November 2, 2006
Books: Kristallnacht’s memory revealed and recovered
(Page 2 - Previous Page)For a long time younger survivors of the Holocaust had their stories denigrated and dismissed.
"How much can you remember, you were but a child?" they were told.
And those who survived in hiding had their recollections devalued, for they had not lived through the Holocaust -- they had escaped it by masquerading as someone else. Their stories were regarded as less instructive, for they revealed less about life inside the camps and the ghettos, less about the killers and more about ordinary life lived by ordinary people while extraordinary events were occurring elsewhere. Still, however delayed in coming, they tell us part of what we need to know. They provide the perspective of those who were both inside and outside, and they tell us all-important information about the civilian populations that lived throughout the war working, loving, enduring, surviving. They don't imagine the outside; they experienced it.
Neumark writes with a unique sense of empowerment not often found in Holocaust literature. He took his own fate into his own hands and he acted escaping the ghetto, escaping the work camps, traveling and working, trying to get by until the war ended. He knows that he had some major advantages. He was young and unburdened by old parents or young children; he was also unburdened by a passionate love for a women that linked one with another human being. He was at that stage of life where he truly had the freedom to be concerned only about himself and his own survival. He could pass. His appearance was not overtly Jewish. His Polish was fluent and without the mannerism associated with Jewish culture and ethnicity. He had the daring and courage of youth.
Life was uncertain for all, but life on the outside was uncertain moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. Meeting someone who once knew you, seeing someone familiar could spell doom. Letting down your guard for a moment could mean the sentence of death. One had to have the skill to manage so many uncertainties and to deal with anxiety without betraying one's inner feeling. Vladka Meed, who was an important courier for the Jewish Resistance movement in Warsaw, who also lived on the inside, said that one had to avoid having "Jewish eyes," eyes that revealed the sadness of the circumstances, eyes that were a window to the inside, which was so much different than the outside. Neumark handled that anxiety well. Some colleagues retreated from that tension; they found it unbearable. He had to be daring and disciplined; cautious and yet reckless. He had to work to the limits of his ability and beyond. And, like all survivors, he needed luck, which came in so many forms.
There were moments when anyone inside or outside was ready to give up or let down one's guard. So Neumark reports that his aunt went to the Hotel Polski; giving into German deception, she turned herself in believing that she would be transported to a neutral country. Why did she not remain vigilant? Why at that moment did she let trust get the better of suspicion?
For the Jewish man, life on the outside was more dangerous than for Jewish women. Lowering his trousers could have been a sentence of death. Circumcision was not only a seal of the covenant. Forced into a group shower, Neumark was lucky that the Polish men were spying at naked women instead of him. There is no sex in this book; not because Neumark, then a young teenager with raging hormones was uninterested, but because restraint was key to survival. One could not draw close to another.
But survival depended on more than luck; it depended on people who had values. Some dissented from Nazism. Other merely wanted to make some money. Some valued friendship more than racist ideology; others were just decent men and women. Some Jews who lived in hiding were helped by fools who did not notice that they were different; others assisted because they shrewdly wanted to position themselves for the post-War world, when German defeat was all but certain. We meet all of these people in Neumark's memoir. His ability to understand them, their gifts and their limitations were essential to his survival.
Neumark rightfully resists the temptation to gloat that he made the right decision to escape, that he took his future in his own hands and risked his life on the outside. He presents himself unapologetically, and he presents the statistics of those who survived on the outside matter-of-factly. We who never experienced life inside or outside cannot judge. It would have been morally inappropriate for a man so skilled in passing to judge the situation or the limitation of those left behind.
If Neumark's "Hiding in the Open" tells of life in hiding, "Kingdom of Night: The Saga of a Woman's Struggle for Survival" (University Presses of America, 2006) tells a more conventional story. The story of Helen Freeman, written by her husband, begins with her as an adult, then turns to her childhood as Chiale of Radom, the daughter of pious Jews. She recalls a home in which Shabbat and festivals were celebrated, education -- at least for her brothers -- was venerated. (I also wrote the foreword to this book and assisted in finding a publisher, without financial remuneration or benefit.)
Like many survivors, Chiale chronicles her life before, during and after. Before is pre-Sept. 1, 1939, the day that the Germans invaded Poland. After is May 8, 1945. During is a time of ever-increasing danger.