‘Where are we going?’: Against the lessons of history

It is an oft-repeated cliché of the Holocaust that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” That statement — first made by Edmund Burke and usually attributed to George Santayana, who wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — is too simple a truism. Life is far more complicated. Miriam Finder Tasini’s survival, as told in her new memoir, “Where Are We Going?” (Gordian Knot Books), resulted from the fact that her parents paid no attention to the lessons of the history of World War I and gave full credence to what was being said by the Germans. That was also true of hundreds of thousands of other Jews who escaped to Soviet-held territories and survived. Permit me to explain.

For more than 150 years, safety for Jews had been found in moving westward, not eastward. Seemingly, the further west Jews moved, the more rights and protections were gained. During World War I, the Russians were a cruel and dangerous occupying power, and the Germans were far more benign. Had one applied the lessons of history, those Jews who faced a choice between living under German occupation rather than anti-religious Soviet occupation would have moved westward toward the Germans, not eastward toward the Soviet Union. 

Yet when Tasini’s mother and father each separately faced the decisive choice of which direction to go, both chose to journey to Lvov, then in the Soviet zone of the occupation of Poland. They suffered greatly from starvation and disease, from slave labor and the harshest of winters as they were moved from Lvov to Siberia. They faced life-threatening conditions, and many who journeyed with them died of malnutrition, frost, despair and illness, but they never faced systematic murder. Because they fled to the east, they did not live — or die — under the German policy of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.”

A trained psychoanalyst, Tasini does an admirable job of reconstructing the narrative of her own survival, along with that of her sister and parents, Markus and Rena; and her aunt, uncle and cousin, who shared this long struggle. She was but a young child, and her direct memories of the events she lived were few, but that did not hamper her as a writer and storyteller. She clearly had absorbed the stories of family lore. She had listened in detail to the family histories, and she knows how to write.

Natives of Krakow, Miriam’s father and grandfather were men of influence and affluence. A noted grain merchant, her grandfather Jacob Finder had built a riverfront factory in Krakow with its own railroad spur; a self-made man, Jacob lived a life of luxury and educated his son, Markus, in fine schools; Markus wore the best clothes, traveled to the great cities of Europe and was trained to take over the business that he would inherit. Tasini begins the book with the fateful day of the German invasion of Poland, the first day of World War II, Friday Sept. 1, 1939, and flashes back to the marvelous life she and her parents enjoyed before. She captures the life of her grandparents, their courtship and their personalities, with the expertise of her profession and with the skills that she developed to piece together fragments of memory into a coherent and meaningful narrative. She does the same for her maternal grandparents, the Feilguts, as well as for her own parents’ courtship and marriage. She captures differences of class and piety, of education and of aspiration between the Finders and the Feilguts, a more secularized, less affluent but still solidly middle-class Krakow family. 

As we learn of the generations, we see the world of Polish Jewry in transition. Tasini offers a rich and empathic understanding of the world that was destroyed.

As the war begins, Rena Feilgut Finder escapes with her two daughters and father-in-law, Jacob, from the battlefield of Krakow, only to discover that German troops had overrun all of Poland, its backwater towns and hamlets as well as its major cities. Rena moved on to Lvov, not yet under Soviet control, with her daughters, leaving her father-in-law behind. Within days, her husband learned that everything he had in Krakow — home and factory, employees and wealth — was suddenly taken away. He, too, sought to rejoin his wife and children and presumed that they would go to Lvov — their second choice, should they be forced to flee. His crossing into Soviet territory was not without incident: He lost his right hand and nearly lost his life. He arrived in Lvov nearly dead, and his hitherto pampered wife had to become both his caretaker and provider. 

Along the way, the entire Finder family was helped by several non-Jewish Poles who had personal ties to them or whose inherent decency led them to lend a hand and facilitate a Jew’s flight to safety. Decency took many forms, including the simple act of offering a loaf of bread or a barn loft for a night’s sleep.

Tasini recounts their journey eastward to Sverdlovsk and Krasnoyarsk to Gulag Posiowek 45, where the winters were dark and paralyzingly cold, and summers included arduous labor and swarming mosquitoes. Ironically, the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 improved their circumstances, as Poles were no longer regarded as enemies, but allies of the Soviet Union, two people — Poles and Russians — suffering under cruel German occupation. But such awareness came only after a very long wait, as hard news and even rumors took months to reach the gulag.

And with those changed circumstances, the Finders sought to leave the gulag and journey southward. Their path was shared by many Polish Jews who had countered the lessons of history and moved into the Soviet zone of occupation. Each has a story, and each story is clearly secondary to the fate of Jews living under German occupation, who went from ghettos to death camps, and — if they survived the world of Auschwitz — to death marches to concentration camps in Germany, where daily living conditions were actually even worse than in Auschwitz. Usually regarded as second-class survivors, they, too, have a story well worth telling.

For the Finders, liberation came when they crossed into Persia. During the Holocaust, the Jews of Iran were unharmed and untouched. Unlike in Iraq, where a deadly pogrom, instigated by the mufti of Jerusalem, cost Jewish lives, Iran was a safe way station for Jews. Given Markus Finder’s experience in food distribution and his fluency in languages, he was able to transition from penniless refugee to a secure a job with the British in food distribution, living a comfortable life in Iran with a driver and swimming pool, while the Jews in Poland were being slaughtered. He abandoned that life toward the end of the war to enter Palestine and reunite with family who had chosen in the prewar period what too few Jews had chosen: to move from Poland to Palestine, where they were expected to experience a very difficult life, but where they instead lived in safety duri ng the turmoil of World War II.

Ironically, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust today, he is denying the decency of his own people and their admirable behavior during the dark years that enveloped all of Europe. The story of Iran during the Holocaust remains to be told.

Tasini has written a deeply personal story: the five-year ordeal of her family that led to their survival and their arrival in Palestine, where they rebuilt their lives. Her own achievements as a practicing psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and as president of the American College of Psychoanalysts, are further examples of the strength of this family and its endurance. We learn from this work that it took more than luck to survive; it also took fortitude, endurance, cunning and indomitable will.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.