"Write and record,” historian Simon Dubnow urged his fellow Jews, as he was taken to his death in Riga.
Over the decades since Dubnow’s murder in 1941, many have taken his words to heart, and scholars, survivors, novelists, poets, members of the second and third generations continue to publish new work on the Holocaust. This season, in time for the commemoration of Yom HaShoah, there are impressive historical works, memoirs of lost childhood, personal testimony and artful works of fiction; some are written by those who feel an obligation to those whose voices were stilled.
Archivist Bonnie Gureswitsch quotes Dubnow in the opening of her essay “Documenting the Unimaginable: Recording the Truth, Telling the World” in a companion book to a new exhibition opening on April 16 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, “Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust” (Museum of Jewish Heritage).
Edited by curator Yitzchak Mais, with essays by Holocaust scholar David Engel, psychologist Eva Fogelman, Gureswitsch and Mais, the book documents individual and group acts of resistance, through excerpts of diaries, oral histories and letters — some never before published — illustrated with photographs and artwork produced clandestinely in ghettos and camps.
As Mais writes, he and his colleagues have “sought to change the widely held perception that Jews, by and large, failed to resist. The question is not, as some would pose it, ‘Why did Jews fail to mount cohesive and effective resistance to the Nazis,’ but rather, ‘How was it possible that so many Jews resisted at all?’”
“The Righteous Among the Nations: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust” by Mordecai Paldiel, with a foreword by Elie Wiesel (Collins) includes about 150 well-written profiles of ordinary citizens who risked their lives — who wouldn’t apply the word hero to themselves but indeed personify heroism. They were selected from among the more than 21,000 people who have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. The author, who was born in Antwerp and was helped during the war years by a French priest profiled in the book, serves as director of the Department for the Righteous at Yad Vashem.
Mordecai Paldiel’s “Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust” (Ktav) details the lives of diplomats around the world during World War II, often on routine assignments, who, as Ambassador Richard Holbrooke explains in an introduction, found themselves “in an unexpected moral dilemma of historic dimensions.” Often using unorthodox methods, these diplomats risked their own lives to try to save others, motivated by their sense that official policies were wrong. Some of the diplomatic heroes are familiar names, like Chiume Sugihara of Japan and Giorgio Perlasca of Italy. Paldiel also includes many others, from China, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland, Brazil, Yugoslavia and the Vatican.
In the book’s epigraph, Paldiel quotes German writer Lion Feuchtwanger, “Who has not gone through a country shaken by internal troubles, by war or foreign occupation, who does not know the significant role that an identity card or an administrative rubber stamp can play in a person’s life?”
“The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945” by Saul Friedlander (HarperCollins) is a follow-up to his earlier work “The Years of Persecution,” which together provide a remarkable comprehensive history. The author, who was born in Prague and spent his childhood in Nazi-occupied France, is a distinguished professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles, and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. The work is based on letters, diaries and memories as well as archival documents.
A post-Holocaust story, “The Polish Woman” by Eva Mekler (Bridge Works) opens with a 29-year-old woman arriving at the law offices of a man who — as she informs him — is the nephew of her late father. At first, the lawyer doesn’t believe that this woman is the long-lost child, who had been hidden by a Catholic family in Poland. A powerful story unfolds, as the lawyer and young woman try to verify her account and her identity. Born in Poland immediately after the war, the author spent her first few years of life in a displaced persons camp in Germany and now lives in New York.
Aharon Appelfeld is a storyteller who spins his craft with delicacy and compassion. When his first book was published, a critic wrote, “Appelfeld doesn’t write on the Holocaust but about its margins.” Some 20 books later, he’s still writing in the margins, creating stories drawn, in part, from his life.
In his latest novel, “All Whom I Have Loved" (Schocken), a young son of divorced parents moves back and forth between their homes and lives. The book is set in Europe in the ‘30s, and the story prefigures what is to come for the Jews. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina, Appelfeld lives in Israel.
“Dark Clouds Don’t Stay Forever: Memories of a Jewish German Boy in the 1930s and 1940s” by Werner Neuberger (Publish America) is a personal story that also conveys a larger perspective on prewar life in Germany. The author left Germany on a Kindertransport, came to the U.S. at the age of 13 and later served in the U.S. Army. As the title implies, he has managed to sustain his positive, life-embracing attitude. He writes with humility and insight.
“Bread, Butter, and Sugar: A Boy’s Journey through the Holocaust and Postwar Europe” by Martin Schiller (Hamilton Books) is told in the third person; it’s the story of young Menek, who would later become Martin, now a 73-year-old electrical engineer specializing in pollution control. The author captures the child’s point of view: Schiller was 6 when the Nazis invaded Poland, and 9 when he and his family were interned as slave laborers. He survived Buchenwald with the help of a German political prisoner.
“My Dog Lala: The Touching True Story of a Young Boy and His Dog During the Holocaust” by Roman R. Kent (Teacher’s Discover) is, as the author describes, a love letter to his pet, also a casualty of the Holocaust. When Kent’s family was taken from its home in Lodz to the Ghetto, Lala — whose name means doll in Polish — would find the way to the family at night, sneaking in and out of the Ghetto. Kent, a businessman who is active in Jewish organizational life related to the Holocaust, has used the story of Lala in speaking with young people, as a way to promote tolerance.
“Michelangelo in Ravensbruck: One Woman’s War Against the Nazis” by Countess Karolina Lanckoronska with a preface by Eva Hoffman (Da Capo) is an unusually gripping story. The author was an aristocrat with a cosmopolitan background who, when the war broke out, was teaching Renaissance Italian art in Lvov. Although she could have used her connections to leave the country, the Polish patriot chose instead to become involved in the Resistance.
When she was arrested, sentenced to death and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, the resilient countess read Shakespeare and wrote about Michelangelo; she taught art history to women at the camp, bolstering their spirits and their vision even as they knew, as she did, that they were on the edge of life. She also helped the women with nursing care and procured extra food for those most needy. One month before the end of the war, she was freed thanks to the intervention of Red Cross officials. She wrote this memoir about daily life in Ravensbruck following her liberation. The Countess lived to be 104, making Rome her home in exile.
“The Diary of Petr Ginz 1941–1942” edited by Chava Pressburger with an introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer (Atlantic Monthly Press) showcases the writing and drawing talents of the thoughtful and energetic young man, who lived in Prague in the early 1940s. Ginz wrote and also painted beautifully. In Terezin, he was very involved with the underground newspaper “Vedem,” and he continued to draw and paint in the camp. He was killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
The diary was discovered in a Prague attic, soon after Ginz’s name was in the news following the 2003 explosion of the Columbia space shuttle. Ilan Ramon had taken a painting by Ginz with him on board, to honor the memory of the Holocaust. Pressburger, Ginz’s sister who lives in Israel and remembered the small exercise books her artistic brother used as diaries, then made efforts to publish the book internationally.