March 6, 2008
Books: Wartime memoir a lesson in finding family treasures
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Richard Hollander, a fine reporter and journalist, portrays his father candidly, lucidly and with a sense of discovery. These letters enabled him posthumously to grow close, to understand what he could not understand in his father's lifetime.
Like Kirschner, Hollander uses his own lack of familiarity with history and with specific details within the letters to inform the reader of what he learned and to clarify seemingly obscure references. Few works are quite as successful in making a document as comprehensive; perhaps only Hilberg's masterful introduction and annotation of the "Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow," and Dina Porat's commentary on the "Kovno Diary of Abraham Tory" come close.
The letters begin in November 1939 and conclude in December 1941, just before the deportations that were to take the life of Joseph's family. They show the deteriorating condition of a family in Cracow day by day and week by week, as well as the way they coped with their ever-more compromised condition. Of equal importance, because they were addressed to Joseph, who seemingly was safe and free -- in actuality, for most of this time he was in danger of being shipped back to German-occupied Poland, where being Jewish was, after December 1941, a death sentence -- they document the activity of a Jewish family trying to escape from their situation, to find refuge abroad. Passive they were not, desperate they were, and even if they could not imagine what followed, they internalized the danger. They were ready to flee anywhere, but were unwanted everywhere.
Permit me three observations that dare not become cliche:
Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Each one had a story; each life was unique, even if their fate was commonly shared. Whenever we recover and retell the story of one person, we instantiate the whole, we give a memory, a name, a face and a narrative to a hitherto faceless victim.
To the children of Holocaust survivors, let me make a plea. Treat your parents' documents as potentially precious. When in doubt, don't throw them out, but ask for help. You may have a historical treasure in your hands. So please, please be careful.
For a historical understanding of the Holocaust to be more complete, more whole, we must document the lives lived by the victims -- not only the moments of crisis, but the daily life -- and examine the remnant of what we have to facilitate such understanding. Saul Friedlander's "Years of Extermination" has shown us what can be done with this documentation, and Hollander, Browning and Tec have demonstrated its power to bring us into contact with the lives of those who are dead.
Richard Hollander will speak at American Jewish University on March 11 at 7:30 p.m.
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 American Jewish University.
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