Notes From Underground

Lawrence Langer Examines the Benefits and Pitfalls of Holocaust Memoirs

By Lawrence L. Langer

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.
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Journey Through the Inferno

By Adam Boren

Unites States Holocaust Memorial

Museum, 200 pages, $15.95.

* * *

Yesterday: My Story

By Hadassah Rosensaft

United States Holocaust Memorial

Museum, 207 pages, $15.95.

* * *

A principal value of Holocaust survivor memoirs is that they focus on the victim as subject rather than object. They picture Jews as individuals rather than ciphers in an ongoing arithmetical calculation. They occasionally give us information about small ghettos and labor camps about which we have no other documentary evidence. In some instances they offer us portraits of individual SS guards and officers in action, often including names that appear nowhere else. But most important of all, they furnish details about the daily ordeal of men, women and children in the universe of torment and death that Nazi Germany created for European Jewry during the pitiless reign of the Third Reich.

The earliest narratives are voices from the dead, literal notes from underground, written by members of doomed Sonderkommandos and buried in the soil surrounding the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those who criticize survivor testimony for depending too much on unreliable memory cannot fault these agonizing contemporaneous accounts, composed under the shadow of despair by men who were ending their brief lives in what Primo Levi would later call the “gray zone” of human endeavor. Their accounts were the first, followed in subsequent decades by many dozens of others, and the stream has still not dried up.

Survivors began writing early: In 1946, Viktor Frankl finished “A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp” (known initially in America as “From Death Camp to Existentialism” and later as “Man’s Search for Meaning”), and Primo Levi completed “If This is a Man” (misleadingly titled “Survival in Auschwitz” in its American translation). Charlotte Delbo’s stunning “None of Us Will Return” also belongs to this early postwar period. All three were in Auschwitz, though each provides a radically different view of the experience, only partly having to do with the fact that Levi was a secular Jew, Frankl on the road to converting from that religion, and Delbo a non-Jew. Her poetic intensity is worlds apart from Levi’s disenchanted moral fervor, while Frankl’s sentimental egoism helped to found the postwar agenda, still flourishing in some circles today, for converting unspeakable anguish into a triumph of the human spirit.

Thus, from the beginning no two survivor memoirs were the same, and that situation continues to prevail. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has undertaken to make available to the public over a period of years about 100 survivor chronicles from the nearly 1,000 unpublished manuscripts submitted. Who decides what constitutes the “best,” and which guidelines assure such quality, is not clear from the first volumes in the series: A full statement on these criteria would be helpful. All survivor stories deserve to be heard, but not all merit publication, and one hopes that this venture has been put in the hands of judges sensitive to historical importance and literary and narrative excellence. The director and editor-in-chief of the Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project is Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a successful attorney whose parents, Josef and Hadassah, were well-known in the survivor community for their outstanding work in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp after the war. In his introduction to Adam Boren’s “Journey Through the Inferno,” Rosensaft deplores the fact that historians since World War II have generally focused more on the personalities of the agents of destruction rather than their victims. Although his charge may have been true for the early postwar decades, it is no longer valid: The new history of the Holocaust by Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt makes extensive use of survivor testimonies, as do recent works by historians Saul Friedlander and Christopher Browning. Moreover, Rosensaft’s conclusion that when they are acknowledged, “survivors have generally been depicted as two-dimensional skeletal figures staring blankly into the camera in their concentration camp uniforms” ignores many works of the last decade devoted exclusively to individualizing and interpreting the survivor experience, including my own “Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory.” That “the dead and the survivors deserve the dignity of a permanent historical presence” is thus not a new discovery, though if the volumes from this project spur readers to adopt a more active role in this essential challenge, they will have made an important contribution to Holocaust memory.

Adam Boren’s “Journey Through the Inferno” does much more than this. Boren begins his account in August 1939, shortly before the German invasion of Poland, and ends it in December 1946 in New York harbor, wondering what the “unknown future” has in store for him. The sentiment of Cynthia Ozick’s Rosa, a fictional Polish camp survivor, would seem to endorse this strategy: “Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays.” Boren’s odyssey through the underworld of German oppression takes him from Warsaw to Bialystok and other areas of Soviet-occupied territory to the virtually unknown ghetto of Krzemieniec, back to Warsaw where he took part in the uprising of April 1943, and finally to Majdanek, Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, from which he and the other prisoners were driven on a futile march eastward until they were abandoned a few kilometers from approaching American troops. Here and there Boren alludes to his “carefree childhood” in Warsaw before the war, but one of the many virtues of his narrative is his refusal to allow nostalgia to displace the brutal realities of his Holocaust existence. Looking down from the window in his ghetto room, he reports, “I saw our bedraggled, starving people…. Starved adults held items in their hands and tried to sell them to passersby…. The suffering was palpable.” Boren’s determination not to embellish his story with salvational gestures rewards the reader with an honest if painful version of his ordeal, painful for us but how much more so for the author, who had to face daily what we are asked only to imagine.

How does one manage to stay alive in such a realm of the dead and the dying? Earlier, while attempting to escape from the Krzemieniec ghetto, Boren, his father and older brother are captured by the Gestapo, taken to the local prison and summarily sentenced to be hanged. On the way to their place of execution together with a group of other condemned Jews, Boren notices a small shed with the door ajar. In the dusk. he ducks through the opening unnoticed. The others move on, and soon he hears their cries of “Shema Yisrael” before they are murdered. Under cover of darkness, he clambers over the wall surrounding the prison and escapes — for the time being. It would be easy and comforting to celebrate the courage and resourcefulness that Boren showed through his escape, but the author does not invite this response. “I was terrified, and my heart beat so loud and fast, I could hear it,” he writes of his time in hiding. Few survivors adopt a language of triumphalism when describing the spontaneous impulses that, combined with luck, allowed them to escape from the Germans. Had Boren been caught, he would have been shot on the spot. As he tells it, his feat had nothing to do with the heroic will. How could it, when it is etched eternally on his memory in association with the death of his father and brother?

“Journey Through the Inferno” is filled with such examples of narrative integrity. Boren has no illusions about surviving unscathed from his ordeal, since his good fortune is closely tied to the unlucky fate of others. Moreover, his personal situation does not improve even though Majdanek and Auschwitz are behind him and he is assigned to indoor work in the Heinkel Werke near Sachsenhausen. He is still driven to chew tree bark and pine needles to allay his gnawing hunger. As the spring of 1945 approaches and Allied forces draw near, he does not recall being thrilled by hope of release. Instead, he sums up his mood at the time with the following bleak scenario: “Death was part of my hourly existence. I became inured to it, because every day the situation in camp got worse. Starvation and disease were rampant… Though liberation was at hand, more and more Muselmänner were created. They were sacks of starved skin and bones, who dragged their feet through the camp, looking for some food, their eyes blank….” With admirable honesty, Boren refuses to detach his own impending rescue from the misery of those who will not live to see it. When he is finally freed on May 1, 1945, he thinks first of his dead mother, father, sister and brother, “gone forever. I was all alone. Tears ran down my face. Not because I was free, but because of the emptiness.” True, a moment later hope revives as a sympathetic American soldier hugs him, but whatever the future holds for Adam Boren will include the bitter legacy that he carries with him to America.

That is a different part of the tale, the post-Holocaust part, and Boren showed good judgment in leaving it for another day. Hadassah Rosensaft’s “Yesterday: My Story” is another matter entirely. Only four of its 22 chapters are concerned with her Holocaust experience in Sosnowiec, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, comprising less than one-fifth of the text. We are told in a note at the end that she had help organizing “several of the book’s earlier chapters,” and this is clear from the reportorial tone of that part of the text, which here and there is padded with historical information available elsewhere. One gets the sense that the author (who died in 1997) was not very enthusiastic about recording these experiences, and who can blame her? When she arrived in Auschwitz, her husband was holding the hand of their 5-year-old son. They were sent to the “left,” and she never saw them again. Although she was a trained dentist, Rosensaft had some medical training from her studies in France, and was recruited as a doctor, and this probably helped to save her life. But anyone searching for a vivid if painful personal account of her Holocaust ordeal will not find it in this book. Although the author was in her 30s at war’s end, and thus not dependent on childhood or teenage memories, she chose not to explore the anguish of the camp years. Her 1947 statement, “In many people the sad experiences undergone have left deep scars,” surely included her own stressful past, but — to the reader’s loss — she decided not to expose the complex inner history buried in this simple line.

Instead, in her chronicle of the postwar years, Rosensaft emphasizes the “extraordinary” achievements of herself and her husband in nurturing and defending the rights of Jewish orphans and former prisoners in the Belsen displaced persons camp, overcoming the restraints of a stolid (though ultimately sympathetic, thanks to their persistent efforts) British occupying power. “Yesterday” says very little about the “before” of the Holocaust, not much more about the “during,” rather turning to the “after” as the history it wants to celebrate. And since the bulk of her narrative is celebratory in tone, it is not surprising that so little of it has to do with the years of anguish. Almost as much space is devoted to Rosensaft’s involvement in the birth and building of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (even though several books have already been written on that subject, providing similar information) as to her Holocaust ordeal, and this confirms what many readers will soon discover: The memoir is not about the Holocaust experience but its aftermath, not what happened, but why and how it should be remembered. It is a modestly told tribute — much-deserved — to the Rosensafts’ tireless work in preserving with dignity and historical accuracy the site of the concentration camp at Belsen, and in supporting an institution — the Holocaust Museum in Washington — that would give Americans access to the event, though far from its locale.

One note of disappointment is the carelessness with which Rosensaft’s posthumous volume has been edited, and one hopes that future memoirs in the series will receive more vigilant scrutiny, lest the enterprise founder on the shoals of inaccuracy. Permitting her statement that at Babi Yar “in September 1941, the Germans had slaughtered 80,000 Jewish men, women, and children” to remain unchallenged in a volume published in 2004 is nothing short of scandalous (the correct figure is 33,000), which is also true of her mistaken reference, during a visit to Auschwitz in 1979, to the “flames that had consumed millions of Jews” in Birkenau. At the time, that number may have seemed accurate, but today we know it is not. A smaller but still inexcusable error is that during her visit she “stopped on the site [in Birkenau] where five crematoria had once stood,” when the correct number is four. Such negligence by her editors does not

honor the memory of this distinguished woman. One is dismayed to conclude that no responsible historian ever checked the text before it was sent to press.

No doubt coincidentally, “Journey Through the Inferno” and “Yesterday: My Story” represent opposite approaches to the atrocity of mass murder that continue to flourish in Holocaust discourse. The story told by Boren is a bleak saga where dying is the norm and staying alive the result of chance or luck. Its steady focus is the grim situation of the Jews during the fateful years of 1939-1945. Rosensaft’s intentions are quite otherwise, best illustrated by a citation she offers approvingly from an address by her son Menachem to the first conference of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1984: “We shall transmit to our children our profound reverence and admiration for the spiritual strength, the heroic defiance and the somber dignity displayed throughout the years of the Holocaust by all who suffered its agonies.” Such rhetoric of remembrance may be stirring, but anyone who has seen photos of the hordes of skeletal wrecks the British found when they stumbled on the camp at Belsen will wonder at such language. More than 13,000 of them died after they were freed. Through no fault of their own, “somber dignity” was distinctly not an expression found on the faces of these unfortunate victims, and one is forced to wonder what purpose is served in pretending that it was. Memoirs like Boren’s — and let us hope that there will be more of them — are necessary antidotes to well-intentioned efforts to counter history and truth by suggesting that the anguish of the Holocaust was less than we have been led to believe. The good works of Rosensaft and her husband after the Holocaust merit nothing but acclaim, but I do not see how this can mitigate the harsh reality they and their fellow Jews were forced to endure during the event itself.






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