Memoirs bearing witness to the Holocaust Jun 6, 2012 21:19:26 GMT -5
Post by shira on Jun 6, 2012 21:19:26 GMT -5
Five Best: Elliot Perlman
By ELLIOT PERLMAN
The Last Jew of Treblinka
By Chil Rajchman (2011)
This account comes from one of the very few surviving members of Treblinka's Sonderkommando—those Jews forced on pain of immediate execution to assist with cremating the corpses of their gassed brethren. Approximately 800,000 Jews were gassed at Treblinka. Only at Auschwitz were more killed, but at Auschwitz there was some small possibility that a Jew could be chosen for slave labor and thus delay the time of his or her killing. At Treblinka, a death camp with no slave-labor facilities, almost nobody survived. Chil Rajchman, a Polish Jew, begins his brief but almost unbearably painful account on the day in 1942 that he and his sister arrive at Treblinka station. Within 48 hours, he sees his sister's distinctive dress in a heap that he has been assigned to sort through. He secretly tears off a square of cloth and keeps it with him for the rest of the war. Rajchman escaped along with hundreds of other prisoners during the uprising of 1943 and remained in hiding until the war's end. In 1945, he set down in Yiddish the story of what he had seen at Treblinka, but it was not translated for six decades. His stark, unadorned prose bears harrowing witness to the beatings, torture and pointless humiliations to which the Sonderkommando were subject.
The Drowned and the Saved
By Primo Levi (1986)
Primo Levi came to be regarded as perhaps the best chronicler of life in the camps not because he saw or experienced things that others didn't but because he possessed rare abilities as a writer and a rare cast of mind. What shines through in "The Drowned and the Saved," as much as in his seminal "If This Is a Man" (1947), is his intellect, his sense of morality, the clarity of his thought and the surgical precision of his writing that he used in the service of an illumination of mankind caught red-handed by him in the process of disgracing itself. Here Levi marries the genre of memoir to the essay form. These include "The Memory of the Offence," about memory, its repression by the oppressed and its distortion by the oppressors, "The Grey Zone," about the need not to rush to judge the indiscretions of people in extremis, and "Shame," the shame or guilt or even depression that sometimes accompanied survival.
The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow
Edited by Raul Hilberg (1979)
No Nazi-created Jewish ghetto was larger than the Warsaw ghetto, and there is no better description of the nightmare endured by its inhabitants than "The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow." Beginning in 1939, he gives an account of his work as chairman of the Jewish Council and later of the Judenrat, a group of Jews responsible for conveying the Nazis' demands to the community. Recording his mounting despair as the murderous purpose of the Nazi decrees became clear, he describes how destitute mothers would wait a week before reporting the death of a child so that the dead child's ration card could be used to obtain food for their other children. The diary runs until July 23, 1942, when Czerniakow committed suicide.
By Filip Müller (1979)
That Filip Müller, a Slovakian Jew, survived to write this essential Holocaust document is statistically quite astonishing. He was deported in April 1942 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of Germany's six death camps. More than a million Jews were murdered there. A month after arriving, he was made to work in the camp's Sonderkommando unit. The SS regularly liquidated these work crews, yet Müller somehow survived. To read his account is to gain an insight into the mechanics and relentlessness of the killing process. "I had come to believe that there were no human feelings left inside me," Müller writes, but then he sees his father's corpse on a trolley in the crematorium. "While my team-mate recited the Kaddish my soul mourned in pain and grief. As the flames busily devoured the mortal remains of my father, the words of the traditional prayer gave me solace."
By Anatoli Kuznetsov (1970)
Anatoli Kuznetsov was born in Kiev to a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother in 1929. When war came, the boy began recording his experiences in a notebook. This was how he came to chronicle what happened in a ravine called Babi Yar near his home in September 1941. Over the course of two days, the invading Germans massacred approximately 34,000 of Kiev's Jews. In the 1960s, Kuznetsov used the notes as the basis for a novel that was published in the Soviet Union in censored form, with descriptions of Ukrainian complicity erased. On the pretext of researching a book on Lenin's stay in London, Kuznetsov defected to Britain with a smuggled copy of his uncensored manuscript. "Babi Yar" is usually described as a novel, but I include it here as a memoir because it so closely follows actual events. "The world has learnt nothing," Kuznetsov writes in an author's note. "It is crammed with misguided puppets and unthinking blockheads who, with the light of fanatical conviction in their eyes, are ready to shoot at any target their leaders may command." And that was in 1970.