Reviews: Azrieli Holocaust Memoirs

The organisation I currently work for accepts manuscripts from Holocaust survivors, and edits, publishes, and distributes the resultant memoirs through schools, book fairs, and other avenues. Although I don’t work the publication side of things (I’m in good old Communications, of course), but I’ve been working my way through the 20 authors they’ve published so far. These people come from all over the world and have experienced anything from convents to concentration camps.  I don’t feel comfortable rating these books – they’re personal and historical documents, not intentional works of literature, so I’m temporarily shelving my star system for now. However, I did want to review them, because I think they deserve to be read, thought about, and remembered.

Felix Opatowski’s Gatehouse to Hell was the first of the memoirs I read. It was a grim page-turner, difficult to put down, horrifying, yet told with a bit of clinical detachment.

Willie Sterner’s The Shadows Behind Me was direct, heart-breaking, and told in simple language that managed to reveal an astonishing depth of feeling. Sterner’s book was also interesting to me as someone who has been fascinated by Oskar Schindler since seeing the movie in middle school. Sterner worked in Schindler’s factory as a painter during the war, and he describes the man, and their relationship.

John Freund’s Springs End is written in the most writerly style of the memoirs I’ve read. Most survivors do not speak English as a first, or even second language, but Freund is comfortable with English, storytelling, and atmosphere. The others so far have been written in a more matter-of-fact, point-by-point, this-is-what-happened-to-me style. Freund is more metaphorical, even lyrical with his theme of the changing seasons, and he philosophically explores his emotions as a survivor.

“How did I survive when so many died? The easiest way to answer would be to say that God was with me, though I cannot accept this explanation because it raises more questions than it answers. […] More than forty million people died in camps, battlefields and bombed cities. Where was God? […] Rabbi Rudolph Ferda believed that we Jews were punished for leaving our religion and the moral teachings of the Torah. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but would a just God punish so severely and unmercifully? […] Even though I cannot believe that God selected me to live, I am grateful that I survived.” ~ pg 71-72

We read along as he grapples with these impossible questions, and describes his well thought-out, ambiguous, and ambivalent answers to them.

Tommy Dick’s Getting Out Alive was dry, terse, pointed, and, in my opinion, darkly amusing. He also slyly gave voice to a question that has always, frankly, annoyed and infuriated me:

“By the spring of 1944, the Germans were fighting for their survival, and yet they began to arrest […] Jews [in Hungary]. One wonders if they did not have strategically more important tasks.” ~ pg 6

Dick’s was also the first memoir I read that really touched on the nihilistically defiant mental view of “screw it, we’re gonna die anyway.” Most have discussed the emotions of fear, anger, and confusion, and the actions of smuggling and hiding. This is the first I’ve read (though not the first to experience, I’m sure) that mentions casual sex as a way to pass the horrible time pleasurably, for example.

Each memoir is unique and fascinating, and each has a worthy and important story to tell. On the one hand, this is so obvious as to become trite (everyone has a story to tell! everyone is important!), but on the other hand, it is an important reminder that we can never know the full story of any situation, and there are as many sides to the same story as there are people to tell it.

Cannonball Read III: 34/52

(Cannonball Read IV: 6/27)

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Posted on December 28, 2012, in 100 things in 1000 days, Book Reviews, Books, Cannonball Read 4 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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