Commentary Magazine


We Survived: The Stories of Fourteen of the Hidden and Hunted of Germany, as told to Eric H. Boehm; and The Root and the Bough,

Martyrdom and Resistance

We Survived: The Stories of Fourteen of the Hidden and Hunted of Germany.
by Eric H. Boehm.
Yale University Press. 308 pp. $3.75.

The Root and the Bough.
by Leo W. Schwarz.
Rinehart. 362 pp. $3.75.

 

Reading survivors’ stories now—survivors of Oswiecim, Bergen-Belsen, the Warsaw ghetto—one feels chiefly the paralysis of consent or credence: yes, one can believe these things happened, yet they do not provoke any immediate reaction. One remembers with a certain nostalgia the horror engendered by the first reports of what was happening to the German Jews in the mid-30′s. Then, after the war had started, the reports became atrocity stories which bore just enough resemblance to the dismembered Belgian children of another war to make them suspect to the “enlightened” mind. With the end of the war, and the discovery of the crematoria, the gas chambers, the mass graves, the surviving victims, horror was possible once more. But it was not very long thereafter that a perusal of all the New York papers would give no indication that the Nuremberg trials were going on.

It would be something of a comfort to attribute this loss of “news interest,” this loss of the power to move, to the distance of the war from America and the muting effect of an intervening ocean. Yet the real trouble is not this, but is an incapacity for sustained realization of horror that is inherent in the reactions of the very victims themselves: in their for the most part ever lessening ability to respond to the plight of their fellow-victims; in the conviction of many of them that no one could ever understand what had happened to them; in the need, for example, of Hayim-Meir Gottlieb to argue with his fellow Buchenwald survivors on June 21, 1945, that it was morally wrong for the survivors of the camps to have sexual relations with German women. If even the victims themselves suffer losses in their capacities for response, what hope is there for Americans who, with the exception of soldiers who served overseas, have seen only cows behind barbed wire?

_____________

 

One must feel a large debt of gratitude to Eric H. Boehm and Leo W. Schwarz for editing these two collections of survivors’ stories. If they only rarely engender the kind of emotional armament one would like to possess, they do make available a kind of documentary armament that is of real value. The stories of We Survived are all of Germans, chiefly in the Berlin area. Most of the people who tell their stories are middle-class Jews who had enjoyed positions of some respect in the German community before the rise of Nazi power, who had been to varying degrees assimilated into Christian society, and in some cases even converted to Christianity. But the victims also include a Protestant clergyman named Eugen Gerstenmaier, an aristocrat named Lagi Countess Ballestrem-Solf, a German painter of Danish extraction named Knud Christian Knudsen. Jew or Gentile, the protagonists of the stories fall more pertinently, if roughly, into two general groups: the “U-Boats” and the resisters.

“U-Boat” was the slang name for the people who attempted to submerge, to destroy their identities in order to survive, the Jews or the politically suspect who invented false deaths for themselves in order to forestall real deaths. The procedure was fairly stylized: the apartment or house deserted when a raid seemed imminent; often suicide notes left behind and instructions for the disposition of bodies; a warning to all friends not to recognize the “dead people” in case of a meeting; the destruction or abandonment of all identification papers. But even if initially carried off, the role of the living dead was difficult to sustain. One could not legally buy food in Nazi Germany without a ration card, and ration cards were issued only to people who could establish a legal identity. There were police checks on roads, trains, buses, and in all public places, for which it was necessary to produce identification papers. Sometimes bogus identification papers could be procured, in the name of someone who had died perhaps, or of some fictitious “Aryan,” but more often the “U-Boat” had to avoid all situations in which an identity might be necessary, The spiritual dispossession of our age was incarnated in the flesh.

The resisters vary from those who committed minor acts of sabotage or non-cooperation or military malingering to those who, like Gerstenmaier, took a part in the plot against Hitler’s life. One is impressed with these acts as one must always be impressed with demonstrations of courage (though it is a virtue we are just learning to value again). But over the narrators’ telling of these events there hangs a pall of futility which, though it may be an emotion only of retrospect, seems to have had a destructive effect on the acts themselves. One suspects that the conspirators did not feel much hope of success even at the time—that they felt instead a kind of prideful will to martyrdom. And this is not the way revolutions are made.

Almost all the accounts in the Boehm collection have a stiff dignity in the telling that gives them a curious disparity with the events they are describing. It is an almost indescribable relief to come to the story of the crippled tailor Moritz Mandelkern who tells how he wept when his son was taken from him, and how frightened he was as he hid from the SS in a tiny attic room and realized that the house beneath him was in flames. Or when we learn that one of the resisters wrote a poem in his cell, just before he was hanged, with the last stanza:

The final arguments
Are not the hope or knife.
And those today our judges
Sit not on Judgment Day.

One realizes then that the failure to respond is a failure of communication as well as of capacity.

_____________

 

Schwartz in his collection uses only the stories of Jews, and for the most part Central European Jews, although there are also a couple of interesting accounts of the fate of Jews in Occupied France. His method differs from Boehm’s in that instead of giving a comparatively few stories, and giving them complete, he gives selections from thirty-two different stories, and from a remarkable communal journal of a group of Buchenwald survivors who constituted themselves as the Kibbutz Buchenwald and eventually went to Israel. (Parts of this journal appeared in COMMENTARY, June and August 1946.)

To go from Nazi Germany to the wartime ghettos of Warsaw and Vilna is a transition from suffering to activity, vitality. The Eastern European Jews had two advantages: they gave positive assent to the fact of their being Jewish and had not, whether through choice or necessity is not pertinent, to any great extent practiced or aspired toward assimilation; they were being oppressed largely by a foreign invader and not by the people in whose brotherhood they had formerly vested great pride.

What the people named Miedzyrzecki, Sutzkever, Bielski, Pupko-Krinsky, and Feigenbaum possessed was a hard core of anger, militancy. self-reliance, a capacity for the acts of desperation and the fantastic gesture. These may not be the highest virtues of a civilized society, but in a situation in which civilization rarely intruded, they constituted a kind of honor, and if they were not very instrumental in preventing destruction, they at least kept the Warsaw ghetto from being an abattoir: one could tell the victims were human beings, not cattle, because they resisted—resisted intellectually, morally, and physically.

Such a statement must necessarily be qualified, lest it seem to justify a certain enthusiasm for the act of violence in itself—an enthusiasm which only a few months ago lent the violent cruelties of the Sternists a glamor that was never accorded the battles of the Israeli Army. Probably the most complete record to date in English of the Warsaw ghetto’s resistance is Bernard Goldstein’s The Stars Bear Witness (Schwartz has a selection from this book, but the book was published in this country last year). Here it is made abundantly clear that the intent of the ghetto organization was not per se to kill Germans, but to save the lives of the Jews, and to form a secret army that might eventually help to free Poland from its invaders. The men and women who fought in the ghetto were committed not to destruction, but to life—on certain terms.

Yet the terms were severe, and one of the lone survivors of the Vilna ghetto, Mark Dworzecki, has written a remarkable dialogue with conscience in which he examines his survival to see whether it in any way involved a complicity in the deaths of his comrades. Here we come suddenly to grips with our own situation. David Rousset has envisaged the concentration camps as the most intense manifestation of a universal condition. The conceit, which is germinal, makes survivors of us all, and endows each of us with the survivor’s burden.

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