Tag Archives: holocaust literature

Bringing to Light Quiet Heroism

50-childrenI feel extremely fortunate to have been able to tell this very dramatic, and heretofore almost completely unknown, Holocaust rescue story that came to a successful conclusion 75 years ago this month.

I say that it was “almost” completely unknown because, in a sense, the story of Gil and Eleanor Kraus, the Philadelphia Jewish couple who carried out the rescue mission of fifty children from Vienna, was basically hiding in plain sight for many of those 75 years.

My wife, Liz Perle, is one of four grandchildren of the Krauses—and she had long been aware, at least generally, of what her grandparents had done in the spring of 1939. More importantly, in terms of my being able to piece together this extraordinary story, Eleanor Kraus had typed out an account of the mission some years after it had taken place. Liz had an onionskin copy of her grandmother’s private memoir—and that remarkable document provided me with an essential blueprint for writing my book.

What I really loved about this project was having the opportunity to dig so much deeper into this story, considerably beyond Eleanor’s personal account. The main focus of the story, of course, remains on this brave and courageous couple who overcame immense obstacles, both in the United States and in Nazi Germany, in their effort to save a group of children and bring them to safety in America.

But doing justice to the quiet heroism of the Krauses also required me to tell a much broader story about cultural, social, and political conditions that existed throughout the 1930s both in America and in Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany. In order to accomplish this, my research quite literally took me around the world—from Philadelphia and Washington, DC, to Vienna and Berlin—and eventually to Jerusalem. That’s where I came across an astonishing stash of documents (originally located in Vienna but moved to Israel in the 1950s) that provided even more graphic proof of Gil and Eleanor’s heroic actions. Tucked away in a set of dusty archives at Hebrew University were thousands of pages of family questionnaires filled out by Jewish families in Vienna who, by the late 1930s, had become increasingly desperate to escape from Hitler’s grasp. Included among those documents were the families with children hoping to be chosen by the Krauses for the journey to America.

While sifting through this trove of documents, I came across a two-page, handwritten list of the fifty children eventually selected by the Krauses. My wife, who had joined me on the research trip, held up those pages in her hand and instantly recognized her grandmother’s distinctively elegant handwriting. It was a moment of astonishing discovery and an intensely personal family connection that I will never forget.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Jews and the Second World War: A Reading List

gwen-edelmanI started reading about the fate of the Jews during the Second World War when I was eleven. No one I knew ever mentioned the subject, but I just became obsessed and have continued to read about it ever since.

One reading experience I particularly remember is “Fragments” by Benjamin Wilkomirski. Because I had already read so many memoirs by Jews about their experiences during the war, I immediately thought something was wrong. All the memoirs I had read before were characterized by very clear recall of details, but this memoir instead was vague and floating. While I thought it was a good book, something just didn’t ring true.  Offering him the benefit of the doubt, I reminded myself that Wilkomirski was only two years old during the Holocaust and that his memories might be floating in gauze like this because of his young age. I had never read a memoir by someone that young. But, as you probably know, it turned out he had invented the whole thing. Unfortunately, I was not surprised at all. Rather, I was only surprised that he had not called it a novel. And a very good and imaginative one, too.

Here is a list of ten books which are, for me, some of the most powerful and most meaningful books concerning (in most, but not all cases) the fate of the Jews during The Second World War:

Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny
A portrait of Franz Stangel, commandant of Treblinka, based on extensive interviews by one of the outstanding journalists of our time.

Kaputt: A Novel by Curzio Malaparte
A stingingly irreverent, cruel, and brilliant look at the war in some of the places where Malaparte, a diplomat, spent those years: Russia, Poland, Finland, Romania.

The Skin: A Novel by Curzio Malaparte
The tragic and corrupt carnival of life in Naples from 1943 until the end of the war.

Life and Fate: A Novel by Vasily Grossman
An extraordinary and epic novel with a huge cast of Russian and German characters centered around the battle of Stalingrad. One of the
great novels of the twentieth century.

The General of the Dead Army: A Novel by Ismail Kadare
A brilliant novel by one of the greatest contemporary writers. Set in Albania 20 years after the war, the story follows an Italian general and an Italian priest to Albania where they are to retrieve and repatriate the bones of Italian soldiers who died during the Italian occupation of Albania.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet: A Novel by Saul Bellow
Far-ranging meditations by a Holocaust survivor now living in New York.

History: A Novel by Elsa Morante
One afternoon in 1941 in Rome, an Italian woman is raped by a German soldier and gives birth to a boy. The story of this strange boy and his older brother in wartime Rome, and the woman’s determination that her two boys survive is the drama of ordinary people caught up in a horrific war with which they they had nothing to do.

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
In which Levi, himself a chemist, discovers that a German chemist with whom he has been corresponding and with whom he has placed an order, had been the chief of a laboratory in Auschwitz where Levi himself had been a prisoner.

The Holocaust Kingdom by Alexander Donat 
One of the best non-fiction accounts of day-to-day existence during the Holocaust. Donat and his wife and child were in the Warsaw Ghetto. He and his wife were later deported to nine different death camps.

Words To Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto edited by Michal Grynberg
A collective memoir by many voices of experiences of the Warsaw Ghetto. Extremely powerful and immediate accounts.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 28, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Ghetto in the Middle of a City

warsaw-ghetto-mapCentral Park, in the middle of the city of New York, is 843 acres. The Warsaw Ghetto, in the middle of the city of Warsaw, was 832 acres.

One day you are walking down Fifth Avenue. You see stone masons slathering mortar on red bricks. A wall is going up. Around Central Park? How strange. There’s never been a wall around Central Park before. You ask one of the masons why they’re building a wall. He shrugs. He’s been told to build it. That’s all. He doesn’t know what it’s for. Another mason nearby says the same. What could it be for? To keep whom in and whom out? It’s all exceedingly strange.

This has not happened in New York City. But it did happen in Warsaw in November of 1940. From one day to the next, a six foot high red brick wall began to go up around the poorest part of the city. Several weeks later, signs appeared all over Warsaw. Jews were to move to the enclosed space behind the walls within two weeks, under pain of death. Jews from all walks of life were suddenly uprooted and forced to move to the poorest, most dilapidated part of town. In the space of a few weeks, they had to find an apartment, pack up all their worldly belongings on carts and wagons, and move into their new quarters where they found themselves squeezed into tenement apartments with other families. In the beginning there were visitors. Non-Jews going to say goodbye to friends, relatives, employers…

Soon the pieces of the mysterious walls were connected. There were twenty-three gates with armed guards at each one. And then the gates closed. In the middle of the city, a new universe came into being, shut off from the old. Inside there was no food. Because the caloric allotment for Jews was 86 calories a day, the smuggling between the two sides of the wall began immediately. The guards were paid off, the Poles on the “Aryan side” were paid. And the business of surviving began.

There are no apartment buildings and no streets in Central Park. But imagine that there were. Imagine that inside Central Park, there are only Jews. Invisible behind the walls. The life of the city goes on all around the walls. And inside? What is happening? You are walking down Fifth Avenue near the six foot high wall. As you pass one of the gates, you see Jewish laborers being marched out to work outside the ghetto. From your side of the wall you can see them throwing food and goods over the wall. You can see them burrowing through holes that have been carved out beneath the wall and in the middle of the wall. The smuggling is never ending—both from the ghetto side and the “Aryan side.” Bags of kasha and potatoes and sugar are thrown into the ghetto. Leather goods and textiles are thrown back. Contraband is brought through the gates in wagons or by smugglers, many of them children.

You can see them shooting Jews at the gate, shooting at Jews attempting to scale the wall. From inside you hear gunshots, shouts, screams. A reign of terror. And you can hear it, you can smell it. Another universe is in motion. The shooting, the screaming, the stench of blood and filth and corpses. The starvation. The trains that leave several times a day packed with Jews headed for Treblinka… On the other side of the wall, there’s a war going on. It’s not exactly peacetime outside the ghetto. But this is another world. It’s not far away, it’s not on the outskirts of town. It’s a walled kingdom of death right in the midst of the city.

This wasn’t Central Park, of course. This was Warsaw in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943…

You cannot be oblivious to what’s going on inside those walls. Or can you?

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Burden of Silence

leonard.rosenI was born in Baltimore in 1954, nine years after the Shoah, one of signature events of the 20th—or any—century. That I recall, throughout my early childhood no one in my community spoke much about it.

During the Israeli Bond drives of those years, the rabbi would sometimes invoke a gruesome image or two—but nothing approaching a coherent account of continent-wide anti-Semitism or the camps. We had no discussions at the dinner table or in Hebrew School and certainly none in the public school classroom. At the Jewish Community Center where I played basketball, I saw men with numbers tattooed on their forearms. I couldn’t approach these men: there was no context for that and certainly no invitation.

I was only six years old when the English translations of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1959) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) became available in America. Later, having read them, I didn’t understand why they hadn’t moved my parents and teachers to a frank conversation of the war. Perhaps the memories were too near and raw; perhaps adults through their silence believed they were protecting us. Not even the survivors I knew, the parents of my friends, would speak. “Why remember bad times?” they’d say when the children asked.

Popular culture filled the void, and not particularly well. The Guns of Navarone (1961) pitted allied commandos against generic bad guys who happened to wear German uniforms. The Great Escape (1963) offered a mostly benign account of a POW camp. True, German soldiers gunned down the majority of those who attempted escape, but the story was about soldiers killing other soldiers who wouldn’t sit still and listen—wouldn’t play by the rules of war. In a sense, the never-say-quit attitude of the British and Yank prisoners invited the killing. There was a grim logic to that and a certain decorum and courtesy in the camp, call it a baseline respect for the human that was never shown to the prisoners of labor camps or death factories. Why didn’t the movies portray that? In 1965, Hogan’s Heroes gave us a comedy (!) set in a POW camp, its storylines variations on the mischievous play that duped the ever-clumsy German command. No one, it seemed, neither the entertainment industry nor educators, dared to take on the horror of industrial-scale murder.

All I had to work with in my struggle for understanding was the silence of adults and quasi-entertaining military action/adventure accounts of the war. What I sorely missed were innovative curricula like Facing History and Ourselves (founded in 1976) that addressed the calamity head on in public school settings. At last, by my mid-twenties, more histories and more survivor accounts were being published and televised series like Holocaust (1978) brought realism to the subject. By that point my war-related anxieties were already established. I had filled in blanks not with information but with nightmares of snarling dogs and men in jackboots hauling people off into the night.

Little wonder that these anxieties surfaced decades later in my writing. Many Jewish artists find themselves reckoning with the events in Europe seventy years ago, whether or not they lived through them. My reckoning came in The Tenth Witness, a novel set in 1978 about the legacy of national socialism. I follow a character who falls in love with the daughter of a man who made steel for the Reich. Why? I suppose I wanted to get as close to the beast as I could to study it—in a context I understood, the 70s, when there were still plenty of former Nazis walking the streets of Munich and Buenos Aires. The woman fascinated me. She was innocent, though her father wasn’t. Still, did she need forgiving for merely having been born German, or born to parents implicated in war crimes? What does forgiveness look like in the context of the Shoah? How do the sins of parents weigh on children? What does a child learn from a father who used slave labor? Is that child somehow tainted? These questions confused my teenage years, and only decades later did I gain perspective enough to wrestle with them.

Doubtless, my parents and teachers thought they were doing right by sparing children details of the Shoah. We take another view these days, and that’s a good thing because their silence proved a burden.

No one counted on that.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 13, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy