Promises to keep

Holocaust fiction continues to attract readers, as we try to figure out how something like this could have ever happened.

A MEMORIAL at the Bergen- Belsen death camp. The book follows a survivor’s quest for revenge. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MEMORIAL at the Bergen- Belsen death camp. The book follows a survivor’s quest for revenge.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Almost 70 years since the end of World War II, books about the Holocaust are still being written and published frequently. As the youngest survivors age, both personal accounts and historical fiction continue to shed new light on what it was like to live during one of the most tragic periods in Jewish history. One of those books is Jacob’s Oath by Martin Fletcher, an acclaimed journalist who served as the NBC News bureau chief in Tel Aviv for many years and is now a special correspondent for the news network.
On the very first page of Jacob’s Oath, in the “Acknowledgments” section, Fletcher expresses his thanks to a woman named Cheryl Gould, who once said to him, “I wonder why some German Holocaust survivors chose to live in Germany.” He thought it was a great question and decided to make it the theme of his next book.
Many of those who grew up after World War II had parents who would not buy anything produced in Germany, such as cars, watches or electronic equipment. Yet even after the unimaginable terror the Nazis unleashed on the Jewish population, there were German Jews who chose to remain in Germany. In his novel, Fletcher tells the story of Jacob, a young Jewish man who survives three years in the hell of Bergen-Belsen, where he struggles to stay alive and to care for his younger brother, Maxie.
However, Maxie is murdered by a brutal SS guard, and as Jacob, holding Maxie as he takes his last breath, promises he will take revenge on the evil guard.
Fast forward to April 28, 1945. The war is almost over, and the British are blowing up Bergen-Belsen as surviving camp inmates struggle with the confusion of sudden freedom. Jacob meets Benno, who was transferred to Bergen-Belsen only a week before liberation. When Jacob tells him he is planning to start walking home to Heidelberg, Benno’s response is, “Home? Don’t be stupid.
What home? There’s no one left, you know that.”
He tries to convince Jacob to go with him to Palestine.
“You think anyone wants you in Germany?” he asks. “There’s nothing for us here.”
Still, Jacob is determined to get back to Heidelberg, because “The Rat” – his name for the SS guard who murdered Maxie – is from his hometown, and he wants to be there waiting when the guard comes home. After everything Jacob has lived through in Bergen-Belsen, his drive for revenge is what gives him the strength to live.
He slowly makes his way to Heidelberg on foot alongside thousands of other refugees wandering through the German countryside searching for a familiar face and something to eat. Survivors walk beside German civilians, and British and American servicemen do not distinguish between them when trying to provide assistance to the masses of hungry people.
“Well, to me you’re all Germans,” a British soldier says to Jacob.
One step at a time, bartering cigarette butts the servicemen have dropped, Jacob inches toward Heidelberg, determined that when he gets there he will carry out the oath he made to his beloved brother. As he walks past picturesque villages with wood built homes, his attention is diverted to horses grazing and the sound of birds singing. Observing children who look happy and well-fed, he asks himself what is real: “Picking his way through the woods with a thousand shades of green and the fields blossoming with so many colors, Jacob had felt like he was waking from a nightmare. He had left a lunatic asylum, a black-andwhite death machine, that had consumed his entire world, that was his entire world, a world of torturers and their victims.”
Meanwhile, as Jacob tastes his first moments of a fragile freedom, a young Jewish woman in Berlin named Sarah crouches in a basement hideaway trying to understand what is going on outside. As each one copes with the realities of life in post-war Germany, they get to know each other. Little by little, they share their stories. Jacob and Sarah’s experiences of the war were completely different, but they had both suffered and had experienced deprivation, cruelty, loss, and loneliness. In Jacob’s Oath, their separate stories are brought together as they attempt to begin new lives in a city where a concentration camp survivor can go into a restaurant and suddenly realize that the SS guard who murdered his brother is sitting at the table beside him.
In Jacob’s Oath, Martin Fletcher brings the reader a vivid depiction of post-war Germany and a seldom explored perspective on the Holocaust story. Fletcher is a talented writer who knows how to tell a story with just the right balance between history and human emotion.