Fighting for Survival
By Jean-Jacques Greif
Bloomsbury USA, 288 pages, $16.95.
Every book about the Holocaust seems to open up a new world of horrors. The problem, though, is that we are, in many ways, beyond surprises. You mean they’d shoot a Jew because he is too weak to work? Yes, I’ve heard that. They pulled the gold out of the teeth of the dead? I remember reading that somewhere.
In the 21st century, then, what engages readers in a particular story, fact or fiction, is insight into how the protagonist reacted to it — and what lasting effect it had on that person and on those who loved him or her. In his new novel for young people, “The Fighter,” Jean-Jacques Greif succeeds in this obligation with moments of insight and admissions by the fictional narrator, Moshe Wisniak. He is a Polish Jew of small stature who has learned how to box and has one memorable fight in a concentration camp, which helps keep him alive. Late in the book, thinking back to his life in the various camps, Moshe says, “This illness I’ll keep all my life.” And he reflects that even when his son drops a toy, the noise gives him a start.
Greif, a French author, has based Wisniak and his story on the real tales of several people and on the experience of one man in particular, a family friend. In the book, Moshe learned about being a fighter, and some aspects of Polish Jewry, from his ghetto window. Below him, in the courtyard, was a microcosm of shtetl life: the weak being picked on, the “hondling” of the merchants. And from inside his home, he learned about poverty. He wore hand-sewn garments; he never tasted a banana. (“For a long time I thought that the word Jew actually meant poor.”) He evokes, with just such spare sentences and observations, a confining image of life in that community outside Warsaw. Always, it is about being a Jew — having to avoid the bullies, or about the irony of Yom Kippur (“Hey, I think I fast enough on other days!” he tells an uncle).
But no sooner does his family move to Paris, to find work in the burgeoning leather industry, than he is given up to the police when the Germans take over. His harrowing ride in a cattle car to Auschwitz, spare in the telling, is a nightmare from which we know there is no awakening.
He learns about what is happening, the bigger picture, in frightening vignettes: sorting through clothing, which at first had been only men’s, he comes across garments worn by women and children — and realizes that they, too, are now being deported. The clothing of the dead, and dying.
It is, of course, not only the Germans who are Hitler’s willing executioners. The Poles take to it quite readily in their roles as overseers, although Wisniak believes that Poles were forced into this mode. Germans, he contends, take to it naturally. Even fellow Jews oppress others in order to survive.
By May 1945, he clocks in at 77 pounds and his friend tells him he has put on weight. The war is over, yet he hears shots occasionally. He has been in camps in Poland and Germany, but he knows that in the future, Poles and Germans who lived near them will say they had no idea there were such places. “If we survive,” he says, “we’ll never be ordinary men again.”
There is only one detailed fight scene in the book, yet it stands as a metaphor. Skinny yet steeled by work after years as a prisoner, he is asked by the new camp commander, a boxing fan, to fight a taller, heavier Polish kapo. Wisniak is taunted before the fight: Jews are chicken-hearted, etc. Our hero reaches back to his old boxing days and, with guile and speed, defeats the bullish opponent. Wisniak survives to live another day.
It is hardly necessary to aggrandize suffering and inhumanity when discussing this moment in history (one that, in fact, lasted too many moments). There is no need to enhance the Holocaust’s horror, as I think Greif does at times. Aside from a few such missteps, and some awkward translation — “Let’s bolt!” a character says at one point — Greif’s many other hard-hitting incidents use just a few words but land like hard jabs.
After I finished “The Fighter,” I thought, almost immediately, of my cousin Bernie. It was at Caesars Palace, of all places, where we wound up during a vacation to America’s great national parks. Throughout the trip he kept exclaiming: “What a country! Only in America!” Then Bernie — wonderfully successful in business; married almost 50 years, with five children and more than a dozen grandchildren — suddenly blurted out to me on the floor of the dazzlingly lit casino, “There isn’t a night that goes by that I don’t wake up in a cold sweat and think I’m back in the camp.”
Gerald Eskenazi is a longtime journalist living in New York City. He is the author of 15 books.