Finding the Words (Extract)

Why more Holocaust survivors are now writing their memoirs

01holothm (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. In 2006, a young Australian Jewish woman stopped by the office of Dr. David Silberklang, at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. The hour was late and Silberklang, 51, a historian and senior editor of Yad Vashem's Holocaust Survivors' Memoirs Project, was planning to leave for the day. The young woman wanted to know if Yad Vashem had any interest in a pamphlet-size book published in Spanish in 1999 by her grandfather, a Polish survivor named Israel (Srul) Cymlich, who had migrated to Argentina after the Second World War. What was the book about? asked Silberklang. It was a diary from Treblinka, she said. Recognizing the potential for a treasure, Silberklang, a calm, measured man, could barely contain his emotions. Treblinka was the site of a Nazi extermination camp in Poland where some 870,000 Jews, 300,000 from the Warsaw ghetto, perished, and also a penal forced labor camp. Few inmates had escaped or survived. The woman showed him a pamphlet with a garish black and red cover, named "Cuando Vengas, No Encontraras a Nadie" ("When You Come, You Won't Find Anybody"), one of the very few Jewish accounts of Treblinka I, the forced labor camp opened in the second half of 1941. Two kilometers away stood Treblinka II, the extermination camp, which was opened the following July. Though scholars and a handful of survivors have written about Treblinka II, not much was known about Treblinka I, where as many as 20,000 Jews at a time were kept. When they were deemed useless, they were executed and their ranks were filled by fresh inmates. Cymlich, the youngest of eight children from Falencia, a small town just east of Warsaw, was deported to Treblinka I in 1942, after spending more than 20 months in a Nazi prisons in Warsaw for selling bread - or as the Nazis called it "sabotaging the economy.'' He describes atrocities that were daily events in Treblinka I. One day, some 200 Jewish children "in bad condition'' from the Warsaw ghetto were decapitated, axes used to "hack off their heads'' in nearby forests to save bullets, writes Cymlich. His work was filled with new insight and information about the brutally harsh daily life in Treblinka I and also provides ithe first information indicating that a majority of the forced laborers in 1942-3 were Jews and not Poles, as indicated in published accounts. Cymlich's diary reminded Silberklang of another remarkable but little known Treblinka memoir written in Yiddish by Lodz-born Oskar Strawczyski, a tinsmith, who was deported to Treblinka II with his wife, two children and parents in October 1942 from Czestochowa, a town 125 miles southwest of Warsaw. Most of Czestochowa's Jews (the wartime population swelled to 40,000) were killed upon arrival to Treblinka II, including Strawczynski's family. Strawczyski's work had been referred to in Yitzhak Arad's "Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps" (Indiana University Press, 1983) and included as a document in David Rome's "Clouds in the Thirties, On Anti-Semitism in Canada 1929-1939" (Canadian Jewish Congress, 1981); he had testified at a 1964-65 war crimes trial of ten Treblinka guards held in Düsseldorf, West Germany and had given testimony at Yad Vashem in 1965. Though his and Cymlich's memoirs had received limited exposure, Silberklang felt that an English- language version would make compelling reading for a wider audience. Pairing the two Treblinka memoirs, he published them in English as "Escaping Hell in Treblinka," the most recent publication in Yad Vashem's memoirs series, a four-year-old project, which has brought out 11 books containing a total of 18 personal survivor narratives. Thousands of non-fiction Holocaust memoirs have already been published. And as the survivors' generation dies out, a growing number want to bring out their own account and many children and grandchildren of those who have died want to publish manuscripts that they left behind. Survivors have been motivated to write for a variety of reasons, Silberklang says: to ensure that their story of suffering is told for posterity, often as a bulwark against Holocaust deniers; so that family members would know of their ordeal; or as a form of self-healing. Author Jane Lipski, 83, part of the Bedzin Ghetto resistance and a survivor of Nazi and Soviet prisons, tells The Report by telephone from her home in Tuscon, Arizona, that her first motivation was "to write so that my grandchildren would know." Only later was she surprised to learn that the wider public "was interested in my story." Romanian-born Tova Bar-Touv, a 71-year-old child suvivor, translated into Hebrew a memoir originally written in German in 1967 by her mother, Lottie Kahana-Aufleger. Her mother was seized with depression and hoped that "by writing she could rid herself of the Holocaust demons," says Bar-Touv, 71, of Mevasseret Zion, outside Jerusalem. Yad Vashem published both the Lipski and Aufleger memoirs in a single anthology of women's Holocaust writing called "Stolen Youth." Belgian-born Lea Ressler-Klein, who lives in Israel today and whose account is included in a book on Belgian Jewry during the Holocaust by journalist Sylvain Brachfeld, writes, "We owe it to those who suffered atrociously to make sure what happened will always be remembered.'' Women, in particular, have been contributing to the genre, reflecting their longer life span and interest in their unique suffering, caused by various factors such as responsibilities as daughters to elderly parents, mothers of young children and fear of sexual violence, Prof. Sara Horowitz, director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto and professor of comparative literature, tells The Jerusalem Report. Ruth Kluger, deported from Vienna at age 10 to a series of concentration camps, survived and became a professor of German literature at Princeton University. She describes internal Nazi gender power games in the camps in her memoir, "Still Alive" (City University of New York, 2001). The SS itself was an all-male organization, she points out, making the status of women guards in SS camps particularly confusing. Another perspective is the religious one. Ultra-Orthodox Bialystock-born Rabbi Yosef Lev's privately published 1990 memoir, "V'Emunatcha Baleilot" ("And Your Faith at Night") depicts his physical and spiritual survival in camps and ghettos after his parents and four siblings were murdered. The book, published for the ultra-Orthodox market, is prefaced by recommendations by well-known ulta-Orthodox rabbis. Horowitz says that after years of reluctance to rely on survivor memory for accuracy, historians have become increasingly receptive to Holocaust memoirs, realizing that by excluding them, their knowledge of the Holocaust "was impoverished." The public appetite for reading about first-hand Holocaust experiences, she says, has made the genre profitable for commercial and university publishers. What also changed, she points out, is that survivors no longer fear being disbelieved and many, now retired, are free to write and are no longer constrained by time-consuming efforts to rebuild their lives, work or raise children. James Young of the University of Massachusetts, who teaches a well-attended, popular course entitled, "Representing the Holocaust" and has written extensively on Holocaust memorials, says the appearance of Second Generation literature has also boosted interest in the subject. Young says he is anticipating a new wave of "Third Generation" literature in the coming years written by grandchildren of survivors. "The experience is so enormous, it outlives the survivors," he tells The Report. Prague-born Israeli historian Shaul Friedlander, today a UCLA professor, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for "The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945," in which he relies on excerpts from letters and journals to describe atrocities. [His own groundbreaking 1979 memoir, "When Memory Comes," describes his personal ordeal in which his parents perished and he was raised as a Christian.] But the headlong rush to publish Holocaust memoirs has also stirred up some old-new hesitations about the genre, particularly about work written later in the survivor's life. Though a supporter of memoirs, Prof. Alan Mintz, chair of the department of Hebrew Language at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of "Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America" (Syracuse University Press, 2001), cautions that the material must be vetted by scholars. He tells The Report that narratives written years later tend to have rosier depictions of home life and family relationships before the war years, and those written in an acquired language tend to be less raw. As an example, he points to the two different versions of Nobel laureate Elie Weisel's autobiographical novel, "Night." Mintz says while the earlier Yiddish version is more emotive, Weisel's later French version is shorter and more contained. "Every language has its own code," Mintz tells The Report. Silberklang acknowledges that memoirs written years after the Holocaust can be "fuzzy" on some details and sometimes prone to "some embellishment." But manuscripts are vetted at Yad Vashem for accuracy by experts, he says, and for the most part the facts match the historical account. There are also other concerns. Lawrence Langer, emeritus professor of English literature at Boston's Simmons College and author of numerous books on the Holocaust, including "Holocaust Testimony: The Ruins of Memory" (Yale University Press, 1991), has long questioned whether Holocaust memory, a uniquely painful and multi-layered process, is exploited to serve wider social and personal needs. For example, Langer has argued that listeners often read elements into Holocaust survivor narratives which are not really there. He describes a videotaped interview in which survivors speak of the enduring shame and humiliation that leave them feeling "empty and disconnected," but which their listening daughter insists reflects her parents' "strength" and "hope." Troubled interactions between past and present and concerns for accuracy versus the need for privacy are raised in the 1996 memoir, "The Book and the Sword" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Auschwitz survivor and acclaimed Talmudist, David Weiss Halivni, Israel Prize winner in Talmud Studies for 2008. Weiss Halivni, a child prodigy in Talmud, was deported from Sighet in Hungary to Auschwitz in May 1944 with his family, including his mother and grandfather, a Belzer hasid, both of whom perished. After his liberation, he immigrated to the United States and was a professor of religion at Columbia University for many years. Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.