Author Archives: Shoshana Olidort

Shoshana Olidort

About Shoshana Olidort

Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Ha'aretz, Pleiades and The American Book Review, among other publications.

Januz Korczak

Januz Korczak was born Henryk Goldszmit to a secular Jewish family in Warsaw, in 1878 or 1879 (his father failed to register his birth, hence the uncertainty). A physician, educator, and author, he is remembered for his unique attitude toward children, and for his utter dedication to the young Jewish orphans in his care in the Warsaw ghetto.

Doctor & Educator

Korczak received his medical training in Poland, then continued his studies in Germany, France, and England before beginning his work as a physician at the Berson-Bauman Jewish children’s hospital in Warsaw. In 1912 he became the director of the Jewish Orphans’ Home, a position he held until the home’s liquidation by the Nazis in 1942. In addition, Korczak founded the Child Rearing Institute, a home for Catholic children.
januz korczak
These institutions put into practice Korczak’s unique approach to education, which emphasized respect and compassion for children. Both homes featured a self-governing society that included a parliament, court, newspaper, and a system of duties designed to promote law and order, active involvement, and mutual caretaking among the children. Encouraging independence in children was a primary goal for Korczak, who believed that “children shall not be, but rather already are, people.” In both homes, Korczak doted on the children, who, in turn, grew attached to him.
In addition to the two orphanages, Korczak founded a children’s newspaper called Maly Przeglad (The Little Review), as a weekly supplement to the General Zionist daily Nasz Przeglad (Our Review). In accordance with Korczak’s principles, the newspaper was written by and for children, without adult interference.

Korczak’s Writings

As a writer, Korczak produced 24 books, as well as hundreds of additional texts that included works for children, autobiographical writings, essays exploring social and pedagogical issues, and medical articles.

Korczak was respected throughout Poland as an expert on children’s issues, and he fought passionately for children’s rights. Among his most important contributions to the cause are the books The Child’s Right to Respect and How to Love a Child.

The Kasztner Controversy

Reszo Kasztner (also known by the first names Rudolf and Yisrael) was a Transylvanian Jew who rose to fame, and later to infamy, for his role in saving Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Born in 1906 in Cluj, then capital of the province of Transylvania, Kasztner was a Jewish activist who served as editor of the region’s leading Zionist paper, as leader of a Zionist youth group, and later as secretary of the National Jewish Party in the Romanian Parliament. In 1940, he moved to Budapest and became deputy chairman of the Hungarian Zionist Association.

reszo kasztner

Kasztner in radio studio, Israel
(courtesy Kasztner family)

In 1942 Kasztner helped found the Relief and Rescue Committee, which smuggled Jews from Nazi-occupied Slovakia and Poland to a still-neutral Hungary. But in March 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary, and deportations to Auschwitz began almost immediately.

The committee changed its focus, and chose to use means previously unthinkable for Jews during the Holocaust: Kasztner and other members of the committee negotiated directly with the SS in the hopes of saving Hungarian Jewry.

Negotiations with the Enemy

Initially, the committee offered to collect two million dollars in exchange for a cessation of the deportations. When that didn’t work, a new plan was hatched. “The blood for goods bargain,” presented by Adolf Eichmann, stipulated that the deportations would stop if the United States and Britain would supply the Germans with 10,000 trucks and other equipment for use on the eastern front (this deal, too, would never materialize). In the interim, Kasztner devised a new rescue operation.

The Kasztner Train, as it became known, would save members of Hungary’s Jewish community. Kasztner negotiated with SS officer Kurt Becher, who represented SS chief Heinrich Himmler. With the war on the east front escalating, German resources were nearing depletion and Himmler saw this train as a potential bargaining chip that could be used in negotiations with the Western Allies.

The Kasztner Train

Aharon Appelfeld

One of Israel‘s most revered and prolific authors, Aharon Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now Ukraine) in 1932, to assimilated, upper middle class Jews. An only child, Appelfeld enjoyed a warm and happy childhood. But it was to be short lived. In 1939, the Germans invaded the region and his mother was killed. Appelfeld and his father were imprisoned in a Ukrainian concentration camp.

After being separated from his father (the two would meet again, 20 years later, in Israel), the young Appelfeld somehow managed to escape the camp. He spent the next three years hiding in forests, occasionally working for strangers in exchange for shelter and food. Eventually, he became a cook in the Soviet army.
Aharon appelfeld
Once the war ended, Appelfeld joined other survivors as they trekked through Europe towards Italy. From there, he set sail for Palestine, where he arrived as a 14-year-old boy, alone, uneducated, bereft of family, language, and home.

Appelfeld in Israel

Appelfeld’s early years in Israel were difficult. Zionist propaganda at the time insisted that the past was a needless burden that ought to be cast away. “Forget the Diaspora and root yourself in the present!” was a slogan Appelfeld heard often.

Living in a youth village populated largely by young survivors, and then serving in Israel’s military, Appelfeld found that the languages of his youth, primarily the German of his parents and the Yiddish he had picked up from his Orthodox grandparents, as well as his Russian, Ukrainian, Ruthenian, and Romanian, were fast slipping away. And so, he feared, were his memories.

But not all memories can easily be wiped away. In his memoir, The Story of a Life (2003), Appelfeld writes:

“I have forgotten much, even things that were very close to me–places in particular, dates, and the names of people–and yet, I can still sense those days in every part of my body. Whenever it rains, it’s cold, or a fierce wind is blowing, I am taken back to the ghetto, to the camp, or to the forests where I spent many days. Memory, it seems, has deep roots in the body.”

Paul Celan

A poem, Paul Celan (1920-1970) once said “can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the–not always hopeful–belief that, somewhere and sometime, it could wash up on land.” Widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Celan gave voice to the poet’s desire to communicate while recognizing the limitations of poetic expression and of language itself.

Holocaust Poetry in German

paul celanBorn Paul Antschel in 1920, in Czernowitz, Romania, Celan was the only child of German-speaking Jews. While his father gave young Paul a Jewish education, his mother exposed him to the works of the great German poets such as Rilke and Schiller, inspiring in him a deep love for German language and literature.

Both of Celan’s parents died during the Holocaust. Their deaths, particularly his mother’s, would haunt him for the rest of his life. Celan himself spent the latter years of the war as a forced laborer in a Transnistria internment camp.

For Celan, who spoke several languages, German was the language of his mother, as well as that of his mother’s murderers. He reflected on this in a poem written shortly after receiving news of his parents’ death:

“And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time,
the gentle,
the German,
the pain-laden rhyme?”

Despite, or perhaps because of this, Celan chose to address the Holocaust–or, as he once referred to it, “that which happened”–in German.

Celan had already published several poems in German and Romanian by the time Hitler arrived in Romania. However, his work did not garner serious attention until the aftermath of the war, most famously through his ode to concentration camp victims, “Todesfugue.” Literally translated as “Death Fugue,” it begins

Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night
we drink and drink.

The poem would shake the German literary scene in the post-war years. Its visceral imagery spoke to the horrors of the Holocaust and to the sadistic torture of the concentration camps:

he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise up as smoke to the sky

Primo Levi

On April 11, 1987, Primo Levi jumped to his death from the third-floor stairwell of the apartment building in which he had resided as a child, and to which he returned after the Holocaust.

An Italian-Jewish chemist, poet, and author, Levi was renowned for his autobiographical accounts of his experiences during and immediately following World War II. His Survival in Auschwitz was one of the first autobiographical accounts of the Holocaust to be published, a mere three years after the end of the war. But it was in the decades that followed that Levi reached his greatest heights of public acceptance, and the greatest depths of his personal tragedy.

Levi’s suicide came as a shock to many readers. It flew in the face of the principles that Levi had stood for, and seemed to undermine his steadfast commitment to the value of perseverance, which he had stressed repeatedly in his writings as in his life. But close friends and peers were less surprised. Elie Wiesel, also a survivor of Auschwitz, said of Levi that he had in fact died “in Auschwitz, 40 years later.”

The Life of Levi

Primo Levi was born on July 31, 1919, in Turin, Italy. As a child, he was frail and sickly, and was mocked for his small frame and timid disposition. Though socially withdrawn, Levi excelled academically, and was among the last Jews to receive academic degrees before racial laws made it illegal for Jews to study in universities.

While his mother and sister hid during the Holocaust, Levi joined a partisan group. The group was infiltrated by fascists, and Levi was sent to a labor camp in Fossoli, Italy. Within a few weeks the entire camp was transferred to Auschwitz. Levi survived 11 months in Auschwitz and the 10-month journey home that followed. For the rest of his life, he would be consumed by these experiences.

A Nuanced Approach to Evil

As an author, Levi was admired as much for his close attention to detail as for his objective style, which was neither self-pitying nor self-aggrandizing. Levi’s writings took a nuanced approach to a subject that is almost always portrayed in strict terms of good and evil. He saw Auschwitz as a complex system in which the Nazis had devised a process of dehumanization that pitted victims against each other in an animalistic fight for survival. By oppressing their victims, writes Levi, the Nazis themselves became dehumanized, because to act inhumanely, as Levi explains, is to deny one’s own humanity. The Nazis, he wrote, sought “to annihilate us first as men in order to kill us more slowly afterwards.”