7 Elie Wiesel books that show the range of his influence


Most people know Elie Wiesel as the author of “Night,” one of the first published autobiographical accounts of what life was like inside Nazi concentration camps. The book, which helped shape the American understanding of the effects of the Holocaust, has since become a staple on high school reading and best-seller lists.

But Wiesel, who passed away Saturday at 87, wrote more than 50 books of fiction and nonfiction — and not all were focused on his harrowing experiences in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald camps. He was interested in political activism, philosophy and religion, and his books ranged from novels that question the existence of God to a journalistic expose on the plight of Soviet Jewry.

Here’s the Wiesel reading list everyone should know.

Night (1960)

Arguably the most influential book on the Holocaust, “Night” brought the atrocities faced by Jews in the concentration camps to the forefront of American consciousness. The book’s narrator, Eliezer, chronicles his hellish experience in Auschwitz through a lyric, fragmented style now acknowledged as a “genuine artistic achievement.” Young Eliezer survives the torturous labor and murderous Gestapo, but his belief in God is forever altered.

Dawn and Day (1961, 1962)

Along with “Night,” these two works form a trilogy that deals with the Holocaust and its aftereffects. Although “Night” has been variously described as a memoir, a novel and a “testimony” (by Wiesel himself), these two books are decidedly fictional. In “Dawn,” a Holocaust survivor moves to prestate Israel (what was then the British Mandate of Palestine), joins the Irgun (a predecessor of the Israel Defense Forces) and struggles with an order to execute a British officer. In “Day,” a Holocaust survivor comes to terms with his World War II experiences while recuperating in a hospital after being injured in a car accident.

The Jews of Silence (1967)

In 1965, Wiesel was sent to the Soviet Union by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. His observations on the plight of Jews there — who suffered from anti-Semitic discrimination and were forbidden to publicly practice their religion — became the catalyst for an activist and political movement in the West that eventually helped thousands migrate to Israel and other countries in the 1980s.

“I would approach Jews who had never been placed in the Soviet show window by Soviet authorities,” he wrote. “They alone, in their anonymity, could describe the conditions under which they live.”

A Beggar in Jerusalem (1970)

Wiesel turned his imagination to the Six-Day War in this novel originally written in French, which won France’s prestigious Prix Medicis award. Wiesel, who worked as a journalist in France after being liberated from Buchenwald, muses on suffering and loss through the protagonist David, a Holocaust survivor who runs into a group of beggars near the Western Wall days after the war. Their stories bring him back to his painful memories of World War II and fighting Arab soldiers in the 1967 war.

Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters (1972)

Wiesel, who struggled with his faith after his Holocaust experiences, never lost his fascination with Hasidism, the ecstatic spiritual movement of which his grandfather was a follower. “Souls on Fire” is a collection of lectures on the lives of the early Hasidic masters from Eastern Europe, starting with the movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, and including storytelling rabbis and kabbalists who continued the tradition. The portraits combine history and legend, and along the way, Wiesel wrestles with the question of whether men can speak for God.

The Trial of God (1979)

This eerie story — one of the very few plays Wiesel wrote — is set in a Ukrainian village in 1649, where a Cossack pogrom has just wiped out all but two of the town’s Jews. Instead of staging a Purim play, the survivors — along with three actors — stage a mock trial of God.

Although the play is set in the 17th century, Wiesel has said he based it on an event he witnessed at Auschwitz, when three rabbis came together to indict God for allowing the Holocaust to happen.

A friend recalls Wiesel a caring mentor, moral guide


Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, author and Holocaust survivor, who died July 2 at the age of 87, served as an emissary for survivors to the world’s leaders. But to those who knew him, he was most of all a caring mentor and friend who eschewed the label of public figure.

“I don’t consider myself as a public figure,” he told the Journal in 2013 shortly before his 85th birthday. “I am a teacher. A writer and a teacher.”

Wiesel turned the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust into volume after volume of path-breaking memoirs, fiction and treatises. He may be best remembered for “Night,” a personal history of his time at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

The scion of a Chasidic family, Wiesel wielded a storyteller’s wit and was sought out by many as a spiritual guide.

In an interview from Poland as the news spread Saturday of Wiesel’s passing, Holocaust scholar and Wiesel’s friend of four decades, Michael Berenbaum, suggested Wiesel could be remembered as “a secular Chasidic rebbe” to the “many followers and people who sought moral guidance from him.”

When people came to Wiesel looking for guidance, Berenbaum said, “he didn't say no easily, which sometimes got him into trouble.”

Berenbaum remembered his friend as a man who traded in Yiddish stories and humor and who “sang with intensity and laughed with intensity.”

But when the occasion called for it, “he was fully capable of being angry.”

For instance, Berenbaum recalled a time when Wiesel dressed down President Ronald Reagan for planning to lay a wreath at a German military cemetery in Bitburg, where Nazi storm troopers were interred.

Though Reagan visited Bitburg nevertheless, he did so “”humbled and diminished,” Berenbaum said.

Throughout his life Wiesel carried with him the weight of his wartime years, yet, Berenbaum said, “Wiesel dealt with his trauma by turning it into a moral weapon.

“More than any human being I know, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victims and refugees to witnesses with a moral mission, not only to remember the past but to transform the future,” he said.

Despite the great influence he wielded, Wiesel never attached himself to any one organization or group.

Though he chaired the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and led the establishment of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with Berenbaum as a deputy, “he never made the museum the base of his operations,” Berenbaum said.

“He was the only Jewish leader I know who had no institutional base,” he said. “Wiesel had the charisma of his own self.”

Berenbaum recalled that Wiesel accomplished much of his writing on an IBM Selectric typewriter, even after “many of us were walking around with laptop computers,” making his “enormous productivity” all the more impressive.

Wiesel’s writings remain crucial for both Jews and non-Jews in grappling with the implications of genocide on God and human nature.

“He used the Holocaust as a means of humanizing the world and spurring its moral conscience and moral decency,” he said.

Paraphrasing a Chasidic saying, Berenbaum said of his friend: “Sometimes you shout at the world to change the world, and sometimes you shout at the world to make sure the world doesn't change you. Wiesel did both.”

The Holocaust in a new and revelatory light


Scholars are notoriously critical and even cranky readers, especially when it comes to the Holocaust. Lucy Dawidowicz (“The War Against the Jews 1933-1945”) was bitterly disparaged by Raul Hilberg (“The Destruction of the European Jews”), and Hilberg was faulted by Hugh Trevor-Roper for inspiring Hannah Arendt’s tendency to blame the victims in “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” may have been a best-seller but he endured a dismissive backlash from his colleagues, ranging from Walter Laqueur to Yehuda Bauer to the inevitable Hilberg, who complained that Goldhagen was “totally wrong about everything.”

So it was not without risk that a young historian named Timothy Snyder ventured into these treacherous waters in 2010 when he published “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” a highly original study of mass murder during World War II that courageously compared the victims of both Nazi and Soviet terror and, intriguingly, reframed the history of the second world war by pointing out that a stretch of territory in Eastern Europe and Western Russia has been mostly overlooked as the ground zero of mass murder in the mid-20th century.

Now Snyder tightens his focus on the Holocaust itself in “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” (Tim Duggan Books), and so far he has elicited only the highest esteem of his colleagues. “Timothy Snyder is now our most distinguished historian of evil,” Leon Wieseltier declares. “As he did in ‘Bloodlands,’ ” Deborah Lipstadt adds, “Timothy Snyder makes us rethink those things we were sure we already knew.” To which I must add my own praise: No matter how many histories, biographies and memoirs you may have already read, “Black Earth” will compel you to see the Holocaust in a wholly new and revelatory light.

From the outset of “Black Earth,” Snyder characteristically challenges the whole body of conventional wisdom about the Holocaust. “Our intuitions fail us,” he writes. “We rightly associate the Holocaust with Nazi ideology, but forget that many of the killers were not Nazis or even Germans. We think first of German Jews, although almost all of the Jews killed in the Holocaust lived beyond Germany. We think of concentration camps, though few of the murdered Jews ever saw one.” Above all, he insists that we have not yet fully understood the Holocaust, even after more than 75 years of effort. “The history of the Holocaust is not over,” Snyder writes. “Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”

Hitler’s murderous intent toward the Jews has been no secret since 1925, when “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”) was first published, but Snyder allows the modern reader to see Hitler’s Jew-hatred in a wholly new and unexpected context. “An instructive account of the mass murder of the Jews of Europe must be planetary, because Hitler’s thought was ecological,” Snyder writes. “As in Genesis, so in ‘My Struggle,’ nature was a resource for man: but not for all people, only for triumphant races.” The brave new world that he envisioned would be not only Judenfrei, but also cleansed of all human beings whom he regarded as unworthy of life, and all in order to make room for the master race: “After murder, Hitler thought, the next human duty was sex and reproduction.”

Such vaunting aspirations would have remained nothing more than the broodings of an eccentric if Hitler had not also been a master strategist, or so Snyder allows us to see. By 1939, Hitler had succeeded in placing Germany under his totalitarian rule, pushing its boundaries to the outermost limits short of war, and preparing for the war that the Western democracies were willing to do almost anything to avoid. It is no coincidence, Snyder suggests, that the first shots of World War II were fired in Poland, the home of
3 million Jews and the place where the machinery of the Holocaust would be built and operated.

Along the way, Snyder reveals little-known facts that cast a new light on what may seem like a familiar history. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of right-wing Zionism, argued that the mandate to govern Palestine should be given to Poland, which had a more urgent motive than Great Britain to permit the entry of Jews by the millions. And when Snyder considers the so-called Madagascar Plan, a fantasy of some European diplomats based on the transfer of the Jewish population of Europe to that island in the Indian Ocean, he decodes the phrase: “It was synonymous with a Final Solution; or, in Himmler’s words, ‘the complete extirpation of the concept of the Jews,’ ” he writes. “German leaders would later continue to speak of ‘Madagascar’ even after their men had killed the Jews who were supposed to emigrate there.”

Snyder is a disciplined historian whose stock in trade is the documentable fact, but he has an obvious appreciation for poetry and an appreciation of poetic justice. The book opens with fragments of evocative verse, and Snyder pauses here and there to observe, for example, that the invasion of Poland was “a bloody tragedy that was equal to the darkest poetic fantasy.” At the same time, he marks it as a momentous event in Hitler’s grand strategy, which was fixed on the conquest of the Soviet Union: “The Polish state was to be destroyed because in 1939 Hitler was angry and impatient and had no better way of approaching the Soviet border than by obliterating the country that lay between.” And, at the same time, the outbreak of war was a necessary precondition to the Holocaust: “In the zone of double darkness, where Nazi creativity met Soviet precision, the black hole was found.”

A toolmark of Snyder’s study of history is his insistence on reminding us that, when Germany invaded Poland from one side and the Soviet Union did the same from the other side, “[T]he Soviets were the senior partners in political violence.” And it is a measure of Snyder’s vigor as a writer that he memorably describes their policy of murdering the Polish intelligentsia and terrorizing the rest of the population as “the Soviet decapitation of society … accompanied by a zombification of the social body.” But he also concedes that the Nazis engaged in “unprecedented mass murder” when they convinced themselves, in 1941, that “all Jews under their control could be eliminated,” and set out to do so. “By the end of 1941, the Germans, with help from Soviet citizens, had killed some one million Jews in the occupied Soviet Union.”

Although “Black Earth” is an overview of the Holocaust, no telling detail escapes Snyder’s attention. He ponders (and explains) the fact that Estonia and Denmark have much in common and yet 99 percent of the Jews in Estonia were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, while 99 percent of the Jews who held Danish citizenship survived. He compares the fate of three important chroniclers of the Holocaust — Victor Klemperer, Anne Frank and Emanuel Ringelblum — and explains why only Klemperer survived. And he explains why some of Germany’s allies did not bother to send their Jews to the Bloodlands, but killed them in home-grown Holocausts of their own.

Perhaps the most emblematic moment in “Black Earth” — a moment that is reminiscent of “Bloodlands” — is when Snyder considers the irony of Auschwitz, which was both a death camp and a labor camp and, for that reason, a place where a few Jews could and did survive. “Almost literally no Jew who stood at the edge of a death pit survived, and almost literally no Jew who entered Treblinka or Belzec or Sobibor or Chelmno survived,” Snyder writes. “The word ‘Auschwitz’ has become a metonym for the Holocaust as a whole. Yet the vast majority of Jews had already been murdered, further east, by the time that Auschwitz became a major killing facility. Yet while Auschwitz has been remembered, most of the Holocaust has been largely forgotten.”

This, of course, is exactly what Snyder sets out to correct. “The Holocaust is not only history, but warning,” he writes, and it is a warning that we ignore at our own peril. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the author of “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” which is quoted and cited in “Black Earth.”

Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s fascination with an ancestral divorce


Acknowledging her own anger frightens Miranda Richmond Mouillot more than she realizes, as we discover in her new book, “A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France” (Crown).  And she has plenty to be angry about.  She grew up a nervous and anxious child in a family riddled with dysfunction and unresolved grief and toxic secrets that resulted in her compulsion to keep things in her room in immaculate order.  If something fell out of place, so could she.  A child of divorce, she was close to her stepfather whom she thought of as her “heart-father,” since he was there for her when she felt most vulnerable.  She is almost peculiarly silent about her mother.  Her biological father, whom she saw sporadically, seems to have often been distracted.  Her most pervasive love was for her maternal grandmother.  She writes about her with awe: “Grandma and I were so close that when I shut my eyes, I can still feel her silver hair, which even in extreme old age was soft as silk and streaked with coal black.  I can see her before her mirror in a pale pink slip, rubbing face cream on her high cheekbones and into her neck, all the way down her graceful shoulders, doing “face yoga” to keep away the wrinkles, her gold and turquoise earrings quivering in her ears.  They had been in her ears since she was eight years old, when her ears were pierced in the Romanian Jewish equivalent of a bris for a girl.”   

Miranda was obsessed with what her grandparents, Anna and Armand, had endured during the Holocaust.  But she was even more preoccupied with fantasies of the romance they once shared before their union bitterly shattered after just a few short years of marriage.  That was when her grandmother left her grandfather and fled to Asheville, North Carolina with two children in tow; one of them Miranda’s mother.  Both her grandparents had escaped Nazi-occupied France for Switzerland where they each were individually sent to separate refugee camps.  After the war, there was a reunion and they married and bought a majestic old stone house in horrible disrepair in a picturesque village in the south of France, but their marriage did not survive long enough for them to make a home there.  Her grandparents hadn’t spoken in over 50 years, and neither of them ever remarried.

There was something about their courtship took hold of Miranda’s young imagination.  Like a detective, she attempted to put the pieces together.  Her grandmother, optimistic and resilient by nature, would answer her questions skittishly leaving question marks floating everywhere.  Miranda stayed in touch with her grandfather in Geneva by writing him letters which he would send back to her marked up in red where she had errors in spelling or punctuation.  He would visit every few years and stay for a few days and leave abruptly and often without notice.  If she or her mother mentioned grandma in his presence, he would immediately leave the room looking frazzled.  Miranda became certain that some sort of grotesque misunderstanding had taken place between them, and perhaps could be repaired, which she felt would lessen the suffering that rippled through their family.

At 14, she got her chance.  Her mother sent her to boarding school in Geneva so she could be near her grandfather and spend weekends with him.  She found him difficult at first since he was demanding and distant, and often seemed on the verge of losing control.  When she shyly suggested they light Shabbat candles, he resisted and then relented, and soon found himself drawn back to this ritual of his childhood.  Miranda remembers looking up after saying her prayers and seeing his eyes brimming with tears but he said nothing and she knew better than to ask.  When she did mention her grandmother, he grew agitated and spoke in a stilted heated language that frightened her but convinced her he must still care for her.  Her grandfather spoke impeccable English unlike her grandmother who never lost her Austro-Hungarian German accent.  He did not believe in God like her grandmother did, and was continually reading books about the persecution of the Jews.  He never spoke of his own parents whom he lost during the war.

One day he drove Miranda to the village where they had bought the old stone house in southern France to show it to her.  It was still in terrible shape but the serenity it evoked in Miranda was life-changing.  She remembers thinking immediately “I want this place to be my home.  It was an odd, disorienting thought to have, but I could not make it go away.”  She began to see a possibility for a future for herself that would embrace her family’s legacy, but also allow her to escape it.   She writes perceptively about her shaky journey towards selfhood with a shy elegance and graceful restraint.  We watch her attempt to come to terms with the role she seems to have been assigned within her family; which was to act as a repository for the family’s grief.  It gave her star billing but threatened to swallow her.

Still, the psychological pull of her grandmother’s story loomed large in her psyche and Miranda’s anxieties continued unabated.  She enjoyed just thinking about her grandparent’s early love affair; imagining their love “as dizzy and spectacular, with an ache behind it I couldn’t identify.”   She tried to distract herself with boys and dates and teen-age antics but couldn’t let it go.   She took her 87-year-old grandmother to visit the house in Geneva and was distraught when her grandmother’s usual cheeriness turned dark.  Going to sleep in a bleak hotel room, her grandmother grabbed her hand and mumbled softly to her about what she had endured saying softly “They killed so many people…we were so frightened….we wouldn’t make it….I was so frightened.”  Her grandmother, a physician, spent many years as a supervising psychiatrist at Rockland State Mental Hospital in America.  But on their trip in France, she was thrust into despair by memories she had long buried; traumatized again by what she had experienced.

Her grandfather, after the war, served as an interpreter and translator for the Nuremberg Trials where he was forced to question the most brutal Nazis about their crimes.  She recognizes the trauma this must have inflicted upon him writing “Who could wear a wedding band, after learning of the stacks of them stripped off perished fingers?  Who could read by the light cast through a lampshade?  Coats, hats, children’s toys-everything had been marked, stained, destroyed.  My grandfather’s personality could not withstand it.”

Mouillot has written on her blog that she has synaesthesis; a condition where one can see numbers as vivid colors, and actually smell sounds, and practically taste words, and this quirky vibrancy is present throughout her narrative.  We sense we are in the presence of an eccentric soul who can become overwhelmed easily; sometimes with joy and sometimes with sadness.  She is open to the pain of others but this makes her vulnerable to their manipulations.  She has to work hard to stake out her own terrain, and struggle to hold on to it.

In her writing, she rarely makes overt declarations but reaches us more deeply by her perceptive reactions to the world around her.  And those reactions are charged with a unique sensibility.  We are interested in what she has to say.  And her mind has free range over a multiplicity of topics.  She can become entranced by simply looking at a bunch of marbles in a jar charmed by their “pure color” and “unassuming beauty,” and the next moment be smitten by a vending machine she discovers that actually pops out a pizza pie you can take home and heat up.  She spends most of her time now working as a translator in France where she  lives in a small village with her new Catholic French husband and baby daughter.  Her husband works restoring old houses and they are now working on restoring their own home and transforming it into something spectacular.  It is not the home her grandparents bought, but is similar in its charm and beauty, and more importantly, it is finally a home of her own.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Elie Wiesel and questions of God and duty


The madness always calls him back.  You only have to glance at Elie Wiesel’s tortured face to know that he is always at risk.  Even after the countless novels and the Nobel Peace Prize.  Even after producing “Night,” his devastating masterpiece about Auschwitz.  Even after all the interviews and speeches and frustratingly vague answers about God’s presence and absence, both before, during, and after the Nazi assault.  Even after marriage and fatherhood and grand-fatherhood; danger lurks.

Perhaps it is because we unwittingly keep pressing him to comfort us with his “survival.”  We insist upon his civility and nobility and his restraint and forgiveness, and he has, and keeps willingly obliging us.  But at what cost?  They murdered his mother and baby sister upon arrival in the camps, and he watched his father die later on.  Two sisters survived.  He wound up a shaky young teenager alone in Paris, where he resumed his religious studies but also felt the lure of secular pursuits and a compulsion to tell his story and make sure the world remembered.  He tried to enter other worlds that weren’t marred by the tragedy he had endured, but it kept pulling him back.  He wanted to make sure that people understood the specificity of this Jewish tragedy and was irritated by those who were careless in their representations of it.  An old man now and in poor health, he keeps talking and teaching and praying and hoping for a better world he unfortunately has not yet lived to see.  He has spoken out vigorously against other genocides and spent years assisting Russian Jews escape the Soviet Union.  In that, he allows himself a small measure of pride, but it fades against the doubts he harbors that perhaps somehow he has not done enough; perhaps he could have done more.

We unintentionally place a tremendous burden on the shoulders of Holocaust survivors. We re-traumatize them in order to secure our own feelings of safety in a world still wildly unfriendly to the Jews.  Back in 1986, Phillip Roth interviewed Primo Levi, another Auschwitz survivor, and seemed obsessed with presenting Primo Levi as someone who somehow outwitted the Nazis.  Roth talks about how alert and astute the 67-year-old Levi seemed, and listed with pride his many accomplishments: his work as a chemist, his books, his wife and children, and the tender care he showed for his 92-year-old mother who still lived with him.  Roth describes Levi’s reaction to his own personal tragedy as a “profoundly civilized and spirited response to those who did all they could to sever his ever sustaining connection and tear him and his kind out of history.”  Roth seems to so much want to see Levi as triumphant that he can’t really see him at all.  Roth is not trying to be deceptive.  On the contrary; his fine piece about Levi seems spiritually hungry and sad; but still does a disservice to him.  Primo Levi committed suicide years later after several bouts with severe depression.  In a similar way, we treat Elie Wiesel.  Not as a grief stricken man who has suffered intolerable losses, but rather as someone who has transcended his own agony.  But no one can or ever has.

In a sense, asking someone to deny their own inner reality causes them further rupture.  It was in “Night” that Elie Wiesel was able to summon his most private feelings about what had happened to him and he did so with unforgettable candor.  He wrote about the moment he stopped believing in God saying, “Blessed be God’s name?  Why, but why would I bless him?  Every fiber in me rebelled.  Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves?  Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days?  Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death?  How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces?…But now, I no longer pleaded for anything.  I was no longer able to lament.  On the contrary.  I felt very strong.  I was the accuser, God the accused.  My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man.”

But Elie Wiesel returned to some sort of shaky truce with God and religious study and began to filter his memories through a religious narrative of faith and forgiveness.  He became the public Elie Wiesel, the one who is afraid to offend us, who wants to offer solace and ask for little in return.  The one who often seems awkward; sometimes disingenuous; a man cut off from his most primal feelings.  A man who presents a “self” to the world that becomes indistinguishable from his own inner self.

It is this Elie Wisel that comes to the forefront in “Open Heart” (Alfred A. Knopf, $20), his new short memoir about his recent open-heart surgery.  There is a void in his personal narratives, an absent presence that unsettles the reader.  The book begins in June of 2011 after he has returned from Jerusalem where he has spent some time with friends.  He discovers he needs a quadruple bypass and attempts to reveal to us his thoughts upon entering the surgical chamber.    He thinks warmly about his wife, his beloved son, his most cherished grandchildren and his many close friends.  He worries about his students.  Unexpectedly, he sees startling images of his dead mother and father and baby sister, which have become unusually vivid.  He recalls certain memories of his grown son as a little boy and how he felt overcome, even then, with a desire to protect him.  He writes movingly “Mornings, when he left for nursery school, Marion and I would walk him to the yellow school bus.  As I watched the vehicle draw away, my heart beat faster.  I see him still, his little hand motioning to us. And deep inside me I prayed to God to protect him.” 

As the memoir progresses Wiesel confesses he fears he has fallen short.  He asks, “Have I performed my duty as a survivor?  Have I transmitted all I was able to?  Too much, perhaps?…Did I commit a sin by saying too much, while fully knowing that no person who did not experience the proximity of death there can ever understand what we, the survivors, were subjected to from morning till night, under a silent sky?”  Still bewildered by God’s silence, he asks politely, “What shall I say to God?  That I was also counting on his help?  Shall I have the nerve to reproach Him for his incomprehensible silence while Satan was winning his victories?  While my father, Shlomo son of Eliezer and Nissel, lay dying on his cot?’’  Wiesel survives his heart surgery and a year after reports feeling strained and tired but still consumed by his relentless study of the ancient and immortal texts where he believes the answers lay hidden to his pleading questions.


Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Anne Frank, in her family’s eyes


Anne Frank, the single most famous name among the six million victims of the Shoah, entered the realm of history and literature with the posthumous publication of her own diary and has been used — and, some would argue, abused — by others who have depicted her on the stage and screen, in novels and comic books. So much so that the flesh-and-blood Anne Frank has wholly disappeared under the accretion of myth and magical thinking.

Now comes another answer to the provocative question that Nathan Englander posed in the title of his controversial story, “

Child Holocaust survivors speak up for those who can’t


Only a precious remnant of Holocaust survivors is alive today, and many of them were just children when they went into hiding or ended up behind barbed wire. Indeed, there’s a heartbreaking irony in the fact that the last survivors are the ones who were the most at risk, precisely because the Germans had no use for youngsters who could not perform heavy labor.

The story is told in the first person in “How We Survived: 52 Personal Stories by Child Survivors of the Holocaust,” a publication of an organization called Child Survivors of the Holocaust Inc. ($30, ” title=”www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve” target=”_blank”>www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Veracity of Auschwitz book in doubt


Doubts have surfaced about the veracity of a book in which the author said he smuggled himself into Auschwitz to witness the atrocities.

British World War II veteran Denis Avey, 92, in the recently published book “The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz,” said he twice traded places with a Dutch Jew so that he could witness the horrors of the Nazis.

But, according to Reuters, interviews published in the British newspaper the Daily Mail with historians, Jewish groups and former Auschwitz inmates have cast doubt on Avey’s story.

No former Auschwitz inmate has been found that can verify Avey’s story. Other criticisms include that experts say he most likely would have been caught despite bribing a guard, and that some details recorded by Avey appear to be factually incorrect, according to Reuters.

New book: Man who arrested Anne Frank served West German intelligence


The man who arrested the family of Anne Frank in their Amsterdam hiding place 67 years ago worked for the West German intelligence agency for years, a new book has revealed.

SS Oberscharfuhrer Karl Josef Silberbauer, an Austrian-born Nazi, worked for the West German secret service, or BND, according to author Peter-Ferdinand Koch, whose new book, “Unmasked,” documents the biographies of Nazi soldiers and SS members who ended up working as spies for the democratic state.

“It is outrageous and a disgrace to our country that the man who arrested Anne Frank and her family later worked for the BND, ” Thomas Heppener, director of the Anne Frank Centre in Berlin, said in a statement Monday. The center is a partner to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

“I find it very regrettable that the BND has only been involved in the processing of its own history since 2010, thus providing cover to Nazi-era perpetrators,” he added, while praising the work of Koch, a former editor at Der Spiegel magazine. Heppener urged the BND to speed up the release of more files on the Silberbauer case.

According to the Austrian daily Kurier, Silberbauer was in the Soviet occupation zone in Vienna after the war. He was imprisoned for 14 months but later released to the German authorities, who wanted to tap the former SS man as an intelligence officer. German and Austrian authorities used numerous former Wehrmacht soldiers and SS men as spies against the Soviet Union, Koch writes.

Koch reports that Silberbauer was a feared sadist. According to Haaretz, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal located Silberbauer in October 1963. He was suspended from his job while an investigation was launched. Silberbauer died in 1972.

Anne Frank’s father, Otto, the only one in the family to survive the war, reportedly believed the informant who revealed the family’s hiding place deserved punishment more than Silberbauer, who was just following orders.

Lessons I learned from ‘Mein Kampf’


Reading “Mein Kampf” was no simple task for me. Growing up in Tel Aviv, I learned from a young age that the book was taboo. More than that, it felt like forbidden fruit; as if bringing it home would have contaminated my apartment. Even checking out the book from the library was no simple task. However, as a scholar, a philosopher of humanistic education and a curious human being, an urge grew inside me over the years to read Hitler’s own words — to learn his view of the Jews and why he was consumed with hatred that resulted in the destruction of so many people.

When I first opened the book and started reading it, I saw the face of the infamous author in my head and his voice resonated; it was so vivid that I felt petrified. At the same time, I started reading with the expectation of finding an intelligent and rational doctrine. Instead, I found the book long, tedious, shallow and without any intellectual depth. Likewise, the author was a poor writer (while I read an English translation, I assume it was loyal to the author’s writing style). Nevertheless, I had so many questions but very few people with whom I could discuss them. But the urge was there, and I needed to cope with the book. As much as I was appalled and puzzled by the content, I felt that I should have been directly exposed to the book in high school and allowed to read it with a critical perspective.

As I continued reading, I felt the anger of a megalomaniacal being consumed with hatred and obsessed with power. In order to gain power, Hitler needed a convenient enemy, and if he did not have the Jews he would have invented them.

At the same time, I learned how Jews were viewed at that time. Sometimes it even made me proud, because he blamed the Jews not only for controlling the banks but also for being socialists, for supporting labor unions and for advocating democracy. He, of course, loathed Karl Marx and anything that was associated with the Bolshevik revolution. As much as he despised the Jews, it was as if he felt inferior to them, as if he hated them for being intelligent and successful. Strangely, this reminded me of how valuable the Jews’ contribution to Western societies was.

There are no adequate words to express the atrocity of the Holocaust. But what is also inconceivable and beyond comprehension is that a nation that generated distinguished philosophers, who wrote about moral philosophy and who were considered enlightened, also generated people who exploited years of advanced science and helped an ignorant human being design a master plan to exterminate innocent and defenseless human beings. In the absence of a pedagogy of inclusive caring, any field is open for negative, destructive exploitation. I began to realize that rather than blotting out his memory, studying this darkest of chapters in history can advance humanity toward a more humanistic civilization.

The more we place a taboo on discussion, the more we open it to questions — not by rational scholars, but rather by people who have a very clear agenda to disseminate hatred and anger toward Jews and to gain more power and attention.

What I am proposing is a humanist educational paradigm shift. Jews should feel safe enough to cope with their painful past and discuss it openly and bravely through the prism of critical thinking and critical self-examination. This kind of engagement can be the source of strength and power. Jewish tradition encourages us to question everything we learn; this same tradition generated influential thinkers such as the Frankfurt School scholars who carried the flag of critical theory — Martin Buber, who still inspires scholars who write on caring, and Sigmund Freud, who has done so much to understand the human unconscious.

As a philosopher of education who focuses on the ethics of caring and on the reduction of violence and other forms of injustice, I contend that a lack of critical discussion that emanates from the ethics of caring about the evils of the Holocaust weakens the Jewish community. Questioning does not mean denying.

However, questions about the number of people who died in the Holocaust indicate how much emphasis we place on the number of victims. I argue that focusing on the number is disrespectful to the victims, because each human being is an entire universe. The focus should be on the horrible concept of a plan to exterminate human beings (and not only Jews). This should be sufficiently appalling and alarming.

If we wish to commemorate the Holocaust victims, we must do it not only for the sake of those who perished in that horrible war but for the sake of the present and the future, for the sake of the many defenseless and innocent human beings whose right to fulfill their humanity is being denied on a daily basis, and for those who are killed and slaughtered without being able to defend themselves everywhere in the world. And I am not talking only about genocides — I am also talking about human trafficking, slavery, domestic and child abuse and more.

The lessons from “Mein Kampf” prompt us to reflect on our interaction with each other as individuals, as human beings. We cannot change the past, but we can change the present and the future.

Reading “Mein Kampf” allows us to emphasize the calamity that the author brought not only on many parts of the world, but also on his own people. It emphasizes that hatred and anger degenerate and destroy humanity. We can teach that no one is immune from such a horrific experience, and that we should learn to be humble, to show more respect toward one another and toward other human beings, to be a role model of a compassionate and caring society. We can teach good leadership by examining the bad, and we can cultivate a better society by distinguishing between bad leaders and good leaders. By having an open discussion on the Holocaust and by teaching “Mein Kampf” as lessons for the future, we can guide young people in how to read it and how to approach history from a critical perspective that emanates from the ethics of caring — and in the process, teach them how to be better caring human beings and responsible leaders. Cultivating young people as critical, self-reflective, caring and humanist learners and leaders is the best way to advance us toward a more humanistic civilization.

Tammy Shel is a research fellow of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. She is the author of “The Ethics of Caring: Bridging Pedagogy and Utopia” (Sense Publishers, 2007) and is currently teaching a short course on “Lessons From Mein Kampf” at the American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education.

Books: Czech teen’s words and art put a face on the Holocaust for me


I attended grades one through eight at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Los Angeles during a time of great unrest in our country — the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., police brutality against war protesters during the Chicano Moratorium. Yet one of my strongest memories is reading excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary.

I remember being moved by the words of that remarkable little Jewish girl with large eyes who hid from the Nazis for two years. I also remember the horror of learning that the Nazis eventually found Anne and her family and that she died in a typhus epidemic that ran through the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s diary spoke to this Los Angeles classroom across the decades, across an ocean, across cultures, across religions.

And that little Chicano boy never could have imagined that someday he would grow up and fall in love with a Jewish woman, marry in a temple, convert to Judaism and send his son to a Jewish day school for eight years.

But what did Anne Frank’s story offer me and my classmates at that time? The nuns who set the curriculum knew. While it is pretty near impossible to comprehend the annihilation of millions, Anne Frank offered us a face, one child to whom we could relate. And of course, the questions came. Who would want to kill this little girl? Will it happen again? Could it happen to us?
Atlantic Monthly Press now brings us the English translation of “The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941-1942,” which, as with Anne Frank’s diary, puts a face on the Holocaust through the words and artwork of a precocious teenager. Simply put, this book should be read by everyone.

Ginz was a Czech Jew, born in 1928, who died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz at the age of 16. His diary had been lost for 60 years but resurfaced in 2003. Ginz’s younger sister, Chava Pressburger, edited her brother’s diary entries, which were translated from the Czech by Elena Lappin. They cover the 11 months before his deportation from Prague to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Also included are poems, an excerpt from one of Ginz’s unfinished novels, articles from Vedem (a weekly magazine Petr started in Theresienstadt), as well as linocuts, sketches and watercolor paintings. There is little doubt that if Ginz had survived, he would have developed into an accomplished writer and artist.

Ginz’s entries recount the daily routine of a teenager attending school and spending time with friends and family. But interspersed among the quotidian details are observations that illustrate the tightening Nazi noose: “In the morning I did my homework. Otherwise nothing special. Actually, a lot is happening, but it is not even visible. What is quite ordinary now would certainly cause upset in a normal time. For example, Jews don’t have fruit, geese, and any poultry, cheese, onions, garlic, and many other things. Tobacco ration cards are forbidden to prisoners, madmen, and Jews.”

And there are poems with lines such as these: “Today it’s clear to everyone / who is a Jew and who’s an Aryan, / because you’ll know Jews near and far / by their black and yellow star.”

Yet, despite all this, Ginz loved to play pranks and possessed a wicked sense of humor, as shown by this observation written on April 20, 1942: “Every building has to hang out a swastika flag, except for the Jews, of course, who are not allowed this pleasure.”

Aside from his writings, Ginz’s artwork is noteworthy for its detail and sophistication. There is an eerie 1943 watercolor titled, “Ghetto Dwellings,” that captures a foreboding atmosphere difficult to replicate in words.

Ginz had a particular love for the linocut, which requires great control over the tools needed to carve images into small pieces of linoleum, a process similar to making woodcuts. In one of his Vedem articles, Ginz describes this art form: “As the entire linocut technique shows, a linocut is the expression of a person who does not make compromises. It is either black or white. There is no grey transition.”

In another Vedem piece, Ginz explains that even in the squalor and deprivation of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, creativity can thrive: “The seed of a creative idea does not die in mud and scum. Even there it will germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in the darkness.” Ginz proved this to be true as he founded a magazine and continued to write and create artwork while in the camp.

Also included in this book are photographs of Ginz and his family. There is one from February 1933 of Petr and Chava holding hands, walking toward the camera, both dressed in thick coats, knitted caps and scarves to protect them from the Prague winter. The 5-year-old Petr has a determined look in his eyes, lips tight with purpose, as he leads his younger sister along the city street. His face is the face of all children whose lives were cut short by the Nazis. And it is a face that implores us to remember two essential words: Never again.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books of fiction including, “Devil Talk: Stories” (Bilingual Press). His book reviews have appeared in the El Paso Times, The Multicultural Review, La Bloga, The Elegant Variation and elsewhere. He makes his home in the San Fernando Valley. His Web site is

Books: Kristallnacht’s memory revealed and recovered


Nov. 9, 2006 marks the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogroms throughout Germany and Austria, then incorporated into Germany, that set fire to the synagogues in towns and villages, pillaged Jewish shops, and led to the arrest and incarceration into concentration camps of 30,000 Jewish men aged 16-60.

Kristallnacht marked the end of Jewish life in Germany; a pivotal turning point in what later became known as the Holocaust. From that night onward, the situation of German Jewry went from bad to worse.

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.

Hitler and the ‘What If?’ Question


“The World Hitler Never Made,” by Gavriel Rosenfeld (Cambridge University Press, $30).

In 1979, comedian Al Franken wrote a skit for “Saturday Night Live” called “What if: Überman,” featuring Dan Aykroyd as Klaus Kent, a clerk in Hitler’s Ministry of Propaganda. Klaus dashes into phone booths to become Überman, uses his X-ray vision to detect bombs and to reveal Jews by looking through their pants, and ultimately leads his country to victory. The Nazi organ Der Daily Planet reports, “Überman Takes Stalingrad in 5 Minutes: Diverts Volga,” and “Überman Rounds Up Two Million Jews: Total Past 6 Million.”

This is undoubtedly one of the more outrageous examples, but since 1945, more than 100 authors and screenwriters in Europe and America have asked the same “what if” questions: How would the world look if the Nazis had won? If the Holocaust had never happened? The theme has attracted some of the finest minds in Anglo-American letters. Philip Roth’s latest best seller, for example, “The Plot Against America” (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) imagines an alternate past where U.S. President Charles Lindbergh signs neutrality pacts with Germany and Japan in 1940 and forcibly resettles the country’s Jews to the rural Midwest.

These scenarios, known as “allohistory,” or alternate history, are the objects of Gavriel Rosenfeld’s careful study, “The World Hitler Never Made.” The Fairfield College professor has analyzed every artifact of “what if” speculation on the Nazi era he could unearth, from celebrated sci-fi novels such as Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” to obscure “Twilight Zone” episodes, to fiction that one might describe politely as complete schlock (read: Newt Gingrich’s co-written flop of a novel, “1945,” about a Nazi victory over the Soviet Union; the book was so unsuccessful that most of its unsold copies ended up pulped one year after its publication in 1995).

Rosenfeld admits that the works are of “uneven literary quality” — but that is precisely the point. While most academic studies of literary representations of the Nazi era and the Holocaust focus on “high” art and literature, Rosenfeld’s aims to study the images of Nazism that proliferate in popular culture. Whether they intend to or not, speculations about the “what ifs” of Nazi history offer good evidence of our memory of the actual events.

What he discovers is a not altogether shocking but nonetheless worrisome trend: As the 1930s and ’40s recede further into the past, authors are taking more and more liberties with their portrayals of Nazism — and readers are responding. From the end of the war to the mid-1960s, allohistorical works in the English language depicted the Nazis as uniquely evil and portrayed an imaginary Nazi occupation of England and America as straightforwardly dystopic. Since then, he argues, alternate histories reveal an increasingly “normalized” memory of the Nazi era and even of the Holocaust. That is, recent works are less likely to represent Nazis as purely evil and the Allies as purely valiant.

In the postwar period, the allohistorical imagination conjured up what can only be called absolute nightmares of a Nazi future. In 1947, Noël Coward wrote a play sarcastically titled “Peace in Our Times,” set in Nazi-occupied London from 1940 to 1945. The story’s protagonists wage a noble war of resistance against a brutal Gestapo official, who avers that it is Germany’s “destiny to rule the world,” while Britons who preached appeasement in the 1930s end up collaborating with their persecutors. John Wall’s “The Sound of His Horn” (1952), set in the Nazi calendar year 102 — a century after the “First Fuehrer and Immortal Spirit of Germanism,” Adolf Hitler’s victory over Europe — emphasized the brutality of a would-be Nazi-ruled continent. Science fiction author Cyril Kornbluth published a short story in 1958 titled “Two Dooms,” in which an American nuclear scientist eats hallucinogenic mushrooms that make him imagine a German-occupied America where extermination camps have been set up outside Chicago. In all, Nazis were painted as unparalleled in their wickedness.

But, Rosenfeld notes, in the mid-1960s authors started writing alternate histories of Nazism differently. For example, at the dawn of “a more pessimistic mood within postwar British society,” the genre was used to break down national myths instead of reinforcing them, beginning in 1964 with Giles Cooper’s “The Other Man” and the 1966 film “It Happened Here.” These works, Rosenfeld writes, “blurred the line between the British and the Germans, depicting both as mired in the same immoral world” by focusing on the possibility of British collaboration.

In the United States, disillusion with the Vietnam War inspired revisionist portrayals of America’s war against the Nazis. In 1972, the political scientist Bruce Russett published “No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the United States Entry Into World War II,” an analysis of “might-have-beens” in World War II. Claiming that Americans might have been better off had they never entered the war, Russett relativized Nazism’s evils by insisting that “Nazism as an ideology was almost certainly less dangerous to the United States” than communism. He criticized American intervention in Vietnam by contesting the historical necessity of intervention in Europe.

This trend becomes even more pronounced by the beginning of the 1990s, by which time Robert Harris could crack the international best-seller list with his novel “Fatherland” (1992), featuring a humanized and even honorable Nazi as its protagonist. Recent novels about the Holocaust, such as Daniel Quinn’s “After Dachau” (2001) — however noble their intentions — have undermined the Holocaust’s uniqueness by using it to draw attention to other genocides, reflecting what Rosenfeld regrets to call “the erosion of prior moral perspectives” to the Holocaust and the Nazi era in general.

In the end, Rosenfeld has mixed feelings about alternate histories. On one hand, he recognizes their capacity for critique, but he also worries they can distort or divert our attention away from real history. It is clear, however, that Rosenfeld’s book is not so much a contribution to literary criticism — in which it is at times lacking — as much as to a larger debate over the portrayal of Nazism.

“Humanizing Hitler may in fact eliminate him from our nightmares, but it may also diminish his place in popular awareness altogether,” he writes. “Only as long as the dictator continues to haunt us are we likely to continue studying, reflecting upon, and drawing historical lessons from, the Third Reich’s destructive legacy.”

Rosenfeld might be exaggerating the extent to which our culture is “forgetting” the evils of Nazism, but his warning is well taken.

Article courtesy The Forward.

Noah Strote writes on Jewish and European history. He lives in Berkeley.

Bye Bye Diaspora, Hello ‘New Jews’


“New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora” by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer (New York University Press, 2005).

Earlier this month, I participated in a consultation on “Jewish community in an era of looser connections.” Despite the presence of various paradigm-shifting luminaries, more than one reference was made to three absent influences, specifically, two people and a book. The people: Aaron Bisman and Matisyahu; the book: “New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora.” Bisman’s JDub Records seeks “cross-cultural … dialogue” through music indigenous to just about anywhere except Israel; Matisyahu, JDub’s breakout idol, is a baal teshuvah Lubavitcher who sings “Chasidic reggae.” They are the New Jews to whom the book’s authors, Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, refer.

Aviv, a sociologist, and Shneer, a historian, are both native Angelenos who now teach at the University of Denver. They argue that the bipolar models of home and exile, center and periphery, Israel and Diaspora, no longer apply to contemporary Jewish life. “What,” they ask, “does … an upper-middle-class professional, secular Jew in Los Angeles have in common with a working-class Israeli Sephardic religious Jew in Bnei Brak except the fact that each one calls herself a Jew?”

The authors propose a new map with “multiple homelands” that displaces Israel from “the center of the Jewish universe.” They point out that since the mid-19th century, most Jewish religious innovation has originated in the United States, rather than in Europe or Israel. As of 2003, more people emigrated from Israel to Russia than vice versa, and New York is the communal and philanthropic center of Jewish life. Ultimately, the authors find, contemporary Jews are at home wherever they live. “New Jews,” they argue, “connect emotionally and culturally with multiple places and traverse routes across national boundaries but are nonetheless rooted in a specific place they call home.”

In five case studies, Aviv and Shneer explore the implications of their argument. In Moscow, they find an increasingly vibrant Jewish urban center where Jews want to live, not leave. An examination of organized youth tourism to Poland and Israel uncovers a manipulative identity-building agenda that reveals the desperation of late 1990s “continuity” campaigns — but also points toward a future in which Jews crisscross the globe to explore their diverse cultural heritage. Two other chapters complement one another. A minisequel to their previous book, “Queer Jews,” considers collective identities that connect across geopolitical boundaries, and an ethnographic meditation explores the deep diversity cohabiting within the boundaries of New York City.

Finally, Los Angeles stars in a study of the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center. Aviv and Shneer provide long-overdue histories of the creation of these two institutions — and important critiques of their respective programs. At the Museum of Tolerance, the authors highlight the tension between the universalistic message of tolerance and the particularistic focus on the Shoah, a tension that leaves the visitor “suspicious of the comforts of America.” At the Skirball, they find a deeply assimilationist message in which Jewish values explicitly are presented as indigenously American. Even as the Skirball upends the logic of Diaspora and exile, the authors observe, it remains “intolerant of difference” when such difference might divide Jews from other Americans.

Religion largely is absent from the discussion, though this appears to be by design. Freed from the theological bonds of Klal Yisrael — though by no means dismissing its importance — the authors make no apologies for their challenge to the political centrality of Israel in secular “Jewish geography, culture, and memory.” They question the sociological utility of thinking about some entity called The Jewish People.

“The only thing that Jews have in common,” Aviv and Shneer conclude, “is the fact that they self-identify as Jews.”

To those who grew up within the narratives of the Holocaust and the return to Zion, this will be distressing; to those in Aviv and Shneer’s generation, like Bisman and Matisyahu, as well as to Chabad emissaries no less than Conservative and Reform outreach advocates — it is old news.

“New Jews'” greatest strength — that it is an open-ended introduction to a conversation, rather than a self-contained argument — also may be its primary weakness. Although I agree with Aviv and Shneer’s assertion that contemporary Jews are at home where they are, rather than in exile from an imagined homeland, I would have liked to see them explore some of the more dynamic implications of Jewish cultural transnationalism, or what scholars call “flows.” To study flows is to follow the movement of ideas, money, even music. Debbie Friedman tells of a Polish youth group’s request to hear the “traditional” melody for “Havdalah” (they meant her own, of course); I have sung Adat Ari El Rabbi Moshe Rothblum’s “V’Shamru” at a Czechoslovak Shabbaton. The late Pakistani Sufi musician Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan wrote a qawwali called, “Allah Hu”; a group of Americans and Israelis living in Israel adopted, adapted and exported the chant to the United States, where it was popularized by Debbie Friedman, Danny Maseng and New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun as the liturgical song “Hallelu.”

The authors also do not contend with the sporadic but serious conflicts over Jewish being-at-home, whether in Paris and Brussels or on “Bill O’Reilly” and MSNBC. In the United States, controversies last year over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and this year over “Christianization” and the “War on Christmas” paradoxically juxtapose cultural complacency and communal insecurity. In Western Europe, anti-Semitic attacks by immigrant Arabs reflect both anti-Israel political violence and the jealous rage of the socially marginal against those perceived to have made it “inside,” those who are “at home.” These, too, are the experiences of “New Jews.”

Still, one hardly can fault the authors for provoking the reader to respond. And this is Aviv and Shneer’s greatest achievement with this book: to force us, gently but insistently, to consider the global implications of a world where Zion is a given and not a proposal; where perfectly respectable Jews emigrate from Jerusalem and make pilgrimages to New York; where, indeed, Los Angeles is the center of a Jewish universe.

J. Shawn Landres is the director of research at Synagogue 3000 and a visiting research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies.

 

Three Faces of Shoah Interpretation


 

“The Destruction of the European Jews” (Third Edition) by Raul Hilberg ( Yale University Press, 2003).

“The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939-March 1942” by Christopher R. Browning, with contributions by Jurgen Matthaus ( University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 2004).

“Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe” by Bryan Mark Rigg (Yale University Press, 2004).

Once Rejected, Now Triumphant

Raul Hilberg was not encouraged when he approached his professor, Franz Neumann, about writing his doctoral dissertation on the role of the German civil service in the Holocaust. Neumann assented, but warned: “It’s your funeral.”

Hilberg shopped around the book that resulted, “The Destruction of the European Jews,” to Columbia University Press, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, Princeton University Press and the University of Oklahoma Press. All rejected him. Quadrangle Press in Chicago finally published his work in 1961, and Hilberg quickly found himself in the heart of an ideological war not of his own making.

Hannah Arendt had used his work without appropriate acknowledgement as part of her controversial reports for the New Yorker on the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official at the center of the genocide. As a result, Hilberg became associated with Arendt’s critique of Jewish leadership and also of her concept regarding the banality of evil. Indeed, for a generation, Hilberg was barred from the archives of Yad Vashem, until younger historians came to power and ended the notion that researchers had to be ideologically vetted.

One work, that magisterial book based on his dissertation, has dominated Hilberg’s life. But he’s not a one-book man. Hilberg published brilliantly on the German railway system, though that book exists only in German. There’s also his English-language publication of and commentary on “The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow,” which explores the life and desperate circumstances of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat. His “Perpetrator, Victims and Bystanders” set in stone the portraits of actors and non-actors — whose non-action became action — during the Shoah. And his recent “Sources of Holocaust Research” is a first-rate introduction to the field. If there were a Nobel Prize for Holocaust Studies, Hilberg would have won it years ago.

Yale University Press has now published the third edition of “The Destruction of the European Jews.” It’s enhanced with documentation from the newly opened archives of the former Communist bloc nations of Eastern Europe. Copies of many of these documents are available at Yad Vashem and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which have been actively microfilming and preserving these documents. Working pro bono, Hilberg gave unstintingly of his time, energy and incomparable knowledge to the U.S. museum.

In his third edition, Hilberg does not back down from his well-known critique of Jewish response, nor from his portrayal of the Holocaust as a disaster for the Jews. Suffice it to say that this work is a towering achievement, the very backbone of the field.

How Murder Became Genocide

Christopher Browning, like Hilberg, is a master of German documentation, a dominant figure among the first generation of scholars born after the Holocaust. With a contribution by Jurgen Matheus, he’s written “The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939-March 1942.” Their work reshapes our understanding of the timetable of destruction. Their research contradicts the notion of a centralized decision to kill that was uniformly adopted. Instead, the authors describe regional initiatives that were “blessed” by Nazi officials and ultimately fashioned into a policy of gassing and wholesale murder.

The evolution to gassing, for example, began with the T-4 program, in which the Nazis murdered German non-Jews who were considered “life unworthy of living” — the mentally challenged, physically handicapped and emotionally disturbed Germans who belied the myth of the master race. Mobile gas vans came into use in Yugoslavia and at the Chelmno death camp. There also were thoughts of shipping Jews to Madagascar.

This book is co-published by Yad Vashem, which is now cooperating with university presses to disseminate its work to a wider audience. Browning’s research is controversial in Jerusalem. A recent standing-room-only lecture drew massive press coverage because the Jerusalem School presents a rather different interpretation of the Holocaust, which it portrays as developed policy from its inception, rather than improvised as the war dragged on.

Browning exemplifies scholarship — detailed, serious and masterly, rooted in details but presenting the broad picture of the evolution of the decision to kill the Jews. The period he grapples with is critical: At the beginning of 1942, 80 percent of the Jews who were to die in the Holocaust were alive. Fourteen months later the figures were reversed; four of five were already dead.

The Student Was Right

I first met Bryan Mark Rigg a decade ago, after giving a lecture at Yale. A young, earnest undergraduate approached me and asked if I would read his senior thesis. Rigg had that neat, fresh-cut look of a young military man; other students dressed like students. He called me “sir” and said “please” and “thank you,” words that the father of teenagers does not often hear. He was respectful, a throwback to an earlier era, before the 1960s overturned conventions on campus.

He had been writing on German soldiers who were Mischlinge — of mixed Jewish and Aryan ancestry. They continued to serve in the Wehrmacht, despite Nazi racial policy and despite what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. Rigg’s thesis was remarkable work for an undergraduate. He clearly was an “archive rat,” spending months (and later years) combing through records, ferreting out material no one else had bothered to review.

And his conclusions were startling.

A significant number of German soldiers — officers and enlisted men alike — of Jewish origin continued to serve even after their “racial background” was discovered. Hitler himself participated in the “Aryanization” of some of these fighting men. And German officers, even those who had a hand in carrying out Nazi racial policies, ignored or covered up the Jewish ancestry of these men, displaying higher loyalty to a good soldier than to their government’s edicts.

Rigg didn’t quite understand the importance of what he had found: that not all who served in the armed forces were anti-Semites, even as their service aided the killing process.

He intended to write his dissertation on this topic and sought my advice.

“Don’t do it,” I immediately responded. “There is not enough there to warrant a dissertation.”

Out of politeness, I added, “But if you do, please send it to me. I would like to read it.”

Little did I know what I was getting into. Five years later I received his dissertation, which he completed at Cambridge University, along with the draft of his first book.

I had been wrong.

Rigg had found more, much more. He’d reviewed records, interviewed soldiers and their colleagues and the results were as startling as they were disturbing. He showed how German military officials, rather than marching in lockstep with their government, would sidestep regulations to protect a man of Jewish origin whom they knew. These officials often faced a conflict between loyalty to the government — even to their oath to Hitler — and their allegiance to a comrade, a man with whom they had fought. Many men honored personal loyalty above all.

As for the Mischlinge, some saw themselves as German above all, even when the Germans were persecuting and ultimately slaughtering their parent or grandparents. Many saw themselves as army men — even if they did not support the government’s policies, they served with dedication. His conclusions differed in interesting ways from those of author Daniel Goldhagen, who portrayed the Germans as marching virtually in unison to embrace the extermination of the Jews. For Rigg, these men had multiple loyalties. Personal ties could override political convictions, at least for some German military officials. My advice to the contrary, he published “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers,” and the work created quite a stir.

One such “Jewish soldier,” Ernest Bloch, working for German intelligence under the direction of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, received a peculiar assignment in 1940: Go to Warsaw, find the Lubavitcher Rebbe Joseph Schneerson, and help him escape to the United States. (Schneerson was the father-in-law and predecessor of the late and widely known Lubavitcher leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson.) The Germans thought the rebbe would view Bloch as a Jew and trust him; the rebbe viewed him as a meshumad, a convert and distrusted him even more.

Once again, Rigg, in his new book “Rescued from the Reich,” has accomplished prodigious research in American and German archives, and even in the archives — if one can use that term — of the Chabad movement. He’s given us an earthly, demystified portrait of the rescue. Surely, the pious will view the rebbe’s rescue as the hand of God, with the German emissaries as angels wearing the masks of devils. But as a secular historian, Rigg has a very different story to tell — of diplomacy and intelligence work; suspicions and mortal danger; soldiers and civilians mobilized to rescue one prominent Jew and his family from the heart of German-occupied Warsaw in the midst of the Holocaust.

Righteous Anger Fuels ‘Auschwitz’


“Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting” by Ruth Linn (Cornell University Press, $20).

There is a fierce anger at the core of Ruth Linn’s work, the anger of a woman who suddenly and irrefutably discovers that the story she has been told by her Israeli teachers, Israeli society and Israeli culture from childhood onward regarding the Holocaust is but a partial narrative. Her teachers selected materials from the events of Holocaust history to fortify Zionist ideology, to reinforce the importance of Israel and to indoctrinate a new generation. This unraveling of her seemingly naïve trust in her elders revolves around one of the truly important and fascinating events of the Holocaust.

On April 7, 1944, two men, Rudolph Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz and made their way to Slovakia. There, with the help of the Jewish Working Group, they wrote a report, complete with maps, detailing what had occurred at Auschwitz over the past two years and the plans — soon to be realized — for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, who were deported en mass only weeks thereafter. Their report made its way from Slovakia to Hungary, where Hungarian Jewish leaders had a clear idea of what indeed was happening at Auschwitz — mass murder — before the deportations. Those leaders chose not to share this information with ordinary Hungarian Jews who reported for the trains not knowing that “resettlement in the East” was deportation to death factories and who didn’t know what Auschwitz was.

As Elie Wiesel wrote in his memoir “Night”: “Auschwitz, we had never heard the name.”

Many Hungarian Jews, young and old, echo his statement. Vrba’s work has been translated into many languages, but not into Hebrew until 1999. Why? Vrba had not been honored by Israel until he received a doctorate honoris causa from the University of Haifa due to Linn’s initiative. Why?

The story of Vrba is well-known in the West. Claude Lanzmann interviewed him at length in his classic film “Shoah.” I personally published the Vrba-Wetzler Report in my collection of Holocaust documents “Witness to the Holocaust,” and his report formed a centerpiece of “Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp” (Indiana University, 1998), which I co-edited with Israel Gutman, and “Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It” (St. Martins, 2000), which I co-edited with Michael Neufeld, based on an international conference held at the Air and Space Museum honoring the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993. Vrba was a featured speaker at a 1994 conference on Hungarian Jewry and his words from the Lanzmann interview are permanently inscribed in the Museum’s exhibition at a pivotal point just when one exits the box car. They are nothing less than poetic.


There was a place called the ramp where trains with Jews were coming in.


They were coming day and night,


Sometimes one per day and sometimes five per day


From all sorts of places in the world.


I worked there from August 18, 1942 to June 7, 1943.


I saw those transports rolling one after another,


And I have seen at least 200 of them in this position.


Constantly, people from the heart of Europe were disappearing,


And they were arriving to the same place,


With the same ignorance of the fate of the previous transport.


I knew that within a couple of hours after they arrived there 90 percent would be gassed.

Linn’s anger, however justified, seems quite innocent and quite naïve. For decades now, a new generation of Israeli historians have challenged the “preferred narrative” — to use the term developed by Edward Linenthal in his masterful work “Preserving History: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Memorial” — developed by earlier historians who sought to present the past in a manner that is conducive to creating a national future. If anything, the historian that Linn criticizes so intensely, Yehuda Bauer (and to a lesser extent Gutman), has been more open and more willing to stray from the Zionist historiography than the generational that preceded him.

The Psalmist proclaimed: “By the Rivers of Babylon we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion.”

The place from which we remember an event shapes the manner in which it is recalled.

For the past two decades, the divergence of national historiography relating to the Holocaust has been the subject of intense historical scrutiny in Germany, Austria, the United States, France, Israel, Sweden and Switzerland. In the 15 years since the demise of communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the countries of Eastern Europe — Poland and Hungary in particular — have rewritten their history of the Holocaust to better serve a free people and to better comport with the evidence. Even as this review is being written, Romania is going through that agonizing task as an international commission — chaired by Wiesel and featuring the work of Radu Ioanid, a Romanian immigrant to the United States — investigates Romania’s role in killing its Jews.

Anger has its place. Linn shakes up the Israeli status quo. She reminds us — within months of the opening of the new Yad Vashem Museum that will retell the story of the Holocaust to a new generation of Israelis who now are more than a 60 years from the event — that the Israeli perspective, however important, is limited and must be balanced by other presentations of the very same history. Linn points out that the decision not to translate certain books into Hebrew such as Vrba’s memoirs, Hilberg’s masterpiece “The Destruction of the European Jews” (Holmes and Meier, 1985) and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (Penguin, 1994) limits what an Israeli public can understand of the Holocaust. Still, to a younger generation of Israelis whose English is fluent — and to Israeli scholars who want to make their reputation by writing in English for the international community — there is a press to present a broader history.

Her role in understanding the importance of the Vrba report is also limited. She does not seem to know the way in which it changed a June decision of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem not to press for the bombing of Auschwitz since that would result in the death of innocent Jewish non-combatants incarcerated there. Yet one month later in London, Moshe Shertok (later Sharret) and Chaim Weizmann were pressing for the bombing and secured the support of Winston Churchill who told Anthony Eden “get what you can out of the Air Force and invoke my name if necessary.” She also does not seem to know the role that it played in the U.S. War Refugee Board forwarding a request to bomb Auschwitz to the War Department, which led to the famed — infamous — reply by John J. McCloy in August 1944. The full text of the report was not available in the United States until November.

The work is interesting. Her passion is genuine. Her disappointment is apparent throughout. Righteous anger fuels her work, righteous anger, but still limited learning.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and the co-editor of “The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?”

Shoah’s Belorussian Cowboys


The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest," by Peter Duffy. (Harper Collins, $25.95).

"Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. The Story of the Largest Armed Rescue of Jews by Jews During World War II," by Nechama Tec. (Oxford University Press, 1993).

For years, the mythology of Zionism led us to believe that the establishment of the State of Israel represented a bold alternative to the passive victimization of the European Jewish community. Whereas European Jews had "submitted" to their treatment, with fatal consequences, Israeli Jews would never let anyone destroy their homes, culture and lives. That was the line, anyway. The truth, as is so often the case, was more complicated, and no one should know that better than we Americans.

America’s sense of self-definition has been on display more blatantly than ever, it seems. Led by our administration, we have embraced the "cowboy" ethic: seemingly down-home while at the same time unilaterally aggressive. Simultaneously, we’ve had to face how that character is interpreted by others. The Wild West is also a myth, of course, one that captures the ideals of America much more than its infinitely varied reality.

I was reminded of these paradigms while reading Peter Duffy’s new book, "The Bielski Brothers," which chronicles a truly amazing group of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Belorussia by forming a partisan brigade that fought the Nazis and saved as many Jewish lives as possible.

Led by the charismatic Tuvia Bielski and two of his brothers, this partisan unit all but explodes the idea of the passive European Jew. In the end, they saved 1,200 Jews from extinction. Their story is one of heroic bravery: ghetto breaks, disruption of German rail service, even the establishment of a working shtetl deep within the forest. Add to this the inherent danger of being a Jew on the run during World War II, and the narrative can’t help but be thrilling.

Duffy is right to find an extraordinary story in the details of the Bielski partisan unit. He is not, however, the first to do so. Nechama Tec’s study, "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans," was published in 1993, and provides an interesting contrast to Duffy’s account.

The books cover primarily the same material, with the same basic goal. Duffy’s is by far the better read, despite his penchant for one-line cliffhangers and the liberal use of exclamation points. His book is organized by chronology, giving the story a natural arc and momentum. Indeed, Duffy has written a fast-paced, exciting book.

The same cannot be said of Tec — a survivor herself — whose writing is more academic, less showy. I suspect, however, that Tec’s is the more thorough of the two, not least because she actually interviewed Tuvia Bielski two weeks before his death.

The fact that the books relay slightly different accounts of events is understandable. Memory, after all, is mutable, and different people will remember events differently. No, the distinction between these tellings lies in how much humanity each author is willing to accord its story’s heroes.

Both writers support Tuvia Bielski, even when his decisions seem questionable. This is understandable, since it was he who had the vision and strength of character to hold together a fractious group of fighters and civilians during that most harrowing of times. He was also human, although Duffy hardly conveys that. His Tuvia Bielski is the John Wayne of the forest, tall, gallant and noble. Indeed, some survivors talk of Bielski in terms that approximate images of heroism gleaned from the movies. Tec, however, does not shy away from his flaws, and so finds the human even inside the leader.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary responses, and Tuvia Bielski and his brothers, children of a poor mill owner, rose to the challenge. But even during the Nazi years, people are people, as Tec shows. Just because he saved Jews does not mean that Tuvia was a saint. He was tall, and he rode a white horse, but he brought his weaknesses — drinking, womanizing — into the forest with him. Similarly, the partisan unit was driven as much by petty politics as by the more dangerous incidences of treachery that both Duffy and Tec discuss. Favoritism, greed, jealousy: all these were as important in the organizational life of the brigade as the wide-scale anti-Semitism around it.

Overall, non-fighters are given short-shrift in Duffy’s book. Women, for example, had an especially hard time. Deemed unfit for fighting and surveillance, excluded from decision-making and the industries that were eventually established, women were in more danger of rape and murder by both Nazis and partisans and so often entered into "marriages" with fighters in order to ensure their own safety. But Duffy, who is more interested in a story of strength and moral certainty, devotes one sentence to the very different experiences of men and women.

In short, Duffy’s is an extremely American book: it streamlines the story — removes characters, nuance and even episodes in the name of a more exciting tale. It feeds the need for simple heroics that Americans crave, especially during our own uncertain times. Tec’s is knottier and not as well-organized, but, in the end, more truthful for letting all her figures remain human even during a time of brutal, dehumanizing terror.

True Tales From the Holocaust and After


"Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories: True Tales From the Holocaust and Life After" by Henryk Grynberg. Translated from Polish by Alicia Nitecki. Edited by Theodosia Robertson. (Penguin Books, 2002).

Until recently, the word Drohobycz (pronounced "Dro-ho-bit-ch") sounded to most American readers like an exotic Eastern European tongue twister.

Then, three years ago, the name of this Ukrainian town appeared in the world press when representatives of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial controversially claimed a set of murals painted by Bruno Schulz, a lifelong resident of Drohobycz who was gunned down by the Gestapo there in 1942, and is now considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

It is Bruno Schulz’s haunting self-portrait that gazes at us from the cover of Henryk Grynberg’s powerful book, "Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories," and it is Schulz and his fellow residents of the eastern borderlands of prewar Poland who inspire Grynberg’s tales, which have been awarded the 2002 Koret Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

A child survivor of the Holocaust and longtime resident of the United States, Grynberg has dealt directly or indirectly with the Holocaust in 26 books of prose, poetry, essays and drama, all written in his native Polish.

He considers the Holocaust singularly important as a lesson, a warning and a turning point in the history of our civilization, and frequently calls himself a guardian of the graves and the writer of the dead.

The documentary-like stories of "Drohobycz, Drohobycz" are set in almost a dozen countries. His narrators are survivors of ghettos, labor and death camps, as well as wartime deportations to the Soviet Union.

The narrators recall hundreds of names, places and local historical events; in the face of destruction, these details of the past acquire a new poignancy, and Grynberg’s allusions underline the wide geographical scope of the Shoah.

Letting others speak is Grynberg’s conscious strategy — he takes his inspiration from real testimonies but crafts them with fictional techniques. We can only guess that the names mentioned in the dedications preceding each tale — "Halina M." or "Janina" or "Ben, Zoila, Michal and Basia" — belong to the real-life victims on whose lives the fictions are based.

Grynberg dutifully catalogs these survivors’ responses to the horrors they have experienced and the challenges of survival. In some cases, the survivors, many of whom like Grynberg, himself, are children of the Holocaust, view the world from a child’s perspective.

After the war, the narrator of "A Hungarian Sketch" is surprised to see mothers with children strolling in the street; having miraculously escaped the clutches of Mengele, she imagined there can be no more mothers and children in the world.

Others experience permanent alienation: "To the Americans I was a foreigner," says the narrator of "A Pact With God." "To the Poles, a hidden Jew. Who was I to the Jews?" The narrator of "A Family Sketch" remarks, "I married twice and didn’t try after that. I didn’t want to have children. I’d rather be by myself." Another woman narrator argues survivors are like painters unrecognized during their lifetimes.

Although Grynberg is very careful to give his narrators their own voices, his authorial touch is felt in the ironic distance, sense of absurdity and even humor of these tales. A former actor, Grynberg has said that he has been encouraged by his editors to exploit his talent for comedy in his fiction. Though only so much humor is appropriate in stories as grim and often heartbreaking as these, Grynberg’s ironic sensibility makes his tale-testimonies easier to read, as their tragedy is tempered for the reader who otherwise might be overwhelmed with the scope of suffering and horror he describes.

Twenty years ago, Philip Roth introduced Schulz to the American audience in the series "Writers From the Other Europe." Since then, Schulz’s life and work have inspired novels by Cynthia Ozick and David Grossman, and a powerful biography by Jerzy Ficowski, recently translated into English. Schulz’s famous example illustrates how important it is that new stories of tragedy and survival continue to be unearthed from the wartime and post-war experiences of Polish Jews. In "Drohobycz, Drohobycz," Grynberg carries on this work, using fiction to tell "True Tales From the Holocaust and Life After" and to create a compelling portrait of the effect two totalitarian systems — Nazism and Stalinist communism — had on the lives of millions. By sharing his own story and those of more than a dozen survivors, Grynberg helps these millions become less anonymous.


Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska is a professor of American and comparative literature
and head of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin,
Poland, and the co-editor of “Contemporary Jewish Writing in Poland: An Anthology.” This review originally
appeared on the recently redesigned JBooks.com, the online Jewish book community produced by Jewish Family & Life.

New Releases Keep Shoah an Open Book


“The secret of redemption is remembrance,” as a sign announces in Israel’s Yad Vashem, an institution dedicated to remembering the Holocaust. Books, too, are in service of memory, inspiring readers to think again and anew — and to fight forgetfulness. As Yom HaShoah approaches, the call to memory resounds.

Despite the many thousands of books on the subject, there’s still much about the Holocaust that hasn’t previously been written about and published. This season, there are important new works by scholars analyzing newly available material, journalists uncovering little-known episodes, artists with new interpretations, survivors telling their own stories for the first time and more.

In “Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust” (Yale, 2003) scholar Nechama Tec, who is herself a Holocaust survivor, tackles a topic that has been rarely discussed: the effects of gender on experience during the Holocaust. Through interviews conducted over a decade, she analyzes patterns of behavior in terms of women’s and men’s self-esteem and coping strategies.

“Even though the Germans were committed to sending all Jews to their deaths, for a variety of reasons women and men traveled toward that destination on distinct roads,” Tec writes. Recognizing that gender is a complex and sensitive issue, she looks at the issue from different vantage points and in various settings. She finds differences between how people reacted in the ghettos and concentration camps and those fighting in the forests, as well as social differences in each setting. She explains that those in the upper classes had “farther to fall” and seemed to have a harder time enduring constant humiliations.

Some anti-Jewish measures were gender specific. She shows how for many men, ruthless assaults led to the loss of their abilities to perform their roles as providers and protectors for their families, and also to their becoming demoralized and depressed. Many women, used to being in supportive roles, began to take on some of the traditional male roles with their families, as well as with people in the larger community.

The author of several award-winning books on the Holocaust and a professor at the University of Connecticut, Tec is a member of the Council of the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Holocaust: A History” by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt (Norton, 2003) is a remarkable work, a detailed and scholarly one-volume history that’s highly accessible for general readers. The authors, who previously collaborated on the award-winning “Auschwitz,” place the Holocaust in the context of European history and are mindful of the stories of individuals. Included are 75 illustrations and 16 original maps.

Dwork is the author of “Children With a Star” and a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University, where she is founding director of their Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Van Pelt, who was born in Holland, is professor of cultural history at the University of Waterloo and author of “The Case for Auschwitz.”

In his eighth book on a Holocaust theme, Sir Martin Gilbert presents inspiring stories of Christian and Muslim people — farmers, priests, soldiers, diplomats and other extraordinary “ordinary” people — in every occupied country, who risked all to save Jews from deportation and death. “The Righteous: The Unsung History of the Holocaust” (Henry Holt), draws on 25 years of research. In these true stories, “righteous acts testified to the survival of humane values and to the courage of those who save human life rather than allow it to be destroyed…. Six million Jews were murdered, but tens of thousands were saved.”

The author, a historian and the official biographer of Winston Churchill, is the author of eight books on Holocaust themes. This is the first to focus on altruism. Gilbert quotes Abraham Foxman, who was saved as a child by his nanny in Vilna, “Even in hell, even in that hell called the Holocaust, there was goodness, there was kindness, and there was love and compassion.”

“The Hidden Life of Otto Frank” by Carol Ann Lee (Morrow, 2003) is a penetrating, robust biography of the man turned into a legend by the publication of his daughter’s diary. The author breaks new ground in naming the man, a member of the Dutch Nazi party, who betrayed the Franks and their friends in 1944. The book was published to much acclaim and controversy when it was released in the Netherlands last year, and since then, Lee has gotten new information, included in the American edition. The English-born author, who previously wrote a biography of Anne Frank, lives in Amsterdam.

Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins bring to light the story of the largest maritime loss of civilian life during World War II, when the Struma, a ship filled with Jewish refugees with hopes to get to Palestine, exploded on the Black Sea, near Istanbul. About 800 people were killed in this little-known 1942 episode, including more than 100 children. One man survived; he is one of the sources in the compelling, well-written narrative, “Death on the Black Sea: The Untold Story of the Struma and World War II’s Holocaust at Sea” (Ecco). The authors piece together the facts, and also recount recent attempts to locate the Struma at the bottom of the sea, a search initiated by the grandson of two victims. An appendix lists the names and ages of the victims. Frantz is the former Istanbul bureau chief for The New York Times, now investigations editor for the newspaper, and his wife, Collins, has covered Turkey for the Chicago Tribune.

In 1941, when 16-year old Lena Jedwab left her Bialystock home for summer camp in Russia, she expected to return in a few weeks. But that was not to be, and she was stranded, separated from her family, after Germany invaded the former Soviet Union. “Girl With Two Landscapes: The Wartime Diary of Lena Jedwab 1941-1945” (Holmes & Meier, 2002) is the diary she began keeping that summer in a children’s home, translated from the Yiddish by Solon Beinfeld, with an introduction by Jan T. Gross and a foreword by Irena Klepfisz. The book is a powerful document by a young woman of intelligence, enthusiasm and moral strength, with much to say about themes of home and exile, as well as daily life. The author, Lena Jedwab Rozenberg, now lives in Paris.

The title, “Here There Is No Why,” Rachel Chencinski Roth’s memoir (translated from the Polish, with a grant from Yad Vashem), is Dr. Joseph Mengele’s response to the author and millions of others. The book is the fulfillment of a promise the author made at Maidenek, when she told a young friend she would tell the world of the horrors they experienced. The daughter of a journalist, she writes of her teenage life in the Warsaw Ghetto, her participation in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and her transports, along with her aunt, to several concentration camps.

The themes of the Shoah are taken up artistically by Judith Weinshall Liberman, who has just published a collection of her work, “Holocaust Wall Hangings” (Schoen Books, 2002). The artist was born in then-Palestine in the ’30s, and aware — as much as a teenager might be — of the Holocaust as people close to her were losing loved ones. In 1947, she moved to the United States to pursue her education, earned four university degrees and chose to pursue her artwork after lecturing and writing about law. Since 1988, she has been creating art, mostly on fabric, with a Holocaust theme, and many of her works are exhibited in the United States and Israel. She uses color expressively, although in limited ways, and also employs embroidery and beading, and repeated imagery like boxcars and views of Anne Frank. Included are essays by art historians and curators and explanations of each color plate.

Newly available:
Back in print, after Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for literature are two of his novels, “Fateless,” his first and perhaps best-known novel about a Hungarian Jewish boy’s experiences in concentration camps and after the war, and “Kaddish for a Child Not Born,” the story of a Holocaust survivor taking stock of his life in middle age, both translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson (Hydra/Northwestern University Press).

Failing Minds Fall Prey to Holocaust


"Why did you come? Go, go before it’s too late," Laja Szydlowski warned her daughter, Hanna. She then whispered, "They’re killing people here. You don’t understand."

This encounter did not take place in 1940, with Szydlowski holed up in a cramped apartment in the Lodz ghetto in Poland. This happened less than a year ago, in a cheerfully furnished room at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA). However, in Szydlowski’s mind, she was back in Lodz. This time the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, rather than the Nazis, imprisoned her.

"What happens," explained Dr. Marla Martin, a clinical psychologist who has worked intensively at JHA for more than 10 years, "is that the sense of time is impacted by dementia, and the person again becomes the young man or woman struggling against all odds to survive."

Szydlowski, 93, has been reliving the Holocaust for the past six or seven years, according to her daughter, Hanna Golan. However, her Alzheimer’s disease has now progressed to where she can no longer verbally communicate. "She is constantly crying," Golan said.

Szydlowski is one of an estimated 11,000-12,000 Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles County, whose average age is 81. With nearly half of all elderly people 85 or older affected to some degree by Alzheimer’s or other dementias, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of those Holocaust survivors, who are reliving in their minds the roundups, selections, starvation, brutality and the killing of family members, often in their presence, is significant.

Even without dementia, many survivors have nightmares, fear abandonment, act secretively and read anti-Semitism into innocent interactions. They react adversely to such seemingly normal activities as standing in lines or dealing with uniformed personnel. Some even avoid the oil well on the Beverly Hills High School campus, now painted with flowers, because it is a reminder of the smokestack at Auschwitz.

Helen Zisner, 82, who is in early stages of dementia and living at the Vista del Sol Care Center in Culver City, is not catapulted back into the Holocaust but reacts to certain stimuli.

"You can’t approach her from behind," her son, Benjamin, said. "She’ll ask, ‘Who are you here for?’ because she’s reminded of guards entering her concentration camp barracks."

But for survivors with more pronounced dementia, the Holocaust experience exacerbates the paranoia and suspiciousness, and, Martin said, "Those people are much more likely to experience flashbacks."

JHA, with a population of 800 residents, houses only 41 Holocaust survivors in its residential and skilled-nursing facilities, according to Laurie Manners, administrator of the Grancell Village campus. The number is small but, with over two-thirds of them suffering from some degree of dementia, the behaviors stand out.

"We have people who hoard food, who stockpile it in their rooms," Manners said. "And we have one resident who is convinced that noxious fumes are coming in through his air conditioning vent. ‘It’s poison gas. I’m suffocating,’ he tells us."

Holocaust survivors, who felt so deprived, often cannot adjust to living with a roommate, whom they may believe is plotting against them or stealing their possessions. Some are very distrustful.

Haya Berci, JHA’s executive director of nursing, said, "If something goes wrong, some survivors are afraid to say anything, for fear of retaliation."

They also have issues surrounding money, such as one resident who believed a rabbi had stolen her $50,000. Many want to sleep with their cash. These behaviors happen more readily in an institutional setting, where survivors feel less in control, according to Martin.

"They can react to showering or to undergoing a medical procedure," she said. "They think the hospital is performing experiments on them and their family has been murdered."

Also, she said, many lose the ability to speak and understand English and are frightened by people talking in what they perceive as a foreign language.

Most survivors, however, according to Paula Fern, director of Jewish Family Service’s (JFS) Pico-Robertson Storefront and the Holocaust Survivors Program, like most elderly, generally live in their own homes, alone or with paid caregivers or with relatives.

JFS works with about 650 survivors in their 60s and older, about 10 percent of whom suffer from some type of dementia. Caseworkers in four storefront facilities make home visits, assisting the survivors and their families. Additionally, JFS provides adult day care for Alzheimer’s clients in three locations, as well as respite time for families.

Still, JFS has seen its share of survivors with Alzheimer’s or dementia who, according to Fern, "are caught in the moment of the Holocaust and relive all that terror, anguish, anxiety and peril."

Fern tells of a past client, a physically fit man in his 70s, who, donning a suit, tie and hat, and putting his financial papers and money into a leather briefcase, disappeared. He stayed with various friends, a few days at a time, and only occasionally resurfaced.

"It took a long time to figure out he had been a courier in the Paris underground and was re-experiencing those days," Fern explained. Because he had no family, JFS arranged for a private conservator.

"This phenomenon is not a new revelation," Fern said. JFS has had survivor clients since 1945 and began a program specifically for aging clients in 1997.

Currently JFS has an extensive program for survivors and their families funded by the Conference for Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund, as well as private donations. Additional training on Alzheimer’s and other aging issues is provided by the Alzheimer’s Association and JFS staff.

"Training, training, training," stressed Berci of JHA, which provides training to new employees, along with ongoing education for all staff members, on Jewish culture and issues, including the Holocaust. Recently, JHA received a grant from Wells Fargo Bank to set up a comprehensive program specifically to assist Holocaust survivors, including those with dementia, and their families.

Interestingly, while the Holocaust population in general is decreasing, this subset is actually increasing as survivors, like the general population, are living longer, and thus are more likely to become demented.

"The cruel irony," geriatric psychiatrist Daniel Plotkin said, "is that dementia doesn’t protect these people. Their long-term memory remains intact."

Plotkin stressed the importance of a trusting relationship, whether it’s with the spouse or a hired caregiver.

For Szydlowski, that trusted person is her husband, Michael, 94, who also lives at JHA and comes to his wife’s room every day before she rises.

"He is afraid to have her wake up and have him not there, because that would be terrible for her," Golan explained. "He doesn’t sleep because he’s afraid of oversleeping."

He stays with her in the Alzheimer’s day room, taking time off only to eat and, at his daughter’s urging, to play bingo a couple times a week.

"I’m not sure she recognizes my father or me, but she feels safe with us," she said. "With everyone else, even nurses who have cared for her for years, she struggles."

For some, artistic pursuits help tame the Holocaust demons. Sam Gal, 81, entered JHA in 1998 and took up painting for the first time. He spent every day in the art room, creating a prolific portfolio of paintings, which gradually became lighter, in both content and appearance. About two years ago, as dementia set in, he was forced to stop.

Medication can sometimes help control the agitation and paranoia, though it can’t prevent flashbacks. People can also often be distracted, with a song or a walk. For those with severe dementia, just holding their hand or talking to them in their language of origin can comfort them.

"Our philosophy is to know each person," Manners said. "What were his hobbies? What did he do for a living? Often, we can calm someone by doing something familiar."

Some known triggers can be eliminated, even in institutional settings. In JHA, patients can be given baths rather than showers. The overhead paging system is rarely used. Bank statements have been simplified, to make them more understandable, and residents have a locking drawer in their room, to securely store their possessions.

Facilities can also be made as homelike as possible. JHA’s Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center, which opened a year ago on the Eisenberg campus with 96 beds for residents with dementia, offers lots of sunlight, with floor-to-ceiling windows, carpeted rooms and a soft décor. Some residents simply become less agitated as they become familiar with their surroundings and staff and relax into a routine.

"However," Fern said, "most children are extremely reluctant to place their survivor parents in facilities. It’s a tough sell even to get them into adult day care."

Miriam, who declined to give her last name and whose mother, 78, suffers from Alzheimer’s, arranges care for her parents in their own home. That is also their wish.

"They’ve gone through so much in life," she said. "I don’t want anything at the end of their lives to resemble the hardships they went through at the beginning."

Golan’s parents, on the other hand, independently made the decision to move into the JHA in 1995. She visits them several times a week, though she’s not certain her mother realizes she’s there.

"She’s fighting for her life," Golan said, explaining that her mother’s first husband was beaten to death in front of her, just before her 2-year-old daughter was taken away. She subsequently spent time in Auschwitz, Treblinka and Mauthausen.

"Once was enough," Golan said. "Once was too much."



Remembrance Rites to Mark Holocaust

Two Holocaust remembrance events will be held on April 29 and May 4 at the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument in Pan Pacific Park.

The April 29 observance, starting at 11 a.m., will bring together approximately 1,600 students from 25 public, Jewish and Catholic schools for a memorial program conducted by students and for readings by Holocaust survivors. Each participating school will receive four books for its library.

One of the books is "Abiding Hope, Bearing Witness to the Holocaust," by Benjamin A. Samuelson. The author, who uses a pen name, was forced to work as a member of the sonderkommando, which operated the crematoria. He later was wounded fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. The books are being donated by the Greta Savage Memorial Foundation.

The other three books are "Witness to the Truth," by survivor and philanthropist Nathan Shapell; "The Children of Willesden Lane," by Mona Golabek; and "In the Shadow of the Past, Lest We Forget," the stories of 12 survivors.

Both events are being underwritten by Jona Goldrich, chairman of the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Second Generation.

The Holocaust Monument is located at the north end of Pan Pacific Park, between Beverly Boulevard and Third Street, adjacent to The Grove and Farmers Market.

The May 4 observance will be held at 1:45 p.m. Free transportation will be available from Westwood and the San Fernando Valley by preregistration. For information, phone (310) 280-5010 or (310) 821-9919. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

New Aspects of Anne


Let’s say it right up front: The four-hour television miniseries "Anne Frank" is the most powerful film on the Holocaust in recent memory, not excepting the fabled "Schindler’s List."

The conclusion comes as a surprise, not least to this reviewer. Who would have thought that a commercial network could create such a film, shorn of false sentimentality, on an icon as thoroughly explored and exploited as Anne Frank, the most famous diarist of World War II?

The second surprise is how much we didn’t know about Anne’s life, even after all the books, plays, movies and documentaries. For Anne’s life didn’t begin in June 1942, when she went into hiding and started her diary, and it didn’t end in August 1944, when her "secret annex" was discovered.

"Anne Frank" airs from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. May 20 and 21. Because of the concentration camp scenes, the film may not be suitable for younger children.

The telefilm is not based on the diary — due to copyright disputes, not a single line from her writing is used — but on the thoroughly researched 1998 biography of Anne by German writer Melissa Muller.

We first meet Anne in 1939 as a precocious 9-year-old schoolgirl of whom her father observes, "God knows everything, but Anne knows everything better." We see her last, emaciated, her clothes filthy and torn, ridden with lice and typhus, just before her death in March 1945 in Bergen-Belsen, weeks before the camp’s liberation.

Those familiar only with the original "Diary of a Young Girl" — which has sold 25 million copies in 55 languages — and its feel-good assertion that "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart," will be shaken by the ABC production.

The rough edges of daily life in the warehouse hiding place, especially Anne’s views of her parents’ loveless marriage, which had been expurgated by Otto Frank, are explored in the film, as they are in the latest revised edition of the diary.

But the film’s wrenching impact hits hardest in the last hour, after the eight occupants of the secret annex are arrested, transferred to a Dutch transit camp, then sent by sealed box cars to Auschwitz, and, for Anne, her sister Margot and their mother, to the final destination of Bergen-Belsen.

There are horrifying scenes at the camps, where the women are stripped naked, their hair shorn and their wedding rings wrenched from their fingers. Even the most blasé viewer of past Holocaust movies and documentaries will be shaken by the depiction of routine life at Bergen-Belsen: the fierce struggles for a piece of bread or pair of socks, and, especially, the day-by-day decline of Anne, as she sinks into an abyss of filth, disease and hopelessness.

The impressive cast is headed by Hannah Taylor Gordon, a 14-year-old Londoner who has never had a formal acting lesson. Gordon, who is not Jewish, bears a remarkable physical resemblance to Anne Frank and portrays her from age 9 to 15, from happy schoolgirl to scarecrow Bergen-Belsen inmate, with astonishing fidelity.

Veteran actor Ben Kingsley plays Otto Frank, Anne’s father, in a restrained performance, and pays Gordon the ultimate compliment by judging her the best leading lady he has encountered in a long professional career.

Others sharing the hiding place and Anne’s ultimate fate are Brenda Blethyn, Tatjana Blacher, Joachim Krol, Jessica Manley, Nick Audsley and Jan Niklas. Lili Taylor is Miep Gies, the Franks’ lifeline to the outside world.

Rumanian-born Robert Dornhelm, who lost most of his relatives in the Holocaust, directs, and Kirk Ellis wrote the superb screenplay.

The only regret is that viewers will not be able to watch "Anne Frank" without commercial interruptions. However, in a gesture not to be underestimated in a money-driven medium, ABC has decided to keep the film’s final hour free of commercials.

Exploring the Inexplicable


My mother and I have an ongoing dispute. Sometime in the late 1960s, she was given an oversized French photograph book about the Holocaust, titled "La Deportation." As an act of Jewish solidarity, she has at times prominently displayed it. I find the cover painfully disturbing. It is the portrait of a survivor taken shortly after liberation: gaunt, staring, blank from the horror. When I visit, I turn the book face down, so as to be neither accused nor bearing witness. She turns the book back, face up, deliberately to engage with that image.

A rabbinic dictum teaches that there is no end to the learning of Torah. Nor can there be an end to the unfolding of both details and understanding about the Holocaust, no matter how often we turn the book cover face down. Each of the following books represents a different approach, none definitive, but each worthy and powerful in its own right, subject to its own limitations.

"Rethinking the Holocaust" by Yehuda Bauer. (Yale University Press, $29.95)

Yehuda Bauer, director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, spends a great deal of necessary effort examining and correcting our language in "Rethinking the Holocaust." He points out that it was not the victims who were dehumanized, but the perpetrators, high and low, who dehumanized themselves.

It is only with tremendous effort that we can dissect the nature and components of the first systematic, industrialized, determined, ideologically inspired and directed effort to thoroughly eliminate a group of "racially" identified people.

This definition leads Bauer to argue that the idea of the Holocaust should be used exclusively in regard to Jews.

From the Nazi viewpoint, having identified Jews as the source of all pollution in the world, eradication of that pollution would naturally lead to utopia. Thus, Bauer contends that while Poles were considered inferior, Gypsies racially dangerous (inasmuch as they interbred with "pure" Germans), and the handicapped selected for elimination as a eugenic goal, the Holocaust can only be understood in light of the specific targeting of Jews.

The conduct of German foreign policy illustrates the point: the Nazis did not demand that their allies — Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians — hand over their Gypsy or handicapped populations to the death-camp industry, only the Jews.

Bauer, a public and determined secularist, maintains that all human experience can be understood, and in order to combat dehumanized evil, every effort must be made to understand.

"The Holocaust Encyclopedia" edited by Walter Laqueur, associate editor Judith Tydor Baumel. (Yale University Press, $60)

"The Holocaust Encyclopedia" reveals Walter Laqueur’s historical and journalistic competence in great depth as it catalogues the seemingly trivial (to the degree that anything pertaining to the Shoah can be deemed trivial) and the truly masterful.

Yehoyakim Cochavi submits a dense eight-page essay on ghetto cultural life, a form of Jewish resistance widely accessible to many Jews and unduly ignored. The article on the Gerhard M. Riegner memorandum (sent in March 1943 to the governments of the United States and Great Britain, appealing to them to save the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries from a "carefully planned extermination campaign") was written by Riegner himself, World War II director of the World Jewish Congress’ Geneva office.

Riegner reconstructs the anxiety he felt at his newly acquired knowledge of the depth and direction of Nazi Germany’s actions, goals and capacities in eminently readable, clear and concise prose.

Among other contributors to the encyclopedia are some of the most important scholars today, including Michael Berenbaum (at the University of Judaism) and Saul Friedlander (occupant of the "1939" chair at UCLA).

"Scrolls of Testimony" by Abba Kovner. Foreword by Irving Greenberg. (Jewish Publication Society, $75)

Abba Kovner’s breathtaking "Scrolls of Testimony" tries to evoke the inexplicable horror of the victims.

Kovner — poet, avenger, partisan of Vilna, voice of conscience and memory in Israel, an almost inadvertent survivor — self-consciously modeled his last and unfinished literary work on the scrolls used as part of Jewish liturgy (Esther, Jonah, Song of Songs, Ruth and Kohelet). The pages, beautifully laid out, suggest traditional Jewish texts, bordered by notes, asides and emendations.

In his foreword, Irving Greenberg relates that Kovner hoped that these Scrolls of Testimony would find a place in the Jewish liturgy, to be a formal voice of Shoah memory.

Perhaps in Hebrew, these "Scrolls" work. This translation is well worth reading for its own merit but does not work as a unified liturgical piece. Its length alone precludes its exclusive inclusion. Woven together are pieces of memoirs, short stories and poems. Like virtually all works that try to create a literary visceral sense of the Shoah, "Scrolls of Testimony" is disjointed, chaotic, dark and fearful. On that account, Kovner gives us a distant feel for the victims. But few of us would wish to voluntarily recount for an extended time those searing, horrific feelings.

"The Last Album: Eyes From the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau" by Ann Weiss. Foreword by Leon Wieseltier. (W. W. Norton & Company, $39.95)

Ann Weiss’ "The Last Album" illuminates lives lost and images found.

During a small, somewhat private tour at Auschwitz, Weiss was accidentally led into a room that housed 2,400 photographs brought there by deportees. (Successfully hidden by Auschwitz inmates, these personal items were usually destroyed along with their owners.) This small selection documents Jewish life before and during the war in the two small towns closest to Auschwitz, Bendin (also called Bendzin and Bedzin) and Sosnowiecz.

A number of families from those towns are detailed. Some relate the painful irony of death and survival.

Concerned about marriage prospects, Yoel and Ruchel Diament packed off their middle daughters, Mindl and Gila, to their aunt in Montreal. Photographs of Gila with her husband, daughter and sister Mindl were sent to the parents, who carried them when transported to their deaths. Photos taken in Canada and retrieved from Auschwitz waited 60 years to be published in New York.

But there are too many individual stories, millions too many individual faces, for us to remember or to grasp. n

"The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures" edited by David Aretha. Foreword by Michael Berenbaum. (Publications International, Ltd., $40)

"The Holocaust Chronicles" presents pictures, brief explanations, one-page essays and a continuing timeline of the numbing details, year by year and month by month, with a story provided for each date.

It is a coffee-table book, if a work on this subject can be called such; a valuable research resource for the casual reader and a powerful introductory overview of the historical facts. A thorough index and a related Web site flesh out publisher Louis Weber’s effort to make this book a portable archive and act of remembrance.

But the strength of a book such as "The Holocaust Chronicle" is also its weakness. Its timeline-based organization means that thematic issues are approached obliquely, at best, and cross-referencing material is complicated.

To study, for example, the fate of Greek Jewry, one crosses 22 different short, almost breathless references. On the other hand, start at page 405 and read to page 501, and 1943 is laid out: deportation, resistance, rescue, battles in the Soviet Union, agitation in the United States.

Two of the principal consultants on "The Holocaust Chronicle" are Marilyn Harran of Chapman College and John K. Roth, Russell K. Pitzer professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College.

"The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust" by Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia. (Columbia University Press, $45)

Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia’s "The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust" instructs the student in the basics of modern academic Holocaust study and research.

A dry historical overview opens a work seemingly geared to an introductory college class in Holocaust studies. The second part outlines the abstract issues that roil academic and scholarly waters: how to define the Holocaust, identify its roots, and see how the Final Solution came about. Who were the perpetrators? What were the victims’ reactions? How did bystanders behave? Was rescue an option? What are the enduring effects of the Holocaust?

Niewyk and Nicosia concisely try to illuminate the ground current Holocaust studies in the United States tend to cover.

The third section is a bare-bones chronology; the fourth, a short encyclopedia; the fifth, a worthwhile list of various resources: print, film, Web sites, organizations, museums and memorials.

Adrift in a World in Which God is Hidden


It is remarkable how many great Jewish American writers first came to the public’s attention through a volume of short stories.

Philip Roth’s first book was “Goodbye, Columbus.” Allegra Goodman’s was “Total Immersion.” Earlier this year, Nathan Englander published “For the Relief for Unbearable Urges,” an inventive series of stories set against Jewish history and Orthodox life, and the book rocketed onto the New York Times best-seller list.

The best new book of Jewish short stories — better than each of the above books — was published last year, received glowing reviews in papers such as The New York Times (“intense, often searing…the writing soars”), the Chicago Tribune (“splendid…extraordinary stories”) and the Houston Chronicle (“stories that absolutely shine”), and then sank out of sight.

Ehud Havazelet’s “Like Never Before” (Anchor Books, $12.95; Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $23.00) is being republished next month in paperback. It is an occasion for the rediscovery of a remarkable volume of interrelated stories that portray the members of a Jewish family over a 30-year period. Adrift in a post-Holocaust world, untethered by the traditions that previously sustained them, they struggle to find themselves and each other, missing more times than they connect.

The first story — “Six Days” — begins with an idyllic scene of almost Edenic serenity. Shabbat eve; after services and a family meal, Max Birnbaum, a Polish-born Jew whose father (like his father before him) is a rabbi, walks through Queens with his young son, David. It is the early 1960s.

They walk by stores, by local landmarks, through nearby neighborhoods, talking to each other quietly, greeting the people they pass by, sometimes not returning home until after midnight.

Their favorite spot is an overpass from which they can see highways going east, west, north and south. Together they watch the stream of red taillights heading away. “From here,” Max Birnbaum tells his son, “you could go anywhere, anywhere on earth.”

It is a scene of infinite possibilities, a future unlimited, a portrait of closeness between parent and child — a Shabbat that redeems the prior six days.

But like a camera expanding to a wider angle, Havazelet also provides a glimpse of David’s view of this scene — and it is a picture of resentment at the weight of the past and the prison of the present. As they walk through the Italian section of Queens, David “kept his eyes averted, aware of their Shabbos clothing.” He is embarrassed by his father good-naturedly distributing “Good evenings, how are yous, as if he knew these men.” He is stung by the “amused smiles all around, at him stuck with his father.”

As the story progresses, the gulf between Max and David’s worlds becomes even clearer. Max teaches at an Orthodox yeshiva, living in an ocean of books, translating manuscripts, lecturing to serious young men who are future rabbis. David, playing with his baseball cards, watches his father at work and disdains the students, who do not seem American to him. Trying to enter the world of his son, Max takes David to a Yankees game — David excited by each nearby foul ball, his father unable to understand the game.

The story concludes, at the end of Shabbat, with the men coming out from shul “to praise God’s world and ask his blessing for a few more days of good fortune and peace.” But it is a world that includes only the older generation, not the new one. David and his friends have left the service in the middle, running to play outside before it is over. They are present but absent at the same time.

The title of the story has become ironic. At the beginning, it refers — obviously — to the separation of Shabbat from the rest of the week. By the end, it has become a metaphor for an immense separation between a father and son, between two generations — one living in the religious traditions and rituals of the past, and the other in the new, secular American world — the other six days.

In “Lyon,” Havazelet flashes back to 1943, to Vichy France, when Max Birnbaum (then “Maxim Birnboym”) is a teen-ager, sent to France with his brother, Rachmil, on an undercover mission to collect money to smuggle Jews out of Poland. The mission’s sudden ending, and Maxim’s two-sentence report to his mother — “It’s me, Mother, Maxim. Rachmil is gone” — captures the horror of the Holocaust in a single incident.

The story also provides a contrast with David’s later rebellious, self-absorbed youth, spent in an alliance with Arnold Leibowitz (“acknowledged titleholder of biggest troublemaker in the history of the Mid-Queens Hebrew Day School”) and neighborhood baseball games that David seeks to win at all costs (he “didn’t like to play fair unless he was winning and could make a show of it”). David grows his hair “as long as he could without inciting outright war” with his father, and, by age 17, is absorbed in drugs and drinking.

“The Street That You Live On” shows David several years later, seen through the eyes of his wife, Maura, in a marriage that at first seems ideal. They “had read the same books in college, liked and were now embarrassed by the same bands.” Maura is comforted by David’s self-assurance and his assurance to her that “nothing would ever happen to them.” But their marriage is changed irrevocably by a seemingly unconnected event.

“Pillar of Fire” picks up after David’s divorce from Maura, at the lowest point in his life. Literally and metaphysically lost, he meets two young girls who are replicas of his younger self. They need a ride, and he sets out with them in his car. The trip that follows ends with an epiphany that is all the more remarkable because Havazelet, through an astonishing literary device, makes it happen simultaneously to both David and the reader.

In the succeeding stories, life contracts rather than expands; misunderstandings accumulate; distances grow. David remains caught up in anger and resentment, the tension with his father increases, and his mother is powerless to bridge the gap. In a heartbreaking story devoted to her (“Ruth”), she concludes that “despite everyone’s good intentions, in her own experience, love hurts more than it heals.”

But from these family portraits, taken at various points in the characters’ lives, a fuller picture eventually emerges. David and Rachel’s tentative attempts, near the end of the book, to reconnect to each other, to redeem what remains of their family relationship, are juxtaposed to a picture of the Eden they surrendered — an old family photograph David finds after his father’s death. It is a picture taken long ago at a vacation resort — Max, Ruth, Rachel and David, together in a boat that wouldn’t stop rocking, as they try to balance themselves, laughing and afraid at the same time, caught by the camera just as they reach out to put their arms around each other.

God appears in this book mostly through silence. Max, reflecting late in his life that “any hardship in this world is easier to bear than a disappointing child,” turns to God in his prayers and “requested guidance, solace…[and] asked, politely, for miracles.” They do not come. Ruth, lying terminally ill, concludes that prayers “for our loved ones, for the poor, the unprotected, the helpless about to be harmed…are for ourselves, finally, always have been, for our hurt, our fear, our constant aloneness.” For David and Rachel, God does not enter the picture at all.

Havazelet has written that, challenged by George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” he wanted to write a book that was different from the American literature on which he was reared, with its portrayal of the open road, of grace under pressure, of heroic conquests and myths. Instead, he wanted to portray characters “whose failures, as often as successes…marked them as human and worthy, heroic in their own right.” Writing stories of people who had no moment of glory in their lives but who were heroic nonetheless, Havazelet has continued, and added to, a literary tradition that includes Chekhov and Malamud.

His book is an important contribution to Jewish American literat
ure. For the paperback publisher, publishing a book that in hardcover sold only a modest number of copies, it is an act of faith — a belief that the reading public, if given a second opportunity, will respond to a remarkable work of art. This is our chance.


Rick Richman is a member of Sinai Temple in Westwood.

Art Imitating Life for Mystery Writer


The idea for Rochelle Majer Krich’s new mystery, “Blood Money,” goes back to the day she discovered some startling photographs in her parents’ china closet.

Krich, then 13, saw her father with an elegantly dressed woman beside a baby carriage holding a baby girl. “‘That’s Gusta, your father’s first wife,’ my mother said quietly when I showed her the photos,” Krich recalls. “Those are his daughters, Yiska and Ruzza. They were all killed in Auschwitz.”

Krich, dumbfounded, had not known that her father had been married before. “I couldn’t get out of my mind the uncomfortable knowledge that if Gusta hadn’t perished, I wouldn’t exist,” says the award-winning author, who is known as an Orthodox Agatha Christie.

Over the years, Krich’s thrillers have focused on a fertility doctor who has strayed from Orthodoxy (“Fertile Ground’); a maniacal husband who won’t give his wife a get (“‘Til Death Do Us Part’); and an LAPD Detective, Jessie Drake, who discovers that her mother was a hidden child during the Holocaust. Krich says she unconsciously named Jessie after one of her murdered stepsisters, Yiska.

Now Jessie returns in “Blood Money,” which is based in part on the war experiences of Krich’s own father, Abraham Majer. In the novel, an elderly survivor, Norman Pomerantz, is found murdered in Rancho Park; his death may have something to do with the Jewish assets that were plundered by the Nazis and deposited in Swiss banks. Jessie, in turn, discovers she may have her own family connection to the Swiss banks scandal.

Writing “Blood Money,” Krich says, was a cathartic way to explore her feelings about her father’s first family. Like Majer, the fictional Pomerantz tells of the last time he ever saw his wife and children: “They were being taken away on a train. His wife had his little girl wave to him and he waved. That haunts me,” Krich says. — Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor