“We’re done translating Grandpa’s notes,” said my dad. “Would you, by some chance, be willing to go over them and turn them into a book?”
“Of course!” I replied right away. It sounded like no more than a thorough editing job. It struck me that my dad was surprised by my quick reply.
He sent the notes over. Grandpa Srulik spent a couple of months writing about his life. Then, my brother and father translated his notes from Russian to English.
I printed the translation and read over the notes in minutes; ten pages to summarize the life of a man who had had suffered enough heartache to fill a thousand lifetimes. As I read, I recalled him speaking about his life. I could see his muscles tense at some particularly difficult parts of his story. Reading other sections, I could hear him let out a hearty laugh as he tried to lighten the load on both the listener and himself by finding bits of humor in his infinitely painful life. Continue reading
In my many years of schooling across three continents, I’ve attended many Holocaust classes. Yet, during each lesson and every lecture, I felt that something was missing.
In high-school, we read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a beautifully written firsthand account – rightfully a must-read if there ever was one. But, as most of us know, Anne’s diary ends before her story does, saving the reader the worst of the Nazi atrocities. To my surprise, my high-school class covered little about the Holocaust other than Anne’s diary. And while the university courses on the subject went much further, there was still something missing.
Although, thankfully, the Holocaust ended many years ago, it was still much more real to me than any other historical subject I studied. If one were to guess who among all my family members had survived the Holocaust, no one would have suspected my grandpa. Nothing about him brought to mind the horrors of the Holocaust. He had an unassuming, easy-going demeanor, combined with an exceptional sense of humor. Whenever I think of him, I always remember him with a smile on his face. Most incredible, however, is that he was, without a doubt, the happiest person that I’d ever met.
For many years, I couldn’t reconcile my grandfather’s personality with all of the horrors that he and others suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Hope came when, many years later, I was asked to help put together his memoir. Of course, I was honored and agreed right away. Among the many reasons that I wanted to help with this important project was my hope to finally discover how Grandpa managed to survive so wholly.
Don’t we break down from much smaller problems? Don’t people in times of peace and plenty disintegrate and lose the will to live from problems that cannot even be compared with the atrocities such as the Shoah? What made my own grandfather so much more resilient?
There are two ways to look at Grandpa’s reaction to all that he had endured. The first, is that he had managed to be happy despite all that happened to him. He would have been a happy person no matter what. Had he lived a simple life in the Polish village of Nowosiolki where he was born, he still would have been an exceptionally happy guy. Having survived the Holocaust, and still retaining such contagious joy for life, suggests that he would have been a happy person no matter what would have happened to him.
The other perspective, expressed by some of my readers, is that Grandpa was happy precisely because of what he had endured. Seeing into the depth of darkness enabled him to gain a profound appreciation for all that is good in life. Indeed, I was delighted to learn that there were other survivors who had the same response as my grandpa. In contrast to what they have already been through, the trials and tribulations of normal life seem trivial. Instead of focusing on the negative, they are eternally grateful for what is good, appreciate the small things, and are glad to be alive. This is why, a small number of survivors are exceptionally happy people.
Which of these theories is true? One of these, or some combination of both? That’s the classroom discussion that I could have used. A discussion, a lecture, or a class that would proclaim to the world that there were people who the Nazis could not break. There were those who, against all odds, managed to survive the Holocaust both physically and emotionally, and went on to live vibrant, joyful lives.
Perhaps it makes a difference to know that there was a ten-year-old boy named Srulik Ackerman, who went on to live a life full of happiness despite all the horrors that he endured at the hands of the Nazis. After everything that he has been through, he must have laughed and smiled more than a dozen men in a single lifetime.
I hope that learning about Srulik and others like him will make it easier for students to digest this difficult material. Maybe this lesson on the strength of the human spirit will encourage teachers to cover Holocaust history more completely, instead of omitting the truly difficult, but essential parts of this dark spot in our history. Maybe, realizing humanity’s potential for resilience, and our capacity for joy and happiness no matter what comes our way, will help students find strength in their own lives.
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Donna Tartt, the author of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch, was once told by Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, never to read her press: “I’ll tell you why, kid. The good things don’t help and the bad things still hurt.” A modified version of this guidance appears in virtually every testimonial by a fabled writer: You can’t worry about your audience; you must write for yourself.
Read without nuance, sentiments like these surely encourage the view that writers are elitist, self-serving navel-gazers. The truth feels more complex. As a writer, I am deeply engaged with my imaginary audience. I write because I have things I want to say, and a way I want to say them, but I want them to be heard. I write to connect. I write to have a conversation. At the same time, bad things happen on the page when you start writing with an overly concrete audience in mind. Instead of looking for new expression, you start saying things you think your audience will like. Entertainment is a perfectly honorable reason to write and read. But I believe writers have an obligation to push their readers—and themselves—to think about things they may not be overly eager to think about. It’s how literature, and, in some ways, the world moves forward.
I bring all this up because my debut novel, A Replacement Life, out this week, is on a subject that gets readers going: A young man starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn. I began writing the novel in the fall of 2009, inspired by my experience filling out my grandmother’s restitution paperwork in the 1990s (she was an inmate of the Minsk ghetto). My family had emigrated from the former Soviet Union only a decade before; I was just a teenager, but had the best English, so the paperwork was handed to me. Continue reading
One September afternoon I took the train from Berlin to Warsaw, as my characters had done. I wanted to see what they had seen. For the five and a half hours of that train ride I saw nothing but endless miles of birches, pines, fields… It was a warm and sunny day. The blue sky was cloudless. The sunlight glinted on the fields and stippled the birches with light. For my novel The Train to Warsaw, I would have to imagine those same birches and pines and fields in the dead of winter, coat them with snow and frost and turn the sky white.
I had an appointment to meet a journalist from one of the major Warsaw newspapers. He had suggested we meet in a tiny park near Gryzbowska St., a street that had once been inside the ghetto. And so I set off from my hotel to meet him.
There is nothing left of the former ghetto. In the more than 800 acres that once encompassed the ghetto, white Soviet realist style apartment buildings now cover block after block. Of the apartment buildings, the shops, the synagogues from before the war (with the exception of the Nozyk Synagogue), nothing remains. On one block several red brick buildings from before the war are still standing; in the courtyard of an apartment building a piece of the red brick ghetto wall still exists. One or two other buildings are still there. But that is all. The ghetto was burned to the ground by the Nazis during the Ghetto Uprising of April 1943.
And of the former life that once hummed in this corner of the earth, nothing remains.
The journalist and I sat down on a small stone bench. Scattered around the pocket park, several mothers sat rocking baby carriages beneath a sunny sky. There was no one else. The journalist and I talked quietly. All of a sudden I heard, coming from the left, the tramping of boots on cobblestone. The sound grew louder. Five SS men in uniform, smoking, armed, came into view. They didn’t look like extras in a film; in fact there were no cameras or crew anywhere. The uniforms looked lived-in, the boots were creased with wear. I thought I was hallucinating. I had done so much research on the Warsaw Ghetto that I had begun to see visions. I turned to the journalist. Are those SS men? I asked, incredulous. Absolutely, he replied.
Now I heard the tramping of boots coming from the right. I turned my head and saw a straggling group of partisans coming toward us, walking single file. One had his head bandaged, all wore outfits that were ragged and torn. One had a bloodied shirt sleeve, all had tin cups attached to their belts. They too were armed. The Polish Home Army? I whispered. Absolutely, he informed me. An SS man had placed a straw basket on the ground. Backs bent, a look of resignation on their faces, each one came up to the SS man and dropped his weapon in the basket.The last man shook the hand of the SS man, who dropped his cigarette and ground it out with the toe of his leather boot. They turned and walked off.
What just happened? I asked the journalist. The Polish Home Army has just surrendered to the SS, he informed me. What? I asked in disbelief. Every year on the same date, in the same place, at the same time, the Polish Home Army surrenders to the SS. But why? I asked. Why in the world would they re-enact their surrender of all things? He shrugged. He had no answer.
This part of town was so quiet now, the streets nearly deserted. Once there had been an ungodly din here. Crowds of up to 500,000 individuals surging through the streets, a madhouse swarming with people, the pavement and streets clogged with the dying and dead. Then there had been no peace, only terror. Everyone in a mad rush, running, pushing forward against the crowds. Back then to stop was to die, to slow down was to be shot or dragged off.
Now a small boy pushed a scooter beneath a soft blue sky, a woman re-tied the strings of a baby’s bonnet. Now the place was so peaceful you could hear the sound of leaves softly blown by the wind. How was I to imagine what had once taken place here?
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Whenever I tell anyone that mother was in a German labor camp during World War II, they assume she was Jewish and in a concentration camp. I then explain that the Third Reich needed labor to produce war materiel and that millions of non-Jewish subjects of the counties they conquered were often forced into working in these camps. Although concentration camp inmates worked, the survival rate for labor camp workers was far greater. The Nazis work philosophy was that you either worked for the Reich or die.
My mother, a Catholic, was fifteen and living in Krakow when the Germans invaded in September of 1939. About two years later, she was put into a labor camp in Germany. She worked in a factory that made chewing tobacco. I thought this was an odd product for wartime; I associated chewing tobacco with hillbillies in the Appalachians and the Ozarks. But I discovered that soldiers (German or Allied) can’t smoke all the time in the field. A lit match at night or a wisp of smoke could give away a platoon’s position resulting in their destruction. The chewing tobacco satisfies the craving for nicotine.
One day when she was working, a civilian German supervisor came up to her and said he had a job for her. Because she was fluent in German, he could arrange for her to be a translator and housekeeper. This was an act of pure kindness on his part; there was nothing in it for him.
My mother would go to work for a contractor who tunneled out the Harz Mountains in Nordhausen where the Nazis built the V-2 rocket, the world’s first ballistic missile. Hidden deep under the mountains, the manufacturing facilities were protected from allied bombing. The tunnels had to be excavated and shored up from timber before they were lined with concrete. Inmates of all nationalities would go into the surrounding forests to cut the timber, while my mother acted as translator.
As a result of the German’s kindness, my mother lived in relative comfort with the contractor and his family while less than a kilometer away, mostly Jewish inmates perished while producing the rockets. It was these acts of kindness I wanted to include in my novel, The Paris Architect. Out of the goodness of their hearts, people step forward to help someone. My mother never saw the supervisor again but always knew how incredibly lucky she had been because of what this man did for her.
One of the hardest things to get used to in writing a novel is cutting material to speed up the pacing and tightening the plot. It’s like casting out a beloved child into the street. You hate to see it go, but it in the end, it’s probably for the best.
In my novel, The Paris Architect, I had to do some chopping—but one scene was particularly hard to edit. The book is about a gentile architect who designs hiding places for Jews in occupied Paris; many of the people the protagonist helps have been hiding in the most horrendous places, based on the historical realities of the time. Their friends have turned their backs on them, and the Parisian Jews must find any refuge no matter how squalid.
One of these places, I reluctantly cut out. Some Jews during World War II hid in false graves in cemeteries. For an exorbitant fee, cemetery caretakers would hide people: The grave would be dug out a little deeper and larger then boards would be placed over the opening and dirt mounded over so it looked like a real grave. A gravestone would be put in place and flowers set in front for a realistic touch. A pipe extending a couple of inches above the ground was placed at the rear to provide air for the occupants. One of the boards could be removed to drop food and water into the grave.
One would think that a grave could hold but one person, but the times were so desperate that three or four people could make do down there. Living in Stygian darkness, the people just sat there day after agonizing day with only a candle for light. Some were family members and some were complete strangers to each other. It would be just endless excruciating boredom mixed with the fear of being discovered at any minute.
Your existence depended solely on the honesty and integrity of the caretaker. Some were kind and others abandoned their charges. Because the dirt was mounded on top of the boards, it was no easy task to escape.
My character was a bachelor chemist in his forties. When he fled, he couldn’t bear to part with his pet rabbit so he took it down into the grave. It was the only comfort he had down there. But the other famished inhabitants of the grave began imagining his rabbit as a very delicious meal. The chemist swore he’d kill anyone who touched his pet as though it were his child. I hated to see him go.
For the past eight summers, I’ve taught creative writing at the Paris American Academy, a small school in a neighborhood dotted with plaques celebrating French heroism during World War II. The plaques are placed high on the walls: this one marks where one Resister was shot, that one reminds us of a reassuring speech of DeGaulle’s. But when I leave this neighborhood and cross a few bridges to the Marais, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood, I lift my eyes to other sorts of plaques: this one marks where Jewish children were taken from their school and shipped to Auschwitz, that one remembers the complicity of the French.
The complicity of the French. My family is of Polish and Russian descent; during the early part of the 1900s, they fled their Eastern European shtetls and headed west. Those who had the money kept going to New York. Those who couldn’t stayed in France. Many of those who stayed were sent to Auschwitz during the war. The few who survived, my cousins, live in Paris.
Every summer, while I’m in France, I have dinner with these cousins, and we talk about all sorts of things: travel and books and movies, nothing too serious. They’re wonderful cooks and serve very French meals, h’ors d’oeuvres to start, cheese to finish. We sit out in their garden after and sometimes I steal one of their cigarettes.
This summer, I mentioned that I’m working on a new novel, and that one of the characters has a grandmother who survived the war in France. My cousin Francois was curious. “How did she survive?”
I was embarrassed that I hadn’t hashed out the details yet – maybe she’d been hidden by a dairy farmer? Maybe her father had been a butter dealer before the war and used his connections to save her?
“Absolutely not,” Francois said. “The Jews weren’t in the butter business, and anyway the dairy farmers were in Normandy, which was occupied by the Germans. Your character would have gone south, as close to Spain as she could. She would have stayed with subsistence farmers.”
We went back and forth on the logistics of this character’s story for a while, with Francois describing the way the police kept records of its French citizens, the way they rounded up all the Jews one night, the way they stuffed them into a stadium and then onto the cattle trains. This all happened when his mother was seven years old; she’d spent the night of the round up away from home, with her mother. When they returned they found their apartment ransacked, her beloved aunts and uncles all gone. Within weeks her mother found her refuge with peasants in the south, where she lived out the bulk of the war. Many of the people she knew died in the camps.
As the details grew more gruesome, I found myself feeling off-balance. How could I spend summers here so blithely, in a country that hunted down my own family? And how could Francois be so proud to be French, to have married a French woman, to be raising French kids? To serve me these entirely French meals? “And you’re sure this wasn’t the Germans, doing these things?” I was used to thinking of Germans as the enemy.
“No no,” he said. “It was the French.”
I paused, then said something rather impolite, especially considering Francois’s eternal hospitality. “I just don’t understand how you can live here.”
“Well,” he said, calmly topping off our glasses, like we were discussing the weather. “How is it that you can live where you live? In the USA?”
“Francois, the USA never hunted down its own people!”
“Didn’t it?” he said. When I didn’t answer, he gave me that French shrug meant to convey the unsayable. I looked away.
“Listen, all countries have their own horror stories,” he said. “And you know, it was French farmers who saved my mother, a French policeman who told my grandmother to stay away the night of the round up. French resistance members who found my grandmother her false papers. And years before that, it was France that welcomed them when they escaped the Cossacks.”
“Yes, but – but then they -” He was right, of course – but I was also right, a little.
“Then they what? Some French people were good, some were not so good. History is complicated,” he said. “It’s complicated for me, and for you, too, non?”
What to say to that? I picked up one of his cigarettes, compelled by the force of an old bad habit. France is complicated, and being Jewish anywhere is complicated, I know that. My own country is complicated, and so is the story of how I came to live there. But that night, lulled by the wine and the smoke and the cool French air, I gave in to not knowing how to feel. It wasn’t an argument I could win, nor was it one I wanted to win. What did I want to prove? France was bad? Its people were? Then why was I so happy there, with my French friends, French cousins, French summers? Why were people so gracious to me? Why had I eaten, on its sidewalks, some of the best Jewish food of my life?
I lit my cigarette, defeated by the complications and my heavy belly. So instead of solving anything, I decided to be grateful to be where I was, with the family that survived.
My parents left the United States in 1973 to retire in Bat Yam, Israel, the country in which they met and married in 1934, and where my brother Norman was born. My father left Poland in 1925 and went to work for his brothers in Paris and then left to compete in the first Maccabiah games in the breast stroke only to learn that there was no swimming pool. (I learned later that there was indeed a swimming event, so I can only assume that my dad may have not made the cut and may have been too embarrassed.) My mother left her home Bulgaria as a young woman on a group visa and settled in Jerusalem, where she met my father in the fur shop where they both were employed.
One day while browsing in a used bookshop in Tel Aviv after his retirement to Israel, he came upon a book titled During the Russian Administration with the Jews of Stanislawow During the Holocaust by Abraham Liebesman. My father, Sigmund Graubart, no trained scholar, was always interested in history. And he had a keen interest in Stanislawow, Poland (today Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine), the city of his birth, because his older sister and her family were killed there. After determining there was only this edition, which was in Hebrew, my father began translating the book into English.
At the same time, Pat Conroy was working on his novel Beach Music and a portion of the book dealt with the Holocaust. He wanted to place his character “Max Rusoff” in a small city and as is usual in Conroy’s fiction, he wanted to write in great detail. Pat loved my parents. He wishes we could have switched our families at birth. I told him that would have impinged on our friendship, as I would have been dead. I couldn’t have survived “The Great Santini.”
Pat began work on Beach Music in 1986 and would take 9 years to publish the novel. My dad finished his translation in 1990 and I published it, distributing it free to anyone who showed interest. Pat read it and was so moved, he used it as the primary reference to describe life during the Holocaust in the novel. He was surprised at how good the translation was. He knew my father only had a high school education. During the Russian Administration had the detail Pat was seeking and he decided to use it to help him draw the picture of “Kronittska.”
In a note to the reader in Beach Music, Conroy gives thanks to Sigmund Graubart, and because of that acknowledgement and because the book was translated into scores of languages, I have received requests for the 49-page booklet from all over the world. There is no charge, and there are still some available.
He was telling me about his experience teaching a new course at our university. Faculty from very different fields had come together to develop a common core of readings and topics for a course designed to introduce first year students to college life. Each professor would teach their own section but the students would receive a common experience. The format meant that every instructor would be out of their area of expertise and comfort zone for at least part of the course, most likely for most of it.
“So there I was,” he told me, “standing in front of these new students as an experienced teacher, not just nervous but terrified.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Jews don’t have a middle range. We go right from a little bit scared to absolutely terrified.”
It’s a legacy of the Holocaust, with roots further back in our history. The flames of the Holocaust have singed all of our imaginations, leaving behind their psychological scars. And scar tissue isn’t flexible. So we end up not having a whole lot of flexibility when we feel threatened. We tend to operate in all-or-nothing mode. When we get scared, even just a bit, we start to see Nazis.
We’re not the only ones who suffer from a scarred imagination in dealing with anti-Semitism. It’s a principal reason why anti-Semitism remains set apart, so often unintegrated with the other “isms” people are trying to address: racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc. At least for some of us, when someone raises a question about whether we have acted in some way that is sexist, racist, etc., we understand that there may be subtle issues of unintended prejudice involved, and we might be willing to examine our actions and beliefs to at least some extent. We don’t react as if we’re being called serial rapists or members of the KKK. But raise a question about anti-Semitism possibly being at work, and people react like they’re being called Nazis. The Nazi terror continues to impact people in a way that make it practically impossible to discuss more subtle forms of anti-Semitism short of genocide. Jews aren’t the only ones with no middle range when it comes to anti-Semitism.
It’s clear from the names of my two pop culture humor books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, that my Jewish background is a primary force in my writing. What these titles don’t reveal is how much my work is informed by my father’s experiences during the Holocaust.
They say every child of a Holocaust survivor is born with a tear in her eye. This is far from an obvious starting point for cultivating humor. But like many other creatives, my “weighty inheritance” significantly contributes to the overall tenor of my writing about contemporary Jewish life—in both revealed and unrevealed ways.
My first book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe (cooljewbook.com), was a 2008 National Jewish Book Awards Finalist and the first humor book honored in the awards’ 50-year-history. My new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe (hotmamalah.com), debuted this month. Both books are filled with humorous depictions of Jewish life and practice. They promote learning about your identity and celebrating it with a reverent irreverence…an irreverence based on a real love of being Jewish.
My father, who will b’ezrat Hashem, soon turn 90, is a survivor of Buchenwald. As a child, my father told me his parents died “in the war.” It was only when I turned the age of bat mitzvah that I learned their precise fate. On Yom Kippur 1942, the Nazis deported them and their daughter Rosa to Treblinka. They were never heard from again. That same year, the Nazis murdered my uncle Lipman in the Czestohowa ghetto. Somehow, despite years as a slave laborer in war-time Poland, my father survived. He was near death when General Patton’s Third Army finally liberated Buchenwald. He was furious to miss the oranges and chocolate U.S. liberators fed his fellow captives. As many of them died from complications, my father realized this was one more blessing that saved his life.
One of my father’s mottos is never give up. One day in April 1945 he was a slave. And the next day, suddenly, the skies parted. And he was a free.
Another of my father’s favorite maxims is never, ever be ashamed to be a Jew. My books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, turn this injunction into a positive: to know who you are and own it. Little did I know that my own embracing of this teaching would lead me to new revelations about my heritage, including the Sefardi history of my mother’s family. Check back soon for more about them in an upcoming post in this series.