September 23, 2006
Primo Levi’s report on Auschwitz has just been published in English for the first time. Gitta Sereny finds its detached tone shockingly powerful
by Primo Levi with Leonardo de Benedetti
Verso, £9.99; 128pp
“MONOWITZ”, 8KM FROM THE main camp, Auchwitz I, was one of the largest of the 30 subsidiary Auschwitz labour camps and the first the Russians reached on January 27, 1945. It had been set up in 1942 to service the huge I. G. Farben synthetic petrol and rubber BUNA factory in Upper Silesia. When the Russians arrived they found 800 sick and dying patients in the primitive sickbay: 500 had succumbed to starvation and disease in the week before liberation; another 200 died within days afterwards. Among the 100 or so still mobile on January 27 were two Italians: 25-year-old graduate chemist, Primo Levi, and 46-year-old physician, Leonardo de Benedetti. The Russians immediately evacuated the appalling Monowitz and moved the survivors to the better-equipped hospital compound in Auschwitz I. After a period of care there, they were taken to transit camps where, with some comforts and comparatively free to wander around outside the perimeters, they awaited the end of the war.
This small book, beautifully translated from the Italian, though a latecomer by 60 years and now published for the first time — as a book and in English — is a valuable addition to our understanding of that much-misrepresented place.
What differentiates this “Auschwitz Report” from hundreds of others in a field frequently overburdened with emotion is the restrained and factual tone in which Levi and his friend de Benedetti, recording the medical details, describe their imprisonment in Auschwitz from February 1944, to January 1945. Levi and de Benedetti reached the transit camp at Katowice, about 50km north of Auschwitz, in March 1945. With de Benedetti taking over at once as camp doctor and Levi his lab assistant, they were to work there in safety and relative contentment for four months.
Not long after their arrival, in April, the Russian Katowice Command commissioned them to write a short report on Monowitz. Reworked by the two friends after their return to Turin on October 19, 1945, it was published a year later in the Turin medical journal Minerva Medica as Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organisation of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews (Auschwitz-Upper Silesia) and is the origin of this version, Levi’s 19th work published in English.
Of course, the world of literature knows Primo Levi well by now. Eight of his writings — above all, perhaps, those generally considered his chefs-d’oeuvre, the extraordinary If This Is a Man, The Truce and The Drowned and the Saved (his last book before he killed himself, in 1987) — are permeated with his inescapable awareness of Auschwitz which, I was told by friends of his, will have contributed to his decision to commit suicide shortly after his mother died.
What is surprising in this book is the degree of detachment in descriptions of events is more gripping — more horrifying, too — than emotion.
We are not spared the horror of reading that the children, the infirm and old from the transport of 650 people that brought Levi and de Benedetti to Auschwitz were taken straight to the gas chambers in the subcamp of Birkenau, leaving only 95 young, able-bodied men and 29 young women to be disinfected, shaved from top to toe, showered and dressed for labour.
Their primary function was hard labour (in the winter, 8am-noon and 12.30pm-4pm; in the summer 6.30am-noon and 1pm-6pm), so the Nazis kept them moderately fed, adequately clothed, with reasonable periods of rest and, more surprising, treated rather than killed when they fell sick. All this was, of course, relative: the food was bad (the polluted water undrinkable), the clothes disgusting, the barracks too crowded to allow real rest, corporal punishment for the least infringement frequent, and illnesses — typhus, diphtheria, skin infections — desperately frightening in case they might last beyond the permitted maximum — two months — before the sufferer was killed.
Perhaps it is surprising that there was care; it is not surprising that there was cruelty. But what stays with us more powerfully than the horrors, when we finish this book, is the memory of friendship, for which Levi had a kind of genius: his friendship with the much older Alberto Dalla Volta, who counselled him and whom he supported with his young energy; with Lorenzo Perone, a voluntary worker at BUNA who, relatively free to move, brought him scraps of food almost daily from outside. Above all, his friendship with “Nardo” de Benedetti — which sustained both of them in the camp and afterwards throughout the rest of their lives in Turin.
In If This Is a Man Primo Levi recalls a rare attempt to talk with one of the guards. It was a freezing day and he had broken an icicle off the window of his barrack to slake the thirst that always plagued prisoners. A guard, “a large heavy man”, he writes, tore the icicle from his hand and shattered it against the building.
“Why/Warum?” Levi, truly puzzled, asked. The man raised his gloved fist as if the prisoner’s mere voice had been an aggression. “Hier gibt’s kein warum/Here there is no why,” he bellowed and used that fist to push the slight figure away from the window. What, reading all of it, is there left to us, too, even after 60 years, than the simple word “Why?” timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst
Testimony about the Holocaust, from a survivor who became a great writer and from a man haunted by six losses.
Reviewed by Elie Wiesel
Sunday, October 8, 2006; T01
By Primo Levi
With Bernardo De Benedetti
Translated from the Italian by Judith Woolf
Verso. 97 pp. $17.95
A Search for Six of Six Million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
HarperCollins. 512 pp. $27.95
Read this review, here
November 12, 2006
By BLAKE ESKIN
My Mother’s Holocaust Story.
By Ann Kirschner.
Illustrated. 287 pp. Free Press. $26.
In 1991, Ann Kirschner’s mother handed her a red cardboard box. It was familiar, the packaging from a game called Spill and Spell that Kirschner remembered from her childhood. But it no longer held the alphabetic dice that she had once hastily arranged into words. Instead, she found letters of another sort, pieces of a lifelong puzzle that until then she had no way of solving.
Born in Poland, Sala Garncarz Kirschner had always avoided spelling out details about the members of her large family who had perished in the Holocaust, or about her own wartime ordeal. But at 67 and about to undergo a triple bypass, Sala passed down a sheaf of papers to her daughter that she had amassed between 1940, when as a teenager she began what she thought would be a six-week stint in a Nazi labor camp, and 1946, when she arrived as a war bride in New York.
Sala, Ann Kirschner discovered, had endured nearly five years in a network of labor camps known as Organization Schmelt. Conditions were brutal, but prisoners could write and receive mail; friends and suitors on the inside passed notes as well. Improbably, Sala emerged at the end of the war, after multiple transfers and countless inspections, not only with her life but with this personal archive. The New York Public Library acquired it for its permanent collection; a film documentary and theatrical adaptation are reported to be in the works.
In “Sala’s Gift,” Kirschner draws on her mother’s papers and on interviews with Sala (whose heart operation was successful) and other survivors. Sala was the youngest of 11 children of a Hebrew teacher in Sosnowiec, a town in southwest Poland that may be familiar to readers of “Maus” as the prewar home of Vladek and Anja Spiegelman. When her sister Raizel received a summons from the Nazis to appear at the railroad station, Sala reported in her place and was taken to Geppersdorf, a camp where the male laborers were put to work building a new highway and the women did domestic chores. At the beginning, Sala kept a diary, chronicling the tasks she performed, the deportations of others and her own battle with despair: “Dear God, will Fridays always worry me so much when I am away from home?”
Sala’s voice soon fades — except for one unmailed note, the letters she sent are lost — so Kirschner quotes extensively from her correspondents, especially Raizel, whose panicked missives chart the family’s escalating impoverishment, degradation and peril through August 1942, when the Nazis emptied Sosnowiec of Jews. Most of the family was shipped off to Auschwitz, but Raizel and another sister were assigned to a Schmelt camp (and also survived). The letters, which had to pass German censors, are not always as dramatic as the sheer fact of their existence, and Kirschner might have told her mother’s story — the story of her imprisonment, but also of her coming-of-age — more effectively had she included fewer.
That said, Raizel’s letters and those from other friends and relatives that Kirschner draws on to tell her mother’s story stand as evidence of humanity in the face of terrible conditions and of the religious faith and ritual that persisted despite the Nazi campaign to eliminate the Jews. And they show that even in labor camps, there were occasions for flirting. “Salusia, were you afraid yesterday during bunk inspection?” wrote Harry Haubenstock, a fellow prisoner who wooed Sala in a note that went unread by the censors. “Always have a coat ready that you can throw over your shoulders quickly; you looked very cute in your pajamas.”
Blake Eskin is the Web editor of The New Yorker and the author of “A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski.”
The Schindlers of the Middle East
Can learning that some Arabs saved Jews from genocide in the 1940s heal wounds today?
Reviewed by Deborah Lipstadt
Sunday, December 10, 2006; BW05
AMONG THE RIGHTEOUS
Lost Stories from the Holocaust's
Long Reach into Arab Lands
By Robert Satloff
PublicAffairs. 251 pp. $26
Robert Satloff is a man with a mission. He believes that if contemporary Arabs knew about Arabs who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, they would reject the Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism that are now so prevalent in the Arab/Muslim world. This book tells of his quest to track down the history of those Arabs' deeds.
Satloff begins by relating the oft-ignored story of how Nazi Germany, Vichy France and fascist Italy exported their anti-Semitic policies to North Africa. They deprived Jews of their civil rights, confiscated their property, forced them to do slave labor and established concentration camps across the Sahara. Had Germany prevailed, North African Jews would have been annihilated.
Many Arabs willingly -- and, according to survivors, gleefully -- played an essential role in this persecution, serving as camp guards, clerks, policemen, foremen, overseers and torturers. Some assisted Germans as they went door to door hunting Jews. One Arab volunteer military unit, after being flown to Berlin for training, fought with the Germans in Tunisia. Some Arabs were so closely aligned with the Nazis that they fled to Germany when the Allies landed.
But Satloff has discovered "noble, selfless deeds" by Arabs. In normal times, such acts would have been routine, but during World War II, routine kindness was in short supply. When Vichy officials offered Algerian Arabs windfall profits if they took over Jewish property, not a single Arab in Algiers participated. (Vichy had no trouble finding willing Frenchmen.) On a Friday in 1941, religious leaders throughout Algiers delivered sermons warning Muslims against participation in schemes to strip Jews of their property. Some Jews were able to get false identity papers at the Grand Mosque in Paris. In 1940, two months after the Germans entered Paris, the Germans warned the head of the mosque to cease assisting Jews. In short, Arabs behaved like many Europeans during the Holocaust: Some helped Jews; others persecuted them or benefited from their persecution; the majority looked the other way.
The most interesting aspect of this story is the reluctance of contemporary Arabs to acknowledge noble past acts. Satloff speculates that Arab attitudes toward Jews are now so hostile that to acknowledge the help given Jews by preceding generations would inflame Middle Eastern passions. It would run counter to the prevailing myths in the Arab world about the Holocaust, which range from crude Holocaust celebration (in which Hitler is a hero) to Holocaust denial.
As Satloff notes, the Holocaust has become part of the high-stakes battle against Israel -- a battle in which history itself has been turned into a weapon. Some of the most virulent Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism today emanate from mainstream figures in the Muslim world. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, alas, is not alone. Typical of the anti-Semitic invective that has become so common in the Arab world was a 2002 article by the editor of Egypt's state-owned al-Ahram, the largest newspaper in the Arab world, entitled "Jewish Matza Is Made from Arab Blood." In popular Arab culture, Satloff observes, Zionism is a more heinous crime than Nazism.
Satloff believes that if Jews and Arabs were less reluctant to address the history of Arabs and the Holocaust, relations could be improved. He faults the custodians of Yad Vashem, the Israeli national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, for not being more energetic in seeking out Arab rescuers. Jews from Arab lands have also been strangely reluctant to address their experiences -- positive and negative -- during the Holocaust.
But Satloff is being a bit naive here. It is strange that the highly respected executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a well-trained historian should have convinced himself that history could serve as an antidote to irrational hatred. Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitic prejudice. The etymology of the word "prejudice" illustrates the futility of Satloff's mission: Prejudice means pre-judging. It amounts to saying, "Don't confuse me with the facts; forget evidence; I have already made up my mind."
The deniers' arguments are a tissue of lies. This was the finding of Judge Charles Gray of England's High Court of Justice, who presided when Holocaust denier David Irving sued this reviewer for libel. He concluded that deniers' claims are "unreal," a "travesty," and "unjustified." Deniers, he found, "pervert" and "distort" history. Rationally telling stories of Arab rescuers, however admirable, will not change the minds of those whose views of history are rooted in unreasoning bigotry.
To be sure, Satloff's efforts to tell the story of Arab behavior -- both complicity and heroism -- during the Holocaust are important. The stories of rescuers of all faiths and ethnicities should be told. Not only is their courage part of the history of the Holocaust, but it also gives the lie to bystanders' claims that nothing could have been done. But these stories should be uncovered for the sake of history, not for the purpose of changing irrational attitudes. Satloff has told an important story and told it well, but he has done so for noble but misguided reasons. ?
Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her most recent book is "History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving."
June 17, 2007
I was 14 when, behind the arranged and starched bedsheets in our home in Israel, I found a red photo album that I had never seen before. It hadn’t been hidden away, but it hadn’t been shown to me either.
There was a black and white picture of two children, a beautiful girl of about eight and a baby boy. I thought the girl looked like me and I asked my father who she was. And, for the first time, he told me about Rutka and Henius, his children with his wife Dorka, who perished in the Holocaust.
Rutka was 14 when she died, exactly my age when I found out about her existence, and Henius was six. That is how I heard about my father’s dead children and about his first life.
It was a huge shock: I knew that my father’s relatives had died during the war but not that my father had had another family. I was raised as an only child with all the psychology that goes with that, so it rather unbalanced my sense of self. I was a respectful Israeli girl and I could tell that it was a delicate subject so I didn’t ask any more questions.
I was lucky that, despite my parents’ experiences of the Holocaust, I was raised in a healthy family with no shadows from the past. I was just like all the other kids at school; the relatives of many of my friends had died in the camps. The Holocaust was all around us, so it was our reality and we lived with that knowledge. About half of the children in my class had been affected by the Holocaust in some way.
It was strange because, although I knew nothing about Rutka and had seen only one picture of her, I felt very close to her – despite the fact that I thought of her as my father’s other daughter rather than as my sister.
I thought about her often as I was growing up. The subject of my father’s other family was never off limits, although we spoke about them rarely, and whenever he and my mother did, they did so with great respect but without emotion.
When I gave birth to my own daughter I named her Ruthie after this sister I had never known. My father smiled when I told him his granddaughter’s name but he would never have asked me to do that. I knew he appreciated the gesture, though.
Forty-three years after finding the photograph – on January 13, 2006, a Friday morning, after I had returned from a business trip to England – I received a phone call from Menachem Lior, a man I had never heard of.
Menachem said he was from Bedzin, a town in Poland, and asked if I was Yaacov Laskier’s daughter. When I acknowledged that I was, he told me that two weeks ear-lier a diary of a girl written during the Holocaust, which had been hidden for 62 years, had been found in Bedzin.
It was the diary of Rutka Laskier and she was being hailed as the new Anne Frank.
That morning I started to get to know my sister Rutka – a talented and beautiful girl, who, while aware she wouldn’t survive, wanted to document those days – following her life and understanding her death.
January 19, 1943:I cannot grasp that it is already 1943, four years since this hell began . . . Every day it’s the same frozen and oppressive boredom. I discovered that the first Laskier family lived in Bedzin, which had a population of about 60,000 people. When the Germans took it over, the Laskiers were moved from their home into one room in a requisitioned apartment in the “open ghetto”.
It was owned by a nonJewish Polish family, the Sapinskas. Stanislawa, the Sapinskas’ 20-year-old daughter, befriended Rutka, who told her about her diary. Stanislawa asked Rutka to hide it in the staircase and said that, after the war, she would look after it for her. She had now revealed the diary after keeping it for 62 years.
I was sent a Xerox of the diary but I couldn’t read the Polish. I asked for a translation in Hebrew, and although it wasn’t very good it still made me weep.
The diary is incredible because it recounts the life of a young girl, with all the usual angst and heartache but with this appalling backdrop. Rutka wrote that you die only once but that she didn’t want to.
She wanted to live, despite the horrors she had seen.
January 26: Micka came with loads of news. Somebody told her that I had cut my hair in order to please Janek, that I had put on stockings for Janek, and so on. That’s a total lie. As if I even cared about him.
January 27: I had my photo taken. I wonder if it looks good.
Although usually I don’t look pretty in photographs, in reality I am very beautiful . . . I’m tall, thin, with pretty nice legs, very thin at the waist, I’ve got elongated hands but ugly, or more accurately, uncared-for fingernails.
I have big black eyes, thick brown eyebrows and long eyelashes, even very long. Black hair, trimmed short and combed back, small but pug nose, nicely outlined lips, snow-white teeth . . . I would like to pour out on paper all the turmoil I am feeling inside, but I’m absolutely incapable. It was about five months later that I travelled to Poland and saw the diary for the first time. It was written in a school notebook. The diary shocked and upset me but it was also incredibly heart-warming because I was finally getting to know my family after all these years. I absolutely fell in love with Rutka.
I think that she looked like a cross between me and my daughter Ruthie. I have blue eyes, whereas Rutka’s were dark, but I am very tall like her. I’m not so sure about our personalities.
While she was very logical she also seemed very artistic. Perhaps she would have been a writer, whereas I am a scientist. I teach at the department of science teaching at the Weizmann Institute in Israel.
Rutka was a very adventurous, modern girl. I loved an entry in the diary where she described going outside just in her pants. It was 1943, so she really was a rebel. She was also very secular, which makes her death at Auschwitz all the more ironic. Her family was not religious at all and she went to a secular school.
February 5:The rope around us is getting tighter and tighter . . . The little faith I used to have has been completely shattered. If God existed, He would have certainly not permitted that human beings be thrown alive into furnaces, and the heads of little toddlers be smashed with the butt of guns or be shoved into sacks and gassed to death. There were so many questions I wanted to ask my father when I read the diary – he had died in 1989 – but I was also glad he did not know about it. He may not have been able to move on from what happened and be able to have a new family.
It could have been how it was for Anne Frank’s father and become an obsession for him. Instead, he was able to marry again and have another child and some more happiness in his life.
February 6:Something has broken in me. When I pass by a German, everything shrinks in me. I don’t know whether it is out of fear or hatred. I would like to torture them, their women and children, who set their doggies on us, to beat and strangle them vigorously . . .
And now another matter. I think my womanhood has awoken in me. That means, yesterday when I was taking a bath and the water stroked my body, I longed for someone’s hands to stroke me . . . I didn’t know what it was, I have never had such sensations until now . . .
Today, I recalled in detail the day of August 12, 1942 [the Aktion, or mass round-up, of Bedzin’s Jews to select some for deportation]. I’ll try to describe that day so that in a few years, of course if I’m not deported, I’ll be able to remember it . . .
It was terribly hot. Then, all of a sudden, it started pouring. The rain didn’t stop . . . Little children were lying on the wet grass, the storm raging above our heads. The policemen beat them ferociously and also shot them . . . I ran away. My heart pounded. I jumped out of a window from the first floor of a small building, and nothing happened to me . . .
Oh, I forgot the most important thing. I saw how a soldier tore a baby, who was only a few months old, out of his mother’s hands and bashed his head against an electricity pylon. The baby’s brain splashed on the wood. The mother went crazy.
I am writing this as if nothing has happened. As if I were in an army experienced in cruelty. But I’m young, I’m 14, and I haven’t seen much in my life, and I’m already so indifferent. Now I am terrified when I see uniforms. I’m turning into an animal waiting to die. One can lose one’s mind thinking about this.
Now to everyday matters: Janek came by this afternoon . . . While we were talking he suddenly blurted out he’d like it very much if he could kiss me. I said “maybe” . . . February 15: I have decided to let Janek kiss me. Eventually, someone will kiss me for the first time, so let it be Janek. I do like him. What I found really shocking was that she was so aware of what was going on. I thought that the Jews didn’t know about Auschwitz or what went on there, but they clearly did.
February 20: I have a feeling that I’m writing for the last time. There is an Aktion in town . . . I must not think about this, so now I’ll start writing about private matters. I was hopelessly foolish about Janek. Now my eyes have been opened . . .
February 24: Micka came over. We went out. We met Jumek and Mietek. Had a stroll with them. On the way we met Janek in his brown suit . . . God, he’s so disgusting!
Things with Mum are getting more and more complicated . . . Lately, I love my parents even more. But sometimes they are so mean to me, it hurts me so much, and then I become hurtful and bad. March 7: I don’t understand why I can’t pour out my heart even on paper. It’s very difficult to self analyse. I’m persuading myself that I’m not in love with Janek, but in the meantime I miss him, and sometimes I suffer because I don’t see him and hear his voice. Sometimes I regret I was so cold towards him. I laughed at him until he bit his lips and bled . . .
I wish I could leave all this behind and run away very far from Janek, Jumek, Mietek, my house and all this greyish rotten-ness. Spread out wings and fly high and far away, hear the wind howling and run wild on my face, feel its breeze. Fly to places where there are no ghettos . . . no pretending. March 8: What’s happening to you, Rutka? You’re incapable of controlling yourself. That’s not good. I must pull myself together and not wet my pillow with tears.
Because of whom or what am I crying? Because of Janek, certainly not. Then because of whom? Probably because of freedom. I am sick and tired of these grey houses, of the steady fear seen on everybody’s faces. This fear clutches on to everyone and doesn’t let go.
Today, probably Nica, Jumek, Janek will come to me. Damn it, Janek again. I decided not to think about him, but thoughts about him keep coming back. Have I really lost my head because of him? I don’t know. Is this what they call love? April 24: I’m very bored. The entire day I’m walking around the room, I have nothing to do. That was the last entry. That month the Laskier family moved into Bedzin’s closed ghetto, and in August my father, his wife, Rutka and Henius were sent to Auschwitz.
The two children and their mother were sent to the gas chamber within 24 hours of arriving. My father was sent to do hard labour and then had to forge currency for the Germans. He did all this with the knowledge of what had happened to his family.
In the last stages of the war, and with the advance of the allied troops, the group he laboured with was sent to the Ebensee camp in Austria for extermination.
The American troops were approaching. The guards and soldiers fled before they had the time to murder all the prisoners. The camp was liberated, and that is how my father survived.
He was a fantastic father, and never compared me to Rutka. Considering we looked so alike, he could have called me her name by mistake, but he never did. I never felt that I was a replacement child.
After the war, Stanislawa Sapin-ska returned to Rutka’s apartment, now empty, dilapidated and plundered. The diary, which comprised 60 handwritten pages, was in the assigned hiding place underneath the double flooring of the staircase. It had survived almost in its entirety.
Stanislawa took the diary and kept it. She read it from time to time, and remembered Rutka. When she turned 80, she told her family about the diary, and her nephew became convinced that it was of historical value and should be given to the municipal museum.
It was handed over to Adam Szydowski, a researcher of Jewish life in Bedzin. He started to investigate Rutka’s life and to look for survivors of the family, which is how he contacted me through Menachem Lior.
During my journey in Rutka’s footsteps I met, among others, Linka Gold, Rutka’s good friend who today lives in London. She told me about their lives before the war and in the ghetto, and how they both managed to escape from one of the first round-ups in Bedzin.
In May 2006 I visited Bedzin together with my husband Avigdor. We followed Rutka and the Laskier family’s footsteps in the streets of Bedzin, and we visited the homes in which the families had lived before the war, and in the ghetto.
I shuffled up the staircase of the house in which the diary had been hidden, and I sat on the bench in the yard where Stanislawa and Rutka used to meet and talk. I saw how the wide world of the adolescent, curious, beautiful and talented Rutka closed in on her until the bitter end.
I am so glad I know this sister now. She wanted the world to read her diary because not only did it document what her life in Poland was like as a Jew during the war, but it was a testimony to the Holocaust, one of the darkest periods in history.
One of the most important things about Rutka’s diary is that it proves the Holocaust happened to all those people who try to deny it. It is living, breathing and murdering in the pages of that diary.
Zahava Scherz was speaking to Jessica Jonzen.
The diary, Rutka’s Notebook, has been published in English by Yad Vashem Publications.
Rutka Laskier, O Diário de Rutka, Sextante, Lisboa, 2007, ISBN-13: 9789898093387, EUR 12,00
==== JERUSALEM POST
It was February 20, 1943, in Nazi-occupied Poland.
The world was closing in on 14-year-old Rutka Laskier, as the Germans forced the Jews of Bedzin to move into a ghetto ahead of their extermination that summer.
"I have a feeling that I am writing for the last time. There is an Aktion in town. I'm not allowed to go out and I'm going crazy, imprisoned in my own house... For a few days, something's in the air... The town is breathlessly waiting in anticipation, and this anticipation is the worst of all.
"I wish it would end already! This torment; this is hell. I try to escape from these thoughts, of the next day, but they keep haunting me like nagging flies," she wrote.
A month earlier, Laskier had started a diary, detailing in moving and chilling detail the final months of her life.
The diary - some 60 handwritten pages in a notebook now yellowed by age - was presented to Yad Vashem on Monday by 89-year-old Stanislawa Sapinska, a childhood friend of Laskier who kept the diary for more than six decades, until her nephew convinced her to hand it over to the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority for safekeeping.
Laskier's family was living in an apartment belonging to the Sapinskas when the two girls first met, Sapinska said, at a time when the ghetto was still not closed off to non-Jews.
The two confided in each other, and Laskier told Sapinska of the diary she was writing without the knowledge of her family.
Laskier was determined that the would survive the war - even if she herself did not - and the two decided that when Laskier was forced out of her home, she would hide the diary underneath the double flooring of a staircase, and that Sapinska would retrieve it and safeguard it.
The Polish woman kept the diary until Monday. Her nephew called it "the history of a nation."
"I cannot grasp that it is already 1943, four years since this hell began," the diary begins, in an entry dated January 19, 1943.
"I would like to pour out on paper all the turmoil I am feeling inside," Laskier wrote on January 27.
A week later, she described her fear of deportation and death.
"The rope around us is getting tighter and tighter. Next month, there should already be a ghetto, a real one, surrounded by walls..." she wrote on February 5.
"Oh good Lord. Well Rutka, you've probably gone completely crazy. You are calling upon God as if he exists. The little faith I used to have has been completely shattered. If God existed, he would have certainly not have permitted that human beings be thrown alive into furnaces, and the heads of little toddlers be smashed with butt of guns or be shoved into sacks and gassed to death...
"Those who haven't seen this would never believe it. But it's not a myth; it's the truth... This is already absurd; it's nothing, as long as there won't be Auschwitz."
The next entry, on February 6, 1943, detailed an Aktion, a German selection of people to be taken to the camps.
"Then I looked beyond the fence and I saw soldiers with machine guns aimed at the square in case someone tried to escape - how could you possible escape from here? People fainted, children cried. In short, Judgment Day.
"'1' meant returning home, '1a' meant going to labor... '2' meant going for further inspection, and '3' meant deportation, in other words, death," she wrote.
"Oh, I forgot the most important thing. I saw how a soldier tore a baby, who was only a few months [old], out of his mother's hands and bashed his head against an electric pylon. The baby's brain splashed on the wood. The mother went crazy. I am writing this as if nothing has happened. As if I were in an army experienced in cruelty. But I'm young, I'm 14 and I haven't seen much in life," she continued.
The next entry, on February 15, contained one of several passages detailing a short-lived romance. "I haven't written in a while. And there was nothing to write about. Maybe just the fact that the Germans have retreated on the Eastern Front, which may signal the nearing of the end of the war. I'm only afraid that we Jews will be finished beforehand."
In one of her final entries, Laskier wrote: If only I could say, it's over, you die only once... But I can't, because despite all these atrocities I want to live, and wait for the following day."
The last entry, on April 24, 1943, came just before her family moved into the ghetto.
In August 1943, Laskier and her family were deported to Auschwitz. Rutka Laskier, along with her brother and mother, were sent to the gas chambers as soon as they arrived
January 20, 2008
By ALANA NEWHOUSE
INTO THE TUNNEL
The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943.
By Götz Aly.
Translated by Ann Millin.
Illustrated. 121 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $20.
In 2003, the German Remembrance Foundation awarded the historian Götz Aly the Marion Samuel Prize, which commemorates the one million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis. It was named for a young victim whose name was chosen at random from the lists of the dead, a gesture meant to underscore the tragic anonymity of the Holocaust’s casualties. In accepting the tribute, Aly set out on a mission to uncover the life of Marion Samuel, to rescue her at least from obscurity.
The idea was inspired, though perhaps not surprising, given Aly’s background. He is the author of “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State,” in which he argued that ordinary Germans supported the Nazi regime not because they were inherently anti-
Semitic, or blinded by Hitler’s charisma, but for the relatively mundane reason that the Reich’s policies raised their standard of living. To buttress his argument, Aly mined a staggering amount of data — a method he uses again to great effect in “Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943.” In his quest to learn about Marion, who was 11 when she was killed, Aly draws on every imaginable source: He places an article in a German newspaper and scours municipal records, old Berlin telephone books and even switchboard.com — to dig up what is quite probably every recorded word and artifact relating to Marion and her family. He finds exact schedules for the train that transported several of Marion’s relatives to their deaths, and discovers that her own deportation cost six and a half Reich pennies per mile. Among other sources, this slim volume reproduces the Gestapo decree concerning the expropriation of the Samuel family’s property and the listing of Marion’s name in the German national archive’s memorial book of murdered German Jews.
The sheer number of these rich sources comes in strange contrast to the brevity and ordinariness of Marion Samuel’s life. She was born in 1931 in Arnswalde, 100 miles northeast of Berlin in what is now Poland, the only child of a shopkeeper and his wife. When Nazi sympathy in the town increased, the Samuels moved to Berlin, where (like many Jews) they hoped the anonymity afforded by a large city might let them skirt danger. Sadly, Aly writes, this move often backfired. When the deportations began, new arrivals like the Samuels “lacked, as a rule, the contacts who could give timely warnings and make it possible to go into hiding.”
Here and elsewhere, Aly extrapolates from his knowledge of the forces at work in families like the Samuels and in places like those where they found themselves. But the historian also manages to turn up several swatches from his subject’s particular life. He receives a poignant letter from Hilma Krüger, one of Marion’s former classmates, who remembers meeting her friend in the street in May 1938: “Suddenly Marion began to cry, and said that she was frightened. I was surprised, and then she said, ‘People go into a tunnel in a mountain, and along the way there is a great hole and they all fall in and disappear.’”
In a February 1943 roundup, Marion was separated from her family and held in a building with other children awaiting transport to their deaths. The separation lasted only three days, Aly informs us, and here the historian’s meticulousness turns up a heartbreaking detail: “Because Ernst Samuel filled out Marion’s property declaration form, we know that they were reunited at this collection point, and that she did not make her final trip alone.” Marion died one week later, on March 4, 1943, in Auschwitz.
“Into the Tunnel” is more an exercise in historical inquiry than a rich narrative of a girl’s life. But Aly can hardly be blamed for this. Marion Samuel did not live long enough, or visibly enough, to leave behind more clues.
Alana Newhouse is the arts and culture editor at The Forward.
On 'The War After' : Anne Karpf
write another book like
After: Living with the Holocaust
- of this, I’m certain. My family memoir recounts the experiences of my parents,
Natalia and Josef, in Poland before and during the war, and later in England.
But it’s also my own, intensely personal story, about the impact of the
Holocaust on the generations born after. Those who liked it (not by any means
everyone) loved it with a passion. People passed it to family members like
samizdat, to open up conversations about subjects hitherto taboo. And they wrote
me powerful letters - over 200 of them - detailing how grief and loss had been
secreted in their own post-Holocaust families.
There had been other books about and by children of survivors about the legacy of their parents’ wartime lives - notably Helen Epstein’s 1979 Children of the Holocaust - but The War After looked specifically at the experience of the so-called second generation in Britain. My father, who survived a series of increasingly brutal Russian labour camps, lost 120 members of his family (who knew that families could have so many members to lose?). My mother, a concert pianist and soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic at 18, arrived in Plaszow camp on the birthday of the commandant Amon Goeth and was summoned to play at his birthday party. He was so moved that he pronounced ‘Sie soll leben’ (‘She shall live’). Surviving a transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau, she was liberated by the Russians, met my father, moved to Britain, had a family and resumed her career.
Put like this it’s a happy ending, but I wrote The War After to show that there are no happy endings to the Holocaust. The book charts my struggle as an adult to do what my friends and peers had done so effortlessly as teenagers in the 1960s - separate from their parents. Instead, like other children who grew up in families with a history of persecution and loss, I felt I had to keep them alive, and when I eventually stuttered towards rebellion it produced an epic crisis, both for me and us. These consequences of the intergenerational transmission of grief, it turned out, were shared by many, perhaps the majority, of those who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust: in my book I look (sometimes critically) at the literature on the psycho-social effects of the Holocaust on the second generation.
I won’t write another book like The War After because I don’t write now as intimately as I clearly needed to then. But also because of what the passage of time has done to the Holocaust. When The War After was first published in 1996, there wasn’t yet a plethora of books and memoirs on the subject. I welcomed the belated public debate stoked by the 1994 release of Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, and the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995: it meant that families like mine no longer felt the burden of historical memory as ours alone. Now, however, we’re so saturated with the Holocaust, and with idealised images of survivors whose experience is sometimes misappropriated by others for their own political and social reasons, that I’m not sure that our obsession with the Holocaust is altogether healthy.
And yet The War After tells a story that resonated so deeply with readers, many of whom had nothing to do with the Holocaust, that I’m delighted to see it back in print. And with so many violent conflicts still raging around the world, its account of the impact of trauma on the next generation remains, I fear, all too topical.
The War After: Living with the Holocaust
Jul 21, 1996
This is a vibrantly live memoir about growing up in the leaden penumbra of a Holocaust home. Survivors of the Holocaust are all, to some degree, emotional dinosaurs: for the Jews whose early lives were touched by World War II, nothing that came afterwards could ever compare, in fear and degradation, with what they had suffered. "Depressed, what's depressed?" Anne Karpf's father would demand if one of her friends was feeling low. "Her life isn't endangered, she has enough to eat."
Karpf's father, a Polish Jew, had escaped from a camp on the Volga River; her mother, a concert pianist and soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic when she was just 18, was a survivor of camps at Auschwitz and at Plaszow where Commandant Amon Goeth - immortalised in Schindler's List - summoned her to play at his birthday party and then commuted her death sentence. They came to Britain as young marrieds in 1947.
Psychiatric studies on the emotional problems of children adjusting after the war were published in scientific journals in Britain, Germany and the US as early as 1945. But it wasn't until the last decade that the children of Holocaust survivors began actively to seek each other out and exchange experiences. Through four decades they had felt a block on giving vent to emotion, since they were made to feel that, if they had ready meals and warm clothing, they were protected against all possible suffering. This emotional silence was imposed by a mixture of embarrassment on the part of outsiders and self-censorship by the Jews themselves.
The slightest shred of anger or implied criticism was, in the Karpf home, completely illegitimate. Karpf and her sister were raised on "stories of the fractures in our parents' lives", and their own baby psyches became cracked and anxious as a result. By the time she was a teenager, Anne's repertoire of emotions had become so minimal that when, much later, she went into therapy, she had to ask the therapist, "What is a feeling?"
Making something alive out of that blockage is the journey Karpf describes, with a depth matched only by the clarity with which she expresses messy emotions, and the talent of her writing. But Karpf's sublimation of her deepest feelings is not only about protecting her parents. One of the most disturbing chapters is about the attitude prevalent in Britain even after the war, when the worst of what the Nazis had done was public knowledge. The Britain in which the Karpfs found themselves did not want to hear about their experiences, or seem to care.
A more-or-less loudly voiced fear of anti-Semitism was one of the principal motives behind Britain's restrictive immigration policy for Jews from a Germany that was becoming ever more dangerous in the 1930s. Even many educated Britons felt that the Jews were responsible for anti-Semitism, and the more of them that were allowed into the country, the worse it would get. Only 11,000 Jewish refugees were permitted to enter Britain in the five years before Kristallnacht, in 1938, and then mostly on a temporary basis. Those who were allowed to stay were advised to keep their heads down, and, as a helpful little booklet suggested at the time, "Do not criticise any government regulation or the way things are done over here". Small wonder that the Karpf children sat on their feelings.
Anne Karpf's need to protect her parents took precedence over almost all other impulses, stunting her development until finally her skin began to articulate some of her buried anger and distress, and the eczema she had suffered as a baby returned in her mid-thirties. With the help of long-term psychoanalysis she began to explore her experiences. She met the children of other Holocaust survivors, and eventually, with the birth of her own child, grew proud of her heritage. At times brutally sad, The War After is also a rich and funny exploration of the struggle between a child and her parents.
n.º 203 - December 1996
Silvia Rodgers Andre Deutsch £17.99
Anne Karpf Heinemann £16.99
In broad terms these two books cover the same ground the effect of being the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors. This fact dominates their growing up, Anne Karpf from birth after her parents succeeded in coming to England from post-war Poland where they had miraculously survived the death camps, Silvia Rodgers from the time her family escaped to England from Germany six months before the war when Silvia was 11.
Their families, however, were very different. Silvia's mother was an active Communist in Poland and was forced to flee, with only the clothes she was wearing, to Germany in the early 1920s. She married another Polish Jewish refugee who was a tailor, and converted him to Communism.
Silvia's life was totally dominated and shaped by her mother's political fervour her pro-Russian Communism, her atheism, her feminism, her abjuring of Jewish ethnicity and the Yiddish language till Hitler forced the issue. She was therefore always on the periphery: a Polish child in the German capital, a Communist child in the Nazi state, a Jewish child in a German school, then an atheist child in a Jewish Orthodox school, and then a refugee child in England.
Later she married Bill Rodgers, a right wing Labour MP and cabinet minister, one of the 'Gang of Four' who broke from Labour and founded the SDP in 1981. Her politics followed the people she lived with Communist till she married, then right wing Labour, then SDP.
The book charts at length her early life in Germany, through the Weimar Republic, then the tightening up after Hitler took power in 1933. She shows the growth of active and humiliating anti-Semitism as the 1930s wore on, and the very dangerous time after the Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, when gangs of Nazi hooligans smashed every Jewish building and every Jew they could.
Silvia's father escaped by pure luck: his name, Schulman, could be taken to be non-Jewish German, and the porter (a Socialist Party member) could use this to say, 'No Jews here', and thus save his life. He fled to England and got permission to have his family with him just in time.
Anne Karpf's parents were very different. Her father was a prosperous businessman living in a Polish village and her mother was a very accomplished pianist. This gift saved her life when she was asked to entertain the guests at a birthday party for Amon Goeth, the concentration camp commandant. He liked her playing. This was December 1943, at the height of the slaughter. Yet 120 of the father's family alone were killed.
The survivors of the Holocaust in general felt guilty to be alive when all their family and friends were horribly butchered, and this guilt communicated itself to their children. Anne Karpf devotes much space to the psychological difficulties of survivors' children.
Both authors pull no punches when it comes to exposing the callous disregard of the British establishment for the plight of the Holocaust victims and survivors.
Silvia Rodgers' exposure of the unwillingness of the government to allow Jewish survivors to enter Britain and their spurious excuse of too many immigrant Jews arousing anti-Semitism is taken up powerfully in Anne Karpf's book. She devotes a sizeable section to a history of anti-Semitism in Britain and official callousness to the Holocaust of which they claimed, falsely, to be ignorant.
She also shows how the official Jewish organisations led by the Jewish Board of Guardians, presided over by a small group of wealthy families, the Rothschilds, Mocattas, Montefiores didn't lift a finger to assist Jewish victims to enter Britain.
Though these two books do not deal in any way with the causes of the Holocaust or ways to prevent a repeat, that is not the brief they set themselves. They do provide a wealth of detail and insight into the effects of the Holocaust on the few survivors and their families, which is enlightening and potentially useful, particularly in view of the subsequent trail of wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Another review of this book, here
FLIGHT FROM THE REICH: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946
By Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt
Norton, 496 pp., illustrated, $35
Through the "kindertransport" program organized by international aid groups, some 530 Jewish children from Vienna arrived in England as refugees in December 1938.
Among them was the teenage Kitty Pistol who by the following summer was able to arrange a guarantee of employment that would allow her mother to join her. But by September 1939 it was too late.
"If the war would have started two weeks later, my mother would have made it," she wrote. When, after the war, Pistol returned to Vienna, she found her mother's trunk, packed for the hoped-for flight to England, which had been hidden with non-Jewish friends.
"She did not find her mother," write the authors of "Flight From the Reich," with affecting understatement.
And as Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt write at one point, escape was often a matter of timing, fortuitous circumstances - and of luck.
Dwork is director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, and Van Pelt, professor at University of Waterloo in Canada. In this, their third collaboration on Holocaust subjects, they have crafted a powerful narrative that is both a well-documented account of Nazi anti-Semitic policies - and of the halting challenges to them by the Western democracies - and emotionally charged stories of personal loss and thwarted hopes.
By focusing on the refugees - why some successfully escaped what the authors have called the Nazi "machinery of death," while others either failed, or waited until it was too late - they provide a new dimension to the Holocaust narrative.
There were the schemes to find resettlement areas in Africa and South America - and one backed by the German government involving the French colony of Madagascar.
And there were the letters, too often bearing news of deaths or deportations - which, in time, would amount to the same thing. And well into the early 1940s, the Germans created postcards to be sent home from the concentration camps announcing their safe arrival and good conditions. They were, the authors write, "markers of death."
The authors put the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust between five and six million, noting that by late 1943, the number being killed had dropped to about 500,000 a year. The Germans, they write, "had run out of Jews to kill."
There is no firm figure of how many escaped, but among them were the 10,000 children brought to Britain by the kindertransports, and the groups of children who arrived, unescorted, in Switzerland - as well as the young adults and families who made their way to Palestine.
Dwork and Van Pelt carry their narrative into the postwar years.
Jewish observers, they write, realized that the European Jewish communities "had suffered total annihilation." As one observer wrote, "there is no sound stock" in all the German-occupied countries "upon which to graft the stricken members" who had survived.
Another stirring account of the will to survive as annihilation loomed is provided by "Who Will Write Our History?" which details the creation of the Oyneg Shabbes, the secret archives of the Warsaw Ghetto, and its rediscovery after the war.
The account, by Samuel D. Kassow, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, was originally published last year to little notice by Indiana University Press. It has now been republished (Vintage, paperback, $16.95) for the wider audience it fully deserves.
Some 450,000 Jews were forced into the four-square kilometer Warsaw Ghetto during the fall of 1940. After deaths from hunger and deportations to the camps, only some 60,000 were left when the Jewish underground launched a bold but hopeless rising in April 1943.
During those years, interviews were recorded and documents were collected by researchers, many of them teenagers, under the direction of historian Emanuel Ringelbaum.
Only three of those researchers survived the war and Kassow credits one of them, Rachel Auerbach, with leading the search to find the archives that had been buried inside the ghetto.
As David Graber, a Jewish teenager working on the archives project wrote in August 1942, "What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground."
Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.
CLARA’S WAR: One Girl’s Story of Survival
By Clara Kramer
with Stephen Glantz
Ecco, 339 pp., illustrated
‘Clara’s War,’’ a true account of a Jewish family hidden in Poland during World War II, has neither the charm of Anne Frank’s diary, nor the gravitas of Elie Wiesel’s novels, nor the penetrating prose of Primo Levi’s memoirs. But it is a book that must be read.
In spite of - or rather because of - its unadorned, artless voice, this grim story of horror and courage is relentlessly gripping. And it features the most unlikely of heroes: Valentin Beck, the manipulative, reckless, ethnically German Pole locally famous for his drunkenness, philandering, and anti-Semitism, who repeatedly risks his life to succor the family secreted in a makeshift bunker beneath his house. Simultaneously, he puts his charges in danger by carrying on an affair with one of the Jews and socializing almost nightly with the most dangerous of Nazis. His wild valor alone is reason enough to read this book.
When Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with Stalin in June 1941 and invaded the Soviet Union, the Holocaust began for 15-year-old Clara Schwartz (now Kramer), her family, and the other Jews in Zolkiew, in eastern Poland. “Clara’s War,’’ which draws largely from a diary kept by Clara, describes how she and her family and a few other Jews are taken in by the Becks, the family’s former housekeeper and her husband.
Told from a child’s point of view, the ravaging of Zolkiew is both familiar and freshly horrifying:
When the synagogue was burned but the walls remained standing, “the SS officer became furious and ordered his men to throw the lamenting Jews on the embers to feed the fire.’’
“My dear friend, Helena Freymann, was killed one day as she walked out of her door and down the street. A Pole . . . who had known her family for years, pointed her out to a soldier who was not even SS. He simply took out his pistol and shot her as if he were lighting a cigarette.’’
“Carriages loaded with dead bodies were taken to the cemetery. . . . [F]amily members . . . had been killed while trying to run. Or else they had been shot trying to get up when told to kneel in the centre of town. Or they had been shot while jumping off the trains.’’
In the bunker below Herr Beck’s house, there is just enough space to squat and lie down in the dark, sometimes freezing, sometimes roasting hole. They endure near starvation, prickly heat, diarrhea, and countless intrusions of terror, including a house fire and frequent social visits by the Nazis, who drink with their “friend’’ Beck. During the fire, Clara’s sister Mania runs from the house. She is identified as a Jew by a boy she knows. He receives a reward of a few quarts of vodka. Mania is shot dead.
One of the most poignant things about the book is its absence of analysis. Clara and her family, ordinary people, throw up their hands like Job and cry: How could God let this happen? Why did gentile Poles who lived peacefully with their Jewish neighbors cheerfully betray them? How could so many Germans kill and then later go to the opera?
Numberless scholars have attempted to get at the roots of this ancient hatred. But the reign of irrationality that periodically performs a coup d’etat on passive populations is still and always impossible to fathom. “Clara’s War’’ doesn’t attempt to ponder the imponderable. “Clara’s War’’ is about Jews who hide the Torah when they themselves go into hiding and bring it back into the light when they can. It’s about getting on and trusting in God, not understanding.
Alec Solomita is a writer living in Somerville.
This article appeared in the April 19, 2010 edition of The Nation.