rutchen did not experience the Holocaust first-hand, this description is a clear indication that the horror of that event has been passed down to her through her parents, two people who are in psychic pain. They are of the generation who witnessed the horror of efficient state-supported mass murder, and they cannot help but pass these memories on to their daughter, as surely as they passed on the color of her eyes or hair. Thus, when Rutchen accidentally says something in Hebrew to the authorities, she becomes frightened and feels “the light touch of terror.”
As Rutchen’s prison experience develops, the author draws parallels between how she is treated by the Swiss officials and how the Jews were treated by the Germans during the Holocaust. Rutchen is taken to a building, the purpose of which she is unsure. After emptying her purse, the prison authorities take her money and force her to get undressed and sit in a room alone. Next, they take her jewelry. When a ring will not come off her finger, a policewoman brings soap and rubs until the ring is free. Eventually, Rutchen sees and feels blue ink under her skin. Whether this is a hallucination is unclear, but the passage where it appears is haunting: ‘ ‘she felt her whole body like tattoo, she felt the ink inside her skin and the smell of stale herring in her skin… . Oh God, she was here alone and there was no God.” Taken together, these passages recall the long lines of concentration camp prisoners standing naked, tattooed with blue identification numbers on the insides of their arms, and all of their valuables piled up, waiting for the Nazis to take what they wanted.
Rutchen’s trial, if that’s what her appearance in front of the Examining Magistrate can be called, is a sham. The Examining Magistrate is agitated because Rutchen’s case—”a little problem here” is how he refers to it—is going to make him a few minutes late returning home for the evening, and his wife doesn’t like for him to be late. The authorities push Rutchen to say ‘ ‘yes” to everything and to ask no questions, and she is led to believe that “if they got it over with quickly the little problem might grow even littler.” The man responsible for helping her through the legal process tells her to confess to the crime, because “Nobody in Switzerland has ever been punished for the truth.” Rutchen believes that her cooperation will put her back in her hotel room in no time. But she is mistaken.
While Rutchen, stripped bare and relieved of her personal belongings, is shuttled from one empty official room to another, life around her goes on as usual. She notices the rain and the color of the sky through a window. City noises seep through the bars of the armored car in which Rutchen is transported, and she envies the normalcy of “the beautiful bustling city and the gleaming lights in the grand shops and cafes.” After World War II, Hannah Arendt, the German-American political theorist, coined the term “the banality of evil” in reference to the frighteningly commonplace nature of the Nazi war crimes. Hendel reproduces this atmosphere in Rutchen’s prison experience, contrasting the horror of what the Israeli woman experiences against the ordinariness of everyday life: hurrying home for dinner, a storm coming, traffic lights.
Ultimately, after being dragged across an iron floor and thrown into a filthy prison cell, Rutchen realizes the cruelty of her treatment and how it ties in with the thousands of years of mistreatment suffered by the Jews. She uses her menstrual blood to write on her cell wall, over and over again, a sentence that paraphrases the lamentations of Jeremiah in the Bible: “And I was left naked and bare and for these things I weep.” The lamentations refer to a time when the Israelites were enslaved, and “her adversaries are the chief, her enemies prosper.” Rutchen feels the weight of the Holocaust experience—the entire history of Jewish struggle— on herself and her own generation and questions, like many before her, God’s presence during hellish events.
Can the Holocaust somehow explain why Rutchen’s father, Shlezi, behaves in the meanspirited way that he does? While there is no direct evidence in the story that Shlezi was imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp, he is of that generation and certainly had family or friends who suffered or died in the camps. Possibly, hoarding small change serves as a psychological hedge for Shlezi against the near destruction of his people, but this activity eventually develops into a mean-spirited and destructive obsession that contributes to the ruin of his home life.
That Rutchen absorbs part of her father after he dies is no mystery. At the story’s end she has nearly taken his place in the family, and her face “bore an extraordinary resemblance to her father’s face, as if there was nothing between them now but the short distance at the end of the road.”
Woven throughout this story, as well, is the question of Hendel’s interesting decision to make Switzerland the country where Rutchen has her near-Holocaust experiences. Switzerland has recently admitted to keeping paintings, jewelry, gold, and other valuables taken from the Jews as they entered the concentration camps, but stories and suspicions of such activities have been widespread since World War II. Certainly Hendel’s choice of setting is not accidental and stresses that “Small Change” is not simply a story of generational difficulties but a story of the Holocaust and its painful, enduring legacies.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Yehudit Hendel, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on “Small Change,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.