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.

The indestructible spirit of Holocaust survivors


These photographs by Bill Aron are part of a project titled “Holocaust Survivors: The Indestructible Spirit.”

The project, sponsored by Chapman University, unites interviews and images of local Holocaust survivors, with each illuminating the other, telling their stories from the war and also showing them today as they have not only survived, but prospered.

The biographies here were condensed and excerpted by The Journal from interviews by students of professor Marilyn J. Harran, director of Chapman’s Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. The interviews were conducted as part of Harran’s Holocaust history courses at Chapman, and are © 2007-2008, Chapman University.


“I was welcomed not only into their homes, but also into their hearts. They gave me a gift of openness and trust, which made possible one hundred truly memorable encounters. It was the essence of these encounters, a deep sense of connection, an exquisite intimacy, if you will, that I felt, and that I tried to put into the images. The extent that my photographs are successful is due to their openness and trust. . . .

The prophet Zechariah proclaims that the people of Israel will prevail “not by might, nor by power, but by spirit alone … will you survive.” Clearly, it was not by might, nor by power that they prevailed, but by the strength of their enduring spirit.

— Bill Aron, photographer


Jack Pariser was born in 1929 in Poland, south of Krakow. His father sold lumber and his mother sold fabric. When the Nazis began terrorizing Jews in 1939, Jack’s grandfather was beaten unconscious for refusing to walk on the Torah; he died soon after. In early August 1942, Jack’s mother learned that the Germans were planning to murder the town’s Jews the next day, and the family fled, hiding for months in the forest. They were rescued by a Christian man who had worked for Jack’s father and were hidden in a bunker under a woodshed floor. When they eventually moved to another hiding place, they were betrayed and arrested by Polish police. They escaped from jail by cutting through the wall with a penknife. They were again protected by non-Jews until the war ended in 1945.

The family moved to the United States in 1949, and Jack went on to become chief scientist at Hughes Aircraft, where he retired from in 1987.

Eva Brettler (nee Katz) was born in Romania in 1936. She was visiting her grandparents in Hungary in 1944 when the German soldiers took her grandmother and aunt as she hid. When she emerged, she sought out the town rabbi, who reconnected her to her parents. When her father was made to do forced labor, her mother tried to protect young Eva, at one point taking on a false identity as a non-Jew, for which she was later denounced and mother and child were arrested. In September 1944, the two were sent on a forced march to Germany with thousands of Jews; Eva’s mother was killed on the walk, and the young girl tried to understand why her mother didn’t come for her. Eventually, with the help of a fellow prisoner, she arrived at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she was encouraged and protected by women prisoners. With the advance of the Russian army, the Germans moved the prisoners to Bergen-Belsen by cattle car, and Eva survived — and helped others — by luck and ingenuity, squeezing through wire fence to steal scraps of potato peelings from a kitchen refuse area. After liberation, she reunited with her father and they returned to Hungary. In 1956, after the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, Eva fled her country, arriving in the United States in 1957, where she met and married fellow survivor Marten Brettler. In 1983, she earned a degree in psychology from UCLA and became a social worker.

Sally Roisman (nee Zielinski) was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in 1930 to a devoutly religious family. When war broke out, the family had nowhere to flee to, so they survived by bartering jewelry for food. Young Sally was often sent to do the job. In 1942, her father was sent to Auschwitz, and the rest of the family was moved to the ghetto. Eventually her sisters, then Sally, were sent to Graeben, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen. Sally, just 13, survived with the help of her sisters. In January 1945, as the Soviets approached, the Germans sent 250 prisoners on a death march to Germany; Sally was among the 150 to arrive at Bergen-Belsen, where she almost died of typhus. In April 1945, when the British liberated the camp, the sisters learned that their brother had also survived at a nearby camp and two other brothers were at Buchenwald. Their parents, three brothers and two sisters were murdered at Auschwitz.

The remaining six siblings eventually moved to Australia. On a vacation to New York, Sally met her future husband, Steve Roisman. The couple settled in Los Angeles, near Sally’s sister and brother. Today, Sally is an artist, making award-winning paintings of Jewish life before the Holocaust.

Curt Lowens was born in 1925 in East Prussia (now Poland), to a home filled with music and laughter. His father, once a respected lawyer, lost all his clients with the rise of Hitler. The family moved to Berlin in 1936, hoping to find safety in the large Jewish community there, but eventually decided to immigrate to the United States. The day before they were to depart on the SS Veendam from Rotterdam, the Germans invaded Holland, preventing the departure. In June 1943, the family was sent to Westerbork, a transit camp, and then to Auschwitz. However, they were released and immediately went underground. Curt received a false identity and became an active and valiant member of the resistance, under the name “Ben Joosten.”

After the war, in 1947, Curt, his father and stepmother immigrated to the United States; he became an actor, and met Katherine Guilford at the famous Berhoff Studio. He is a respected character actor, working onstage on Broadway and in film and television.

The fear of silence


Robert Geminder was six years old when he heard the dogs barking. He was hiding in a little pantry with his older brother, George. His mother, Bertl, would always tell them to be extra quiet, because you never knew when “the soldiers” would show up.

When the dogs got louder, he figured the German soldiers would soon open the pantry door and find him and his brother, crouching in the corner. He didn’t figure that his mother, with the help of his grandmother, Golde, would think of stacking firewood in front of the pantry to disguise the smell of the boys. But that’s what they did, and it worked. The dogs and their Nazi bosses left, and Robert and his brother could breathe again.

This was in 1941 in Stanislawow, Poland. Two years earlier, at the beginning of World War II, Robert was a 4-year-old living in a nice neighborhood in Bielsko in Southern Poland. In August of 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, Robert’s town was devastated by the blitzkrieg. His father, Mendel “Mano” Geminder, died of a heart attack while trying to barricade a living room window with a mattress. As the troops invaded, his grandfather was executed on the streets, leaving Robert, George, Bertl and Golde homeless and on the run.

They tried to flee to Russia but were turned back. Eventually, they ended up in Stanislawow, in one of 300 Jewish ghettos that the Germans had set up throughout countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania. Before the war, about 3 million Jews lived in Poland, the largest concentration of Jews in the world. It’s estimated that 97 percent of those Jews died.

To this day, Geminder can’t quite fathom how he ended up in the 3 percent that survived.

It helps, though, that this 72-year-old retired engineer and now schoolteacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District has a very sharp memory. As he shares story after story of his many escapes and close calls and plain old suffering (“I was hungry for six years,” he says), it’s clear that there were at least two reasons for his survival.

Extraordinary luck and an amazing mother.

One of his closest calls came on a winter day in 1942 when he was one of 20,000 Jews taken to a cemetery near Stanislawow. There, Jews were greeted by German snipers who shot them and pushed their bodies into mass graves. Geminder and his family were “lucky” enough to be among the first batch of Jews to arrive, which meant they were at the back when the shooting started. By the time the snipers got to them, after mowing down about 16,000 other Jews, it was dark and had started to snow, so the Germans took them back to their ghetto.

They survived there for a couple of years. On those rare times when the young Geminder was not hiding in closets, he remembers seeing “daily hangings and children being killed and thrown against walls.”

One day his mother heard a rumor that the entire ghetto was to be “liquidated.” Her rabbi told her to do whatever she could to “get the children out,” so she came up with an escape plan with the help of a girlfriend. The two women hid the boys under their skirts as they walked out of the ghetto walls, ostensibly to go to their “slave labor” jobs. They never came back. Geminder’s grandmother, the rabbi and everyone else never made it out.

For the next three years, until the end of the war, the Geminder clan — which by now also included Emil Brotfeld, a man who would later become Geminder’s stepfather — wandered throughout Poland living on their wits and courage and hoping only to stay alive.

As he sits now in his modest home in Rancho Palos Verdes, where he has lived for 42 years and where he and his wife Judy are active members of the Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid, Geminder tells me he’s got “maybe a hundred” stories of how they just barely made it.

“One of those things goes wrong,” he says, “and I’m not here talking to you.”

But while he’s got many stories of survival, there’s one story in particular he keeps bringing up: On May 11, Geminder will don a graduation cap and walk with students less than half his age to receive his degree in education from Loyola Marymount University.

He’s especially proud of that story. But why would a man get a teaching degree 48 years after graduating from university with an engineering degree?

He can’t say for sure, but he thinks it has something to do with the fact that he loves talking to people, especially young students. For as long as he can remember, early May has been “his busy period,” when Jewish organizations from across the country recruit Holocaust survivors like Geminder to tell their stories in schools and other venues. So Geminder knows from talking in noisy classrooms, and what job could be better than schoolteacher for someone who loves to talk?

In fact, when you talk to Geminder, the theme of talking and making noise is never too far from his mind. What seems to haunt him most from his childhood as a “wandering survivor” is not the fear of hunger or the fear of death — but the fear of silence. It’s those hundreds of “shhhs” he would hear while spending most of that childhood hiding in silence.

He prayed that if he ever made it out alive, and had children of his own, that he would never be forced to keep them quiet. This is another way of saying that Geminder wasn’t too hard on his three children, who are now grown-up, when they got a little, say, rambunctious.

Sixty-six years after crouching in a pantry in forced silence, Robert Geminder, survivor and proud new graduate, defines his freedom as having no fear to make a little noise.



Last October, VideoJew Jay Firestone taped survivor Eva Brown’s story at her home in David Suissa’s Pico-Robertson hood.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Books: Ruth’s Garden of Secrets


Eva Etzioni-Halevy, a Viennese-born Holocaust survivor, wants everyone to enjoy Bible stories as much as she does.

“At a certain stage in my life I became religious, and I wanted to bring the Bible close to people’s hearts,” said the 72-year-old Israeli academician turned best-selling author.

Etzioni-Halevy has focused her attention on reworking popular biblical stories, making the characters, particularly women, more alive and personable for modern readers.

“The Bible stories are very beautiful but very brief,” Etzioni-Halevy said in a phone interview from her home in Tel Aviv. “They leave a lot unexplained, so you to have to fill out the gaps with your imagination.”

Her most recent book, “The Garden of Ruth,” explores “the smooth, idyllic pastoral story” of Ruth, the widowed Moabite woman who was one of King David’s ancestors and is revered for following her bereaved mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel.

As told in “Megillat Ruth,” she is credited for extraordinary modesty and loyalty. It was Ruth who uttered the famous words “Where you go, I will go.”
In Etzioni-Halevy’s retelling, Ruth’s fictional great-grandchild, Osnath, becomes a detective of sorts when she discovers a scrap of a love letter written to Ruth. Osnath investigates her ancestor’s story, even as she deals with her own problems in becoming the paramour of both King David and his brother.

In the book, Ruth is not just the modest woman of tradition, but rather one with a secret, and her journey back to Israel is not simply and act of devotion, but also a journey to rejoin an unnamed lover.

Etzioni-Halevy’s biblical personalities lose their halos.

“The Bible makes it very clear that the heroes are not angels — it is full of descriptions of the weaknesses of the patriarchs,” she said. “It doesn’t detract from the heroes — but it makes them more human. I think the Bible did us a great favor by not presenting people as saints and angels — and we should follow what the Bible says and not sweep it under the carpet.”

Eva Etzioni-Halevy will be in Los Angeles Feb. 8-12.

Guilt Judo


Rosh Hashanah dinner. My friend — like me, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors — settles into the seat next to his grandfather. The two exchange pleasantries. Then my friend mentions that he’s recently taken his toddler on her first choo-choo ride.

“Trains,” says the grandfather. He splays his hands on the tablecloth, and sighs. “I remember when they put us on a train. This was during the transport from the ghetto to the first work camp.”

The story of the grandfather’s wartime suffering — tragic, inexorable, hypnotic in its familiarity — spins out as the Rosh Hashanah meal is brought to the table, served, and consumed.

“But that’s history,” the grandfather intones at last, as the plates are gathered. “Life is for the young.”

A college buddy of mine — Jewish, though not a descendant of survivors — once observed that his family dynamics follow the rules of a sport: Guilt Judo. The sport requires a range of moves: arm-twists, throws, the art of the pin. Grace and style matter, and it is, of course, imperative to master that most fundamental skill: learning to fall without injury.

“Oh. You’re home. No, it’s just that I thought you’d be home an hour ago. It’s OK, it’s just that the dinner got dry and ruined in the oven. And your uncle went home. He was upset not to see you, though he didn’t want to let on. So tell me, how was your drive?”

To play successfully, my friend maintained, you need to understand the rules. Family obligations pin the needs of single people. The needs of the elders pin the needs of the young (except when said young are infants). Safety pins punctuality.

Q: Why were you late?

A: I wanted to come earlier, but the roads were wet…. I just didn’t want to take the chance.

You get the idea.

The Holocaust pins everything.

Many Holocaust-survivor families — at least the ones I’ve encountered — have powerful vocabulary for everyday troubles. The missed phone call is terrible, as is the stained blouse. The over-seasoned soup? Disaster.

Disaster, in fact, lurks around the most innocent-looking corners. Mountains hang by a thread. I’ve known survivors who are impossibly controlling in day-to-day life — worried about the weather and the canned goods in the pantry; consumed with planning for traffic patterns; beside themselves because you haven’t made reservations, dressed for the cold, put a dust-ruffle on your child’s bed (“It’s hygienic!”). They seem nearly undone by humdrum disorder.

Yet in an emergency they shine. They turn into the heroes you always knew them to be. To varying degrees the same goes, I believe, for us children and grandchildren of survivors. Calm waters may disorient us, yes; small matters may evoke overblown responses. But when you’re raised to anticipate disaster, it’s no big deal when it comes. (The one time when, living in a group house in college, I actually had to say, “Mom, I have to get off the phone, the house is on fire,” my mother barely batted an eye.)

Here is what my mother says about her own mother: She would threaten to jump out the window when she was upset. She would open the door of a moving car and threaten to jump.

Though I didn’t have many years with my grandmother — she died when I was 5 — I adored her. She was a brilliant, artistic, beautiful, rebellious woman who’d lost her community and most of her family in the war. Her hard-won law degree (not a small achievement for a woman in 1930s Poland) was useless in post-war New York.

“She would say she was going to kill herself,” my mother says, “then lock herself in the bathroom for an hour.”

It was only in my 20s that I read Helen Epstein’s “Children of the Holocaust” — a book first published in 1979, with page after page detailing nearly identical behavior. Children standing anxiously outside bathroom doors. Parents enclosed in darkness.

My grandfather told me to have six children. (“They killed one-third of us. We need numbers.”) He said I wasn’t safe in the United States (“We thought we were safe in Poland.”) He counseled me endlessly to remember the stories of the Holocaust. If we grandchildren did not remember no one would. This truism was solemnly echoed in my Jewish school and summer camps. To remember, to remember actively, was to ensure that these things could not happen again. To forget was to let the survivors’ experiences wither away. To forget was to let Hitler’s victims die all over again.

There was never any danger, for children and grandchildren of survivors, of forgetting.

At every Holocaust-related lecture I have attended, there is one. She stands on line for the Q-&-A microphone — it’s usually a she. You can see her coming. Waiting behind distinguished professors, doctoral candidates and a few elderly Holocaust survivors who wearily, politely, offer small corrections of fact to a scattering of interested hums.

She waits on line. Pent up, straining forward, her hair white or perhaps heavily dyed. Something about her dress is often strange — the colors too bright or the blouse askew, the buttons of her sweater misaligned. When at last she reaches the microphone, she seizes upon something one of the speakers has said: the American graduate student’s stray assertion that most refugees traveled a certain route, or perhaps the French professor’s assessment that in the wake of Chirac’s historic speech and the creation of a commission to enact individual restitution, the French government’s rapprochement is, at long last, finished.

“No.” This woman’s hand chops the air. “My uncle traveled this route. My aunt was imprisoned. My cousin traveled a different route so this is not true what you say, that Jews traveled only the Vladivostok route. There was another.”

Often she holds documents, which she reads from in a quavering, accented voice: the aunt’s prison papers. Her voice strains with fury at the betrayal she has just heard.

“Here is the documentation. I brought the documentation. My family was in France. It is not finished.”

The sheaf of pages rattles. Her voice is thick with rage.

This is an academic setting. It is not a place for fury. Of course her specific case may be true, but this is irrelevant to larger historic questions. Speakers are lined up behind her, eyes averted, faces impassive; the session is running late; every extra minute is coming out of the lunch break. Someone rises — everyone has been waiting for someone to rise — and takes the microphone from her: “Thank you. Others are waiting. Your contribution is appreciated.”

I come to think of this woman — this survivor who refuses to be polite — as a Jewish prophet, a wrathful Job or omnipresent, ever-witnessing Elijah. Long after the last of the survivors has died, she will continue to appear at lectures: throwing a wrench into academic discussion, rattling her sheaf of papers, raging with the choking grievances of Lamentations.

I am wrong about this. She will not visit these gatherings eternally. In a few years she’ll be dead.

In college and after, I was periodically asked to speak at Holocaust-commemoration events — I’ve been entrusted with stories. I’ve researched and written fiction and nonfiction about the Holocaust and its aftermath. I’ve felt, all my life, fiercely protective of survivors. And now, as I watch them enter old age, many with a prodigious, stunned contentment at having made it there at all, I understand it’s my job to keep the flame lit.

But does that mean suiting up for a lifetime match of guilt judo?

Perpetuating memory, passing on the stories of the survivors I love: I’ve been committed to these things as long as I can remember. The horrors that were done, and the pure human evil displayed by the doers, need to be known and pondered today and always. But I don’t think that gives me carte blanche to use the Holocaust in any way that happens to feel satisfying. And I don’t believe the point of never again is to render everyone reverent unto silence; to pin everyone else’s suffering to the mat until the end of time.

I refuse to be so intimidated by guilt that I don’t speak up against what I see as misuses of the victims’ memory. I’ve seen Holocaust-education programs that seemed so invested in emphasizing Jewish annihilation that they couldn’t tolerate acknowledging that some Eastern European Jews are still alive. (The March of the Living, an international program that brings teens to visit the Polish concentration camps, initially prohibited Polish Jewish teens from participating.) I’ve met students who can tell you all about Auschwitz but nothing about the pre-genocide lives of the Jews who were murdered there. I’ve been rebuked for my participation in German-Jewish dialogues (“I can’t believe you talk to them”) by a second-generation writer who told me he thinks a 5-year-old German is culpable; I’ve heard the same writer tell audiences, to applause, that Jews have no business living in Europe today. (Isn’t that what Hitler said?)

By birthright, I’m a natural-born black belt. I know the moves. But here is what I now wish I had asked my college friend: What happens to the people who win at guilt judo? If we pin all comers, what then? What is the game’s endpoint?

Like it or not, we’re in this together: descendants of victims, of bystanders, of perpetrators, locked in our holds, straining. Guilt judo isn’t going away any time soon, because the sport was invented for a reason. It’s a wearying but sometimes necessary way of making sure unredressable wrongs are at least acknowledged–making sure you get heard. We all know how to play it, whether recreationally or in self-defense, in our families or in politics.

Of course, this endless contest is not limited to those affected by the Holocaust. Look around and you’ll notice that most of the globe — at least wherever the philosophy of might makes right has evolved into blessed is the lamb–is engrossed in its own intergroup matches. Black vs. Jews (how dare they compare slavery to the Holocaust); Native Americans vs. African Americans (slaughter to slavery); Palestinians vs. Jews (their suffering to ours?).; Catholic vs. Protestant vs. Jew vs. Muslim vs. Hindu. The Hatfields have suffered — but the McCoys have suffered more. You say your population was decimated? Decimated is one-tenth of your population wiped out. Decimated would have been an improvement, compared to what happened to us.

But exactly what — in our homes, in our political conferences — is the point of the game? What is the point of determining who hurts more; whether my tears were more important than yours; whether the Holocaust was worse than slavery? Does it render the opponent’s suffering lesser, unmentionable? Does it guarantee sympathy? Love? Compensation? A better future? Does it work?

We all conduct ourselves as if we believe it does. And sometimes we’re right –sometimes guilt judo is an effective tool for important practical ends. But it’s also, if we’re not careful, poisonous: “You were only in Auschwitz for two weeks. I was there two years. What did you survive? You have no right to call yourself a survivor.”

The person who makes such a declaration is not malevolent; he or she has simply been destroyed in spirit.

May I say something, now, about guilt? I think it has a bad name. American culture presumes guilt is something manipulative, something to be washed away with a good jet of therapy. Guilt, though, is nothing more than a cue that we have a choice to make: Do something to repair the situation, or accept it and move on.

Guilt is a powerful, important road sign. The trick is to remember that it’s not the destination. In truth, it’s a fundamental error to believe that the word for the burden we all carry — we children and grandchildren and neighbors and acquaintances of survivors — is guilt.

I don’t feel guilty about the Holocaust. (I didn’t do it.) Nor do I feel guilty because my family survived. And now that I’m an adult, I no longer feel any guilt about the contrast between my own privileged life and the traumas my family endured. My grandparents wanted me to have a good, safe life; if tragedy should befall me, I know how fervently I’d wish my own children a joyous life. My family’s legacy neither devalues my own experiences, nor does it make me somehow holy. It just means I inherited a history, transmitted by people doing the best they could. So now I need to do the best I can.

What I feel is not guilt — it’s responsibility.

I don’t care who suffered the most. All I care is what we do about the Holocaust’s legacy now, for the generations behind and ahead of us. Getting mired in guilt (mine, yours, theirs) is a waste of all our time. There may be infinite ways to feel guilty about the Holocaust, but the “Your life is good and they died” varieties and the “How dare you compare other people’s suffering to ours” varieties are moral dead ends.

The only one worth sweating over is the one that asks, “What are you going to do about it?”

I have a responsibility to carry on my relatives’ stories; to speak out about anti-Semitism and racism when I encounter them; to do my small part to keep crosscultural dialogue going; to make sure victims’ individuality isn’t lost in thickets of tragedy; to respond actively when I see harm being done, and to avoid posturing and self-importance in the process. I have a responsibility, too, to make sure I enjoy life’s wonders to the fullest. I would be remiss if I neglected to laugh; to make the most of this country’s freedoms; to teach my toddler how to imitate a pterodactyl, talk to the moon and delight in a train ride.

Memory fades. Tomorrow’s children will never know survivors. The responsibilities I bear have no statute of limitations; I’ll always do my best to protect the survivors and their legacy. But that doesn’t change the fact that the history of the Holocaust will grow distant, even abstract. No amount of guilt judo can prevent this. And while strenuously broadcasting that the Holocaust was worse than any other human suffering may be justified, it can’t keep the survivors alive any more than it can undo what happened … and it is going to damage us.

If the memory of the Holocaust recedes, let it not be because I failed to do my part to keep it alive–I’m committed to that labor. But if the Holocaust comes, in some unknown number of generations, to occupy a smaller place on our cultural landscape, I don’t see this as cause for guilt. The point isn’t to pin everyone else ad infinitum, but to carry forward the important pieces of memory so that people see, and understand, and act differently in the world because this happened.

If we can accomplish that, then whenever it comes, the inevitable decrescendo of memory — which some will call abomination and others will call healing — will be, in truth, neither. It will simply be life. It won’t signal that we’ve failed — that we’ve let down the Holocaust’s survivors or, worse, its victims — but rather that we’ve simply, regretfully, tragically, hopefully, moved forward. And that has nothing to do with wrestling each other to the mat, and everything to do with standing up.

Excerpted from “Guilt Judo” by Rachel Kadish from “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson. (Dutton, $24). Copyright (c) 2005 by Rachel Kadish.

Rachel Kadish is the author of “From a Sealed Room,” as well as numerous short stories and essays. She has been a fiction fellow of the NEA and was the recipient of last year’s Koret Foundation Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award. Her new novel, “Love [sic],” will be published by Houghton Mifflin next year.

Spectator – Hard Truths of ‘Hamburg’


Polish journalist Hanna Krall’s “The Woman From Hamburg: And Other True Stories” (Other Press, $19) is based on interviews she did that in some way involved the Holocaust. But when one of the 12 stories was recently featured in The New Yorker’s fiction issue, an accompanying note explained that her writing is indeed factual.

The 60-something Krall was a reporter for Polityka from 1957 to 1981 when martial law was imposed and her publications were banned. Her award-winning books have been translated into 15 languages, (the English version is by Madeline G. Levine). Yet the boundary between fact and fiction can seem blurred in her work, for Krall writes in an unadorned but intimate style, moving in fractured time, creating a rhythm that might resemble contemporary fiction.

“My work as a reporter has taught me that logical stories without riddles and holes in them, in which everything is obvious, tend to be untrue,” Krall wrote in one of the “Hamburg” stories. “And things that cannot be explained in any fashion really do happen.”

In “Portrait With a Bullet in the Jaw,” Blatt is a survivor living in California. Krall accompanies him back to his village, where they try to meet up with the Polish man who had agreed to hide him and two friends and then ordered them killed. Blatt was the only one to escape; the bullet intended to kill him has remained lodged in his jaw for more than 50 years.

When a man asks him why he holds onto the bullet. Blatt realizes that without it, he would “lose everything. If I had it removed, I would lose it, and this way it sits in my jaw and I know that it’s there.”

In another story, a Jewish woman finds refuge with a childless Polish couple in 1943, hiding out in their closet. She becomes pregnant; the wife begins to go out with pillows under her clothing, and then takes the baby out as though it were her own. The Jewish woman slips away, and the couple raise the child. As a young woman, she finds out the truth of her parents and then travels to meet “the woman from Hamburg” who tells her, “I had to agree to everything. I wanted to live.” And then she says, “Don’t ever come here again.”

Krall pays great attention to detail — the ribbons sewn onto a pillow used to create the look of pregnancy, for example.

As she once explained in an interview, “We know the world through details. We never see it in its entirety, only its fragments. And that’s how you should write about the world, making sure you select the fragments that really matter.”