The youngest of the survivors of Kristallnacht, those who can actually recall the events give it texture and context, are now in their mid-70s. Soon, all too soon, the generation that lived through these events will be no longer and living memory will be replaced by historical memory.
A generation is passing, but it is a generation that has left behind voluminous records, testimonies and memoirs, video recordings and diaries, letters, notes - the raw stuff from which not only the historical record can be reconstructed but the personal narrative, the very lives that were lived and lost, can be recaptured, at least in part, at least for some.
Four books have recently been published that grapple with the Holocaust and recover lives that would otherwise be lost. Two are memoirs written by Holocaust survivors for whom English is not their native tongue and writing their learned obligation rather than their vocation. The other two are the work of descendants, professional writers who learned of the Holocaust by listening to those who were there and set out on their own journey to encounter the past and it.
Daniel Mendelsohn's "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million" (Harper Collins: 2006) is a gripping story told so very beautifully. Mendelsohn's grandparents left Europe and came to the United States in the great wave of immigration in the early 20th century. His grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who migrated to Miami, and Mendelsohn was raised on Long Island in a home where Jewishness was venerated but the attachment to tradition and Jewish learning were attenuated. A classics scholar by training, he is more at home in Greek civilization than with ancient Hebrews or contemporary Jews, and yet it is the memory of his grandfather's brother and his family lost in the Shoah, the unspoken loss within his own family, transmitted only in the most fragmentary of memories, that propels him forth to seek his past and to uncover the family secret. He is haunted by the presence of absence and the absence of presence, and thus sets out on a journey that takes him to Australia and Israel, to Sweden and to Ukraine to Poland and elsewhere, all in search of six people from the small village of Bolechow who were murdered in 1941, 42 or 44 -- two of whom were saved for a time and later betrayed. His siblings join him for part of the journey; his friends join him for other parts; and his family, present and absent, looms large in the narrative.
As he confronts his personal past, his search deepens, and he reads and rereads his journey through the legacy of his people as captured in the opening sections of Bereshit (Genesis), and bringing his manifest literary skills to his new study of Torah. The result is satisfying because his talent for storytelling is so evident. And sometimes as the novice, especially one so well trained in reading ancient literature, he brings new insights and a freshness to this very familiar material. His search for just these six people encapsulates the history of the Holocaust, the journey of survivors after the war to the lands of their resettlement and rebirth, and the passage of one Jew forth unto the past and unto himself.
Lech Lecha is the commandment given to Abram, the first demand of a demanding God. Translated "Go forth", the words literally mean "go unto yourself." Every journey outward is also a journey inward, as Mendelsohn -- and we -- soon discover.
His quest takes place just in time. He meets people who will soon be gone, who do not live to read of his discoveries, and he weaves together the distant recollections of dispersed and aging people into a tapestry that is rich and deep and by the end almost complete. He brings the reader along on his quest, making us relive his experience and piece together the fragments of information that he receives as he receives them. We experience his hopes and his disappointments as he experiences them, and we become ever more invested in this journey that soon may also become ours as well. His discoveries are miraculous -- seeming coincidences that soon feel like destiny.
Mendelsohn's begins with dim recollections. He must go forth on his own. In "Sala's Gift: My Mother's Holocaust Story" (Free Press, 2006), Ann Kirschner begins with so much more. She possesses very rare documents; a series of letters written to Sala during her incarceration in seven Nazi slave labor camps by her family and friends, which she scrupulously guarded and saved. Because she was in slave camps and not concentration camps, Sala was able to save the letters. Kirschner only has the letters written to Sala; her responses were not preserved, but Kirschner's commentary skillfully brings Sala's story to life. Meticulously researched and respectfully presented, she seldom intrudes and always illumines so that we come to appreciate Sala's struggle, her family's anguish, when she is taken off to camp and they are left behind, and when she volunteers to go instead of her more reserved, less-worldly sister. We learn more of Sala's friends and their impossible circumstances. For historians, one of Sala's friends is of particular importance: Ala Gertner, who worked with Moshe Merin, the controversial leader of the Sosnowiec area, who was later one of the four women hung at Auschwitz for smuggling gun powder to the Sonderkommand to facilitate the October 1944 uprising that destroyed a gas chamber at Birkenau. We see a mother-daughter relationship play out in discovery and admiration. Originally conceived as an exhibition for New York's famed 42nd Street Library that soon resulted in a very satisfying book, "Sala's Gift" is a singular work that extends our understanding of Jewish women and the manner in which they struggled for survival.
Zenon Neumark's "Hiding in the Open: A Young Fugitive in Nazi-Occupied Poland" (Vallentine Mitchell, 2006), joins the many stories that have been told in recent years by younger survivors who used their youth as a weapon of survival and escaped living in the "Aryan" world while all that they knew -- their families, their villages, their towns and their loved ones -- were destroyed. The reader should know that I wrote the foreword to this book and assisted him in finding a publisher, but I have no financial interest in its success.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. Her experience coincides with the history of her city, Radom; being young and strong, she is selected for forced labor rather than deportation to Treblinka, but by 1944, even her work camp becomes a concentration camp. It was more than a change of jurisdictions, more than a change of attitude. It soon became the ante-chamber to Auschwitz. Young and able, she survives selection and is at Auschwitz for four months, until she is transferred to Siemens Motors, which employed slave laborers to the very end of the war. Chiale describes the ties that bound one to life and the ties that endangered life at Auschwitz. She describes the hunger and the extent to which one would go to satisfy that hunger. She depicts -- but does not condemn -- those around her who traded favors for food or clothing. She did not abandon God even in God's absence, even when surrounded by the anti-God and anti-man at Auschwitz.
Like many survivors, her liberation brought no joy, only the realization of what was lost. Chiale is reunited with one of her brothers and with Joseph, the man she first met in the camps and with whom she discovers emotions she had not known.
Success in Germany follows, but at a steep cost; life in Germany is intolerable. How does one live in proximity of one's killers? So a new journey to a new land is required. Life reestablished, children brought into the world, Chiale -- now Helen -- had "survived survival." And then from 1982, the survivor became a witness, and in bearing witness, she found the reason for her survival. She narrated her story to her husband, Joseph Freeman, a local survivor from Pasadena and writer, who had written his own story earlier, "The Trilogy of Job," and who has devoted the last 25 years to teaching and lecturing on the Holocaust and writing of his experience. In the act of writing, he bore witness and endowed his survival with meaning. He wished to share that satisfaction with his wife of more than six decades before it was too late to write, too late to recall, too late to record.
The large story of the Holocaust is now known. The contours of what happened are discernible. But we still have time -- an all too limited time -- to recover the individual stories of the men, women and children -- victims and killers, rescuers and collaborators who lived this history. The discovery of the life of the victims give flesh to those who appear as skeletons, life to those who were to disappear into the abyss of anonymity as numbers and statistic.
The Museum of Tolerance will be hosting a discussion and book signing with Robert Satloff, one of America's leading Middle East experts, for an exploration of "The Nazi Holocaust in Arab Lands." Nov. 8, 8 p.m. 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. required.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of theology (adjunct) at the University of Judaism.