An exceptional Holocaust diary

If one quality in particular imbues the pages of Who by Fire, Who by Water (From the Diary of a Holocaust Survivor), it is the immediacy that Goldmann-Gilead brings to his account of his life

 Who by Fire, Who by Water (photo credit: Courtesy)
Who by Fire, Who by Water
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

During the course of his long life (he is well into his ninth decade), Michael Goldmann-Gilead has demonstrated a great many admirable qualities – courage, initiative, determination, humanity – but one characteristic above all marks him out: he is an inveterate writer.

Even as a child Goldmann-Gilead would keep a diary, and the practice of committing his experiences and observations to paper persisted throughout his life. And what an extraordinary life it turned out to be! Much of it is preserved in the accounts that he almost felt compelled to turn to whenever the opportunity presented, handwritten in the variety of languages he has acquired, including Polish, German, Russian and Yiddish.

It is through these personal writings, scribbled sometimes on scraps of paper smuggled out of hazardous conditions, that Goldmann-Gilead presents us with his account of his tumultuous life, with particular emphasis on the years 1945-1949, but extending in his Epilogue to the 1960s and beyond.

Before the Second World War, Goldmann-Gilead’s family ran a shop in Katowice, southwest Poland, near the German border. When war broke out in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, the family abandoned everything and fled east, lodging with members of the family. In a matter of days, they found themselves under German occupation. In June 1941, at age 16, Michael was sent off to a labor camp. One month later his parents, 10-year-old sister and all the rest of his relatives were rounded up and dispatched to the Belzec death camp. He never saw any of them again.

In 1943, the Przemysl ghetto he was living in was surrounded by German and Ukrainian SS troops, and he was forced onto a train bound for Auschwitz. On arrival, 3,100 of the 4,000 prisoners were shot on the spot, while Michael was sent to what he called the ‘hell of hells’, otherwise known as the hard labor section. Miraculously he survived until January 1945, when the 14,000 prisoners were forced on a death march to Germany through the snow with no food or water and wearing only light prisoner uniforms.

 Delegation of Arab-Israeli youth at Auschwitz, Poland, March 28, 2022.  (credit: MICHAEL STARR) Delegation of Arab-Israeli youth at Auschwitz, Poland, March 28, 2022. (credit: MICHAEL STARR)

His subsequent history is the stuff of legend. With two friends he escapes from the death march, is sheltered by friendly farmers, makes it to the Russian lines, joins the Red Army, and in the final days of the war is wounded fighting the Germans in Czechoslovakia.

Discharged from the army, he spends time in Displaced Persons camps in Europe, waiting for a transport to Palestine. The illegal ship he eventually boards is turned back by the British, and he is imprisoned in Cyprus for over a year. While there he meets and marries a Romanian girl, Floretta, and after the Declaration of Independence, he makes it to Israel, joins the police for a while, then resigns to earn a decent living.

In 1961, with Adolf Eichmann captured and being prepared for trial in Israel, Goldmann-Gilead is asked to return to the force and assist in the questioning of Eichmann. He describes in vivid detail his emotions as day after day he faces the facilitator of the Holocaust, and then observes him throughout the subsequent trial. A particular episode affected him personally. As he writes:

“During the trial, one of the witnesses testified that he had been at the forced labor camp of the Przemysl ghetto when a Jewish youth was given 80 lashes by the SS commander of the camp.... When Gideon Hausner [the attorney general] asked the witness if he saw the boy in the courtroom, the witness pointed at me – sitting stiffly next to Hausner. This painful incident, the memory of which I had tried to repress, was revealed quite randomly during the trial.”

During the break that followed, Hausner asked him why, in all the months they had spent together, he had not spoken of it. Goldmann-Gilead told him that when he had first arrived in Israel he had mentioned it, but realized that his questioner doubted the truth of his story. So he decided that he would keep his mouth shut in the future. He adds that his experience was shared by many Holocaust victims, who also encountered disbelief.

“I cannot say what hurt me more – those 80 blows from the Nazi whip, or the additional ‘blow’ of questioning our stories which we received in Israel,” Goldmann-Gilead writes.

If one quality in particular imbues the pages of Who by Fire, Who by Water (From the Diary of a Holocaust Survivor), it is the immediacy that Goldmann-Gilead brings to his account of his life. Since we learn of his experiences largely through the pages of his diaries and other contemporary writings, we are side by side with him as he lives through the unfolding drama. The volume includes 16 pages of photographs, illustrating the key moments of his story. This is an exceptionally readable book written by a truly remarkable man.  ■

Who by Fire, Who by WaterMichael Goldmann-GileadGefen Publishing, 2022$18, 272 pages