Compelled to collaborate

This book may look like just another chapter in the seemingly infinite story of the Holocaust, but the reader is instantly captivated by an extraordinary tale of an unusual Jewish family, told by an outstanding writer.

Beyond the Horizon, Across the Street (in Hebrew) By Hanoch Bartov Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan 287 pages NIS 84 This book may look like just another chapter in the seemingly infinite story of the Holocaust, but the reader is instantly captivated by an extraordinary tale of an unusual Jewish family, told by an outstanding writer. The deeper you delve, the more you realize that the story raises questions capable of shaking old perceptions of those who "collaborated" with the Nazis during the Holocaust. I ought to declare a slight involvement in this story, having witnessed the beginning of the dramatic saga while serving as a young soldier in the Jewish Brigade with both the author and one of the five members of the exceptional family he describes. The tale begins shortly after the end of World War II. The Jewish Brigade had moved from the Adriatic coast of Italy, where it had participated in combat, to a point touching the Austrian-Yugoslav border. The brigade's three battalions were spread around the nearby villages, and some of these towns - Brasigella, Ponteba and Camporosso, on the way to the border town Tarvisio - became a sort of transit camp for thousands of Holocaust survivors. These Jews were assembled there, away from the prying eyes of the British. The war against Nazi Germany was over by then, and the first priority of the unofficial leadership of the brigade (under the guidance of David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem) was to get the survivors to Italy's ports for transportation - legal or "illegal" - to Palestine. It was in Brasigella that Amos Rabinowitch, of the brigade's third battalion, met his father Yitzhak and 15-year-old brother Shmuel one day in the summer of 1945. Unaware that her husband and son Shmuel were alive and that Amos, the eldest son, would be found with the brigade's soldiers in northern Italy, the mother, Shulamit, was walking 350 km. from the Baltic Sea toward Italy. She, too, finally met her family in Brasigella. Yitzhak and Shulamit arrived in Palestine six months later. Hanoch Bartov knew Amos; they had served in the same regiment. After the war, Bartov attended the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and there he met Benjamin, brother of Amos and Shmuel Rabinowitch. Benjamin served at that time in the Palmah, and the testimonies of those who knew him reveal that he was endowed with a fine mind and wide intellectual interests. He was killed in the War of Independence. Amos and Benjamin knew Hebrew since their childhood in Lithuania, and being the sons of a devoted Zionist family, they made their way to Palestine in April 1940. The parents assumed that they would follow their kids, but the myopic Soviet regime, not known for its humane virtues, didn't allow them to leave the country even though they, like their sons, had British certificates to enter Palestine. When the Germans invaded Kovno in 1941, the parents were thus forbidden to leave. Though they were separated from their son, Shmuel, they all miraculously survived the misery, persecution and death the Germans directed against the Jews. Bartov is keen to explore the great stories of the past. He demonstrated this impulse when he toiled to produce the volumes on Dado (David Elazar), chief of staff during the Yom Kippur War. His handling of the Rabinowitch family's survival is indeed proof of his integrity. It took him years to pursue this story. What troubled him for so long was the role of Yitzhak Rabinowitch under the German occupation. Suspicious that Rabinowitch had in some way collaborated with the Germans, Bartov often wondered how he could have survived the Gestapo's barbaric rule. Was his behavior kosher? Our perception of such Jews, who were as a rule compelled to collaborate with the German authorities, is harsh. Bartov, like many of us, shared this severe attitude. In 1989, he was helped by an unexpected book - Natan Alterman's Over Two Roads, Pages from a Notebook. Bartov felt as if he had been extricated from hell. This dilemma of how to interpret the Judenrat phenomenon had also been excruciating for Alterman, and when he recorded his heretical reflections in a confidential notebook in 1954-55, his thoughts were a voice of defiance. Abba Kovner, the poet and a heroic survivor of the resistance, reported in a book published in 1981, On a Narrow Bridge, that in a conversation he had with him, Alterman said: "Had I been in the ghetto, I would have been with the Judenrat." This was shocking to Kovner, but not to Bartov. The story of the Rabinowitch family slowly eroded his earlier harsh judgment, but it took years for him to sit down and write it all with a trembling hand and a torn conscience. Alterman stated it unequivocally: "The Judenrats' route was necessary." Yes, there were many occurrences of abuse and criminality, but there were also cases of compassion and helping hands. Bartov did not seek to pass judgment, but found himself overwhelmed by empathy and ready to come to terms with Yitzhak Rabinowitch.