Once They Had a Country: Two Teenage Jewish Refugees in the Second World War
By Muriel R. Gillick
University of Alabama Press, 240 pages, $19.95
Out on a Ledge: Enduring the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Beyond
By Eva Libitzky and Fred Rosenbaum
Wicker Park Press, 276 pages, $16.95
As the generation of Shoah survivors reaches the end of its natural life span, the question arises of how to preserve the memory of that apocalypse by those who did not directly experience it. A recent work by Ruth Franklin, “A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction,” takes some second-generation writers to task for claiming to be survivors themselves. But this negative view of second-generation literature ignores a new genre of Holocaust memoirs — as well as novels such as Ghita Schwarz’s recent “Displaced Persons” — written by writers born since the war. These writers do not claim to be survivors themselves. They stand at a conscious distance from their subjects, even as they honor their stories. They make use of the wealth of historical literature to situate their subjects in a broader context than the subjects themselves could have done had they written their own memoirs, a trend seen in recent fiction, as well.
The two books under review here differ in terms of authorship. Muriel Gillick, a clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, is the child of two survivor parents, the subjects of her story. Fred Rosenbaum is the author of several histories of the Jews of Northern California, as well as two earlier survivor memoirs, co-authored, like this one, by a survivor. Rosenbaum has developed a very successful technique of “ventriloquizing” his co-authors’ voices so that they appear to have a breadth of knowledge normally reserved for historians. Although technically not the child of a survivor (his mother escaped to Cuba from Poland in 1939), he has developed a highly effective method for entering into the minds of his survivor co-authors in order to tell their stories.
Gillick’s story is remarkable, in part because her parents endured virtually the whole Shoah experience together. Hans Garfunkel was 13 and Ilse Wulff 12 when their parents sent them to Belgium on the same Kindertransport shortly after Kristallnacht. For the next year and a half they were in Belgium, but were evacuated to the South of France in railway freight cars after the Germans invaded in May 1940. Of 100 children, some were rounded up and sent to an internment camp, the first stop on the way to Auschwitz, but the intrepid Swiss woman in charge of the group marched into the camp and successfully — if improbably — demanded their release. As it became increasingly clear that the Nazi noose was tightening around them, Hans and Ilse, along with other children, sneaked across the Swiss border, where they took refuge for the rest of the war, but had to endure the harsh Swiss treatment of Jewish refugees. After the war, the Swiss forced them to leave. Both came to the United States, where they married in 1948.
Gillick has done prodigious research to amplify her parents’ experience and understand it in broader historical context. She gives a rich account of German-Jewish life in the Weimar and early Nazi period to situate the stories of her parents and their respective families. The personal saga of each protagonist in the story becomes the occasion for a deft historical account of the context of that saga. So, for example, in describing how Ilse’s parents fled to Shanghai, where they both died, Gillick sketches a portrait of that often desperate refugee community.
One might expect that a daughter writing her parents’ stories would skirt around difficult personal details or turn her protagonists into unblemished heroes. But Gillick is unflinching. Her father suffered from what she diagnoses as post-traumatic stress disorder (she brings her medical training into play at crucial junctures of the story). Hans’s all-too-human weaknesses — some a result of personality, others the result of his wartime experiences — are frankly acknowledged. Of course, not all children of survivors are able to strike such an objective stance in writing about their parents, but Gillick may well have profited from waiting so long to tell the story of hers.
Rosenbaum’s subject is Eva Libitzky, daughter of a family of Gerer Hasidim from Lodz. Libitzky abandons the faith of her ancestors in the course of ghettoization, in ways that are less theological than practical and existential. Her story is at once familiar and unique. She endured a harrowing four and a half years and the death of her parents in the Lodz ghetto, followed by grueling stints in Auschwitz, a slave labor camp in Germany and, finally, Theresienstadt, where she was liberated
Like Gillick, Rosenbaum has done extraordinary research to contextualize his subject’s story. He found documents in a newly released German archive, as well as in the Lodz municipal archives, that show how Libitzky was admitted to Auschwitz and was given medical tests (not, however, of the sort of notorious experimentation associated with Dr. Josef Mengele). These documents reveal that she had been married in the ghetto, something she had never disclosed after the war.
Rosenbaum also brings to bear the now considerable literature on the Lodz ghetto, probably the best documented of all the communities in Eastern Europe during the war. Because he so successfully ventriloquizes Libitzky’s voice, he is able to put in her mouth a complex description, based on historical research, of the ghetto and its operations, one that she almost certainly could not have written on her own.
A final contribution of both of these works, like “Displaced Persons,” is to take the Holocaust story beyond the war so that we can see how these survivors rebuilt their lives, at times in the face of enormous difficulties (Libitzky’s family struggled for years to survive on a failing chicken farm in Connecticut). That liberation rarely provided “closure” is something we don’t usually learn from the earlier generation of memoirists.
Gillick and Rosenbaum represent the passionate desire of writers born since the Shoah to try to enter into the experience and understand it, although with the awareness that what one has not experienced oneself can never be fully understood (and perhaps even those who did go through the Holocaust can never fully understand it, either). The tools of historical research — objective detachment and use of documentary sources — are what distinguish these second-order memoirs from those written by earlier authors telling their own stories. It is examples like these that make one optimistic about a Holocaust literature beyond the survivors.
David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Davis and author of “Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought” (Princeton University Press, 2010).