Books: Wartime memoir a lesson in finding family treasures


Michael Berenbaum

"Every Day Lasts A Year: A Jewish Family's Correspondence From Poland," edited by Christopher R. Browing, Richard S. Hollander and Nechama Tec (Cambridge University Press, $28).

Over the past several years, a new genre of original Jewish documentation has emerged in closets and attics of Holocaust survivors. The documentation has all the authority of the diaries and notes that were written in situ, within the ghettos, within hiding, even within concentration camps and elsewhere during the Holocaust.

It is imperative that we understand the situation in which this new source of documentation has emerged, because we can do something important to facilitate new discoveries.

Children cleaning out their parents' homes or apartments, on the occasion of their moving to warmer climates, into assisted living, downsizing or shortly after their deaths have come across a hidden pile of letters in a shoe box or a jewelry box or on a top shelf. Written in a language they do not understand, the collection is probably most often discarded as somehow unimportant, part of the clutter of a long life in which much was collected and too little discarded. But from time to time children have an inkling that something important is before them, something precious to their parents, but something too difficult to read and to share.

I remember one such moment in my own life. My sister and I were sitting shiva for our 92-year-old mother, and no one was in the house visiting, so we started to go through some things; we began to think as to how we would dismantle a lifetime. By chance, we started with a top shelf and discovered my parents' correspondence when they were first married and my father was off in World War II. My mother had saved the letters she received from her new husband, and he in turn had saved the letters he had received from his bride. After the war, their letters were joined and saved; and thus we had a treasure trove of material giving us insights into our parents, their relationship, the war and the home front. The material is of great importance to their children, their grandchildren and, someday, will be of importance to their great-grandchildren, most too young to read, let alone to understand. But my parents were not survivors; their intimate correspondence was not the stuff of history.

Twice in the past couple of years, this newly revealed documentation has consisted of letters written during the war by Jews living in ghettos and even in slave labor camps and has resulted in important books and exhibitions.

"Sala's Story," a collection of letters written by friends and family to Sala Garncarz while she was in prison camps, where she could receive mail and where she dared to hide them and preserve them, was made into an exhibition and a marvelous book. This correspondence depicts the life of Garncarz's parents and sister in the Sosnowiec ghetto and provides original letters by Alina Gartner, one of four women hung at Auschwitz in January 1945 for smuggling dynamite to the Sonderkommando -- the men who worked in the vicinity of the gas chambers at Birkenau. Believing that she was about to die, at the age of 67, Sala told her daughter about these letters, and Ann Kirschner had them translated and wrote an extensive commentary that makes disparate letters into a coherent picture of life in the ghettos -- daily life, the type of details that parents share with children and sisters share with sisters. The result is an extraordinary portrait. One feels invited into the privacy of a family, into the anguish of their daily existence.

A second collection of letters has just now emerged. Richard Hollander has published the letters sent by his grandmother and aunts to his father, Joseph, who after a harrowing escape from Europe was in legal limbo in the United States. Richard discovered these letters shortly after both his parents were killed in a car crash. They were bound carefully together in a leather case and stored in an attic where suitcases were kept. He not only discovered the letters but encountered his father's story. Joseph was not admitted to the United States as a refugee and was considered an enemy alien. His case was a cause celebre of American policy and the gates of refuge that were closed to those Jews fleeing Hitler's conquest. Unaware of his most compromised circumstances and believing that he was the successful and confident worldly man in the United States that he had been in Poland, Joseph's sisters and mother pleaded with him to save them as their situation was deteriorating day by day. He, in turn, could not burden them with his problems, which were minor in comparison. The letters are a poignant portrait of daily life in Cracow, of unique authority and power, which describe conditions almost week by week and the initiative taken by Jews seeking to ameliorate their situation.

David Marwell has commented that "just because Jews were powerless does not mean that they were passive."

And the Hollanders were hardly passive. They understood the extraordinary danger of their situation and pleaded with their brother to get them out before it was too late. They did not understand what was about to happen, but they did understand that their situation was desperate and bound to get worse.

Hollander's work is preceded by two marvelous essays by two of the most distinguished Holocaust scholars of this generation.

Christopher Browning, the brilliant historian who is the natural heir to Raul Hilberg as a student of the perpetrators and their documents, has used his formidable interpretive skills to understand the conditions of their victims. The result not only contextualizes the letters, but is an original essay on life within the ghetto. He understands so well that there were at least two perspectives, two histories that need be understood and juxtaposed: the history of the killers and what they did to their victims, how they shaped the situation in which the Jews had to live, try to survive, endure and/or die; and the situation of the Jews who tried to make do and continue life in a situation not of their creation and committed to their destruction. In the intersection between these two histories, the most complete history of the Holocaust is to be found. Browning brings his skill for understanding documents and his flair for understanding the human situation that gave rise to these documents to both the introduction and the annotation of the letters.

Also included is a second, but certainly not secondary, introduction, "Through the Eyes of the Oppressed," by Nechma Tec, an outstanding scholar of resistance whose work will soon be seen in the forthcoming film on the Bielski brothers. Tec, a survivor and a student of women's experience during the Holocaust, enables the reader to grasp the situation that gave rise to these precious letters.

Richard Hollander, a fine reporter and journalist, portrays his father candidly, lucidly and with a sense of discovery. These letters enabled him posthumously to grow close, to understand what he could not understand in his father's lifetime.

Like Kirschner, Hollander uses his own lack of familiarity with history and with specific details within the letters to inform the reader of what he learned and to clarify seemingly obscure references. Few works are quite as successful in making a document as comprehensive; perhaps only Hilberg's masterful introduction and annotation of the "Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow," and Dina Porat's commentary on the "Kovno Diary of Abraham Tory" come close.

The letters begin in November 1939 and conclude in December 1941, just before the deportations that were to take the life of Joseph's family. They show the deteriorating condition of a family in Cracow day by day and week by week, as well as the way they coped with their ever-more compromised condition. Of equal importance, because they were addressed to Joseph, who seemingly was safe and free -- in actuality, for most of this time he was in danger of being shipped back to German-occupied Poland, where being Jewish was, after December 1941, a death sentence -- they document the activity of a Jewish family trying to escape from their situation, to find refuge abroad. Passive they were not, desperate they were, and even if they could not imagine what followed, they internalized the danger. They were ready to flee anywhere, but were unwanted everywhere.

Permit me three observations that dare not become cliche:

Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Each one had a story; each life was unique, even if their fate was commonly shared. Whenever we recover and retell the story of one person, we instantiate the whole, we give a memory, a name, a face and a narrative to a hitherto faceless victim.

To the children of Holocaust survivors, let me make a plea. Treat your parents' documents as potentially precious. When in doubt, don't throw them out, but ask for help. You may have a historical treasure in your hands. So please, please be careful.

For a historical understanding of the Holocaust to be more complete, more whole, we must document the lives lived by the victims -- not only the moments of crisis, but the daily life -- and examine the remnant of what we have to facilitate such understanding. Saul Friedlander's "Years of Extermination" has shown us what can be done with this documentation, and Hollander, Browning and Tec have demonstrated its power to bring us into contact with the lives of those who are dead.

Richard Hollander will speak at American Jewish University on March 11 at 7:30 p.m.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of theology (adjunct) at American Jewish University.