April 15, 2004
New Memoirs Join Shoah’s Canon
"To write or not to write," Eva Gossman ponders in the first chapter of her Holocaust memoir, recounting the internal debate she had about whether to write this book. She asked many deep and tough questions: about whether it made sense, given all that has been written about the period, to write one more account; whether a personal narrative would add to historians' understanding; whether memory is reliable after so many years. Fortunately for readers and for her subjects, she found compelling reasons to go ahead, to publicly acknowledge the story of a few people "who maintained the light of humanity when the rest of the world was plunged into darkness."
Many writers of Holocaust memoirs may have considered the same issues and came to similar conclusions. Even with all the many volumes already published, new works are still consequential. Each adds new stories with additional dimensions and details, perhaps an unforgettable image or a heroic individual to be honored: more layers of memory to guard against forgetting.
This season, several new memoirs are published as part of series of works of testimony. In addition to first-person narratives, other new Holocaust titles books document historical events based on newly released information, and others provide analytical and personal reflections.
Gossman's book, "Good Beyond Evil: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times" (Valentine Mitchell), written with both power and sensitivity, is a new volume in the Library of Holocaust Testimonies, published by Yad Vashem and the University of Leicester.
Gossman grew up in Slovakia and Hungary; several Christians saved her and her family. She came to the United States on the night that Harry Truman was elected president, learned English and later earned a doctorate in philosophy, taught at several universities and then served in administrative roles at Princeton until retiring in 1996.
A New Series
The first volumes in the Holocaust Survivors' Memoirs Project, under the auspices of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the World Jewish Congress, are just out: "Yesterday: My Story" by Hadassah Rosensaft, with an introduction by Elie Wiesel, and "Journey Through the Inferno" by Adam Boren, with an introduction by Menachem Z. Rosensaft. The project is an initiative of Wiesel who states, "The Holocaust must never be studied exclusively from the perspective of the perpetrators. Survivors' recollections are integral to the historical record."
"Yesterday: My Story" is told in a direct, steady voice, as though the late author, who was born in Poland, is telling her story to her granddaughter, which she did. A dentist, Rosensaft was imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau and in Bergen-Belsen, where she kept 149 Jewish children alive from December 1944 until their liberation some months later. She became one of the leaders of the Jewish Displaced Persons in the British Zone of Germany and later was a founding member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
Boren escaped from the Nazis as his father and brother were being hanged, and made his way back to Warsaw, his birthplace, and then smuggled himself into the ghetto, as he recounts poignantly in "Journey Through the Inferno." Captured during the ghetto uprising, he was sent to Majdanek, Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, and immigrated to the United States in 1946. He now lives in New Jersey.
"The Sephardi and Greek Holocaust Library," published by Sephardic House/Bloch Publishing to present a range of materials -- both memoirs and scholarly material -- not previously available in English about the Sephardi and Greek experiences, so far includes two titles, "The Holocaust in Salonika: Eyewitness Accounts" edited by Steven Bowman, translated by Isaac Benmayor, includes several documents and eyewitness reports, and "A Liter of Soup and Sixty Grams of Bread: The Diary of Prisoner Number 109565" by Heinz Salvator Kounio, translated by Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos.
Kounio serves as president of the General Assembly of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki (Salonika). The title of his memoir, "A Liter of Soup and Sixty Grams of Bread," refers to the daily rations for Auschwitz prisoners. He and his family were deported in 1943 and were sent to Auschwitz and other camps, where their ability to speak German helped to keep them alive. Kounio carefully reconstructs the details of daily life, building a gripping narrative.
"The Twentieth Train: The True Story of the Ambush of the Death Train to Auschwitz" by Marion Schreiber (Grove Press) recounts an act of resistance in 1943 in Belgium that has been little reported on -- it's the only case of a death train being ambushed. The heroic act was organized by three young Resistance fighters with scant tools: They rescued more than 200 Jews en route to Auschwitz who then found shelter with local people. The rescuers were deported to concentration camps, where one was killed. The author is a former editor for Der Spiegel now living in Brussels.
"My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900-1944) edited by Martin Doerry (Bloomsbury) is a collection of letters written by and to the editor's grandmother, a German doctor who was imprisoned in the labor camp at Breitenau. She had been married to a Protestant doctor and they had five children; her husband was pressured by the Nazis to divorce her and did, leaving her and the children unprotected. Jahn's letters to her children were written from Breitenau, before being deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed. When Jahn's son died in 1998, he left his sisters 250 letters written by the children to their mother; the letters were smuggled out of the camp. The children had saved their mother's letters and together the letters back and forth create a heartbreaking document.
"When Angels Fooled the World: Rescuers of Jews in Wartime Hungary" by Charles Fenyvesi (University of Wisconsin/Dryad Press) draws on historical research and the author's childhood memories to tell the true stories of seemingly ordinary but remarkable people who helped save his family and others. A journalist and author, he writes beautifully of a time "when everything of enduring importance seemed to have happened and an unforgettable cast of vanished relatives and unpredictable angels defined a code to live by for the rest of my life."
"After Such Knowledge" by Eva Hoffman (Public Affairs) is a thoughtful book, following up on her memoir, "Lost in Translation," and two meditations on Eastern Europe. Hoffman, the daughter of survivors, asks meaningful questions about the nature of memory as the distance to the events of the Holocaust stretches on, drawing on several disciplines, including psychoanalytical studies, cultural theory, historical documentation, testimony and fiction by second-generation writers. She suggests that we are reaching a turning point in thinking about our relationship to the past, reckoning with "the long aftermath of atrocity." Hoffman grew up in Krakow and came to the United States at age 13, and now divides her time between London and Cambridge, Mass., where she teaches at MIT.
"Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France" by Joan B. Wolf (Stanford University Press) explains how the Nazi genocide of Jews became an almost daily source of controversy in French politics, from the Six-Day War through the trial of Maurice Papon in 1997-1998. Wolf, who teaches at Texas A&M University, compares the Holocaust to events like the Dreyfus Affair, which also provoked debate about the meaning of being French.