As the generation of Holocaust survivors — and to some degree, their children — dwindles, the number of books of their reminiscences continues to grow, as many aging men and women try to preserve their memories before they pass on. Such books, primarily journals and autobiographies, have included in recent years many works of fiction, many of them intended for young readers.
Some of the books are published by professional presses; others are self-published, as a legacy for one’s family, circle of acquaintances and historians.
Here are some of the newest entries in the group of first-person Holocaust books:
Yearning to Breathe Free: My Parents’ Flight to Reunite During the Holocaust (Murray Jack Laulicht, Gefen Publishing) is the story, written by Laulicht, an attorney active is several Jewish and Holocaust causes, about his mother, who was able to come to the United States during World War II, and his father, who died in the Shoah, never seeing his wife again, or his son who was born in this country. Through his parents’ letters, and oral history, the author documents their unsuccessful effort to reunite.
Love in a World of Sorrow: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs (Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, Gefen Publishing) is the revised decade-old wartime autobiography of Heller, a prominent philanthropist and activist in many Holocaust causes. She writes, in chilling detail, not sparing her own actions and motives, of Nazi roundups and Jewish escapes, bravery and cowardice, death and survival. “I can make no apologies,” she writes in the preface, “for what I did to survive or for the candor of my account.”
Jewish Hit Squad: The Lukawiecki Partisans Unit of the Polish Armia Krajowa, 1941-44 (Simon Lavee, Gefen Publishing) is good history with a personal angle – the author’s father, Mundek Lukawiecki, was the leader of a Jewish partisan group in southern Poland that operated under the umbrella of the country’s iconic Armia Krajowa. Lukawiecki’s hit squad committed sabotage, assassinated German soldiers as well as Polish and Ukrainian collaborators; after the war, he continued to exact revenge.
We Dared to Live: A Tale of Courage and Survival (Joe Sabrin with Chris Moore, Gefen Publishing) is based on the post-war memoir that Abrashe Szabrinski, a Jewish officer in the Polish army who served with the Partisans in the forests of Lithuania, typed on the Yiddish typewriter given to him by his son, by his son, who co-wrote this book. A nice touch is the historical footnotes alongside the text that provide a needed context about names and events not known now by most American readers.
Rywka’s Diary: The Writings of a Jewish Girl from the Lodz Ghetto (Rykwa Lipszyc, edited by Anita Friedman, an imprint of Harper Collins) is recovered history, a fitting companion to The Dairy of Anne Frank. Written by a teenager in the Lodz Ghetto, it was discovered near the Auschwitz crematoria by a doctor in the liberating Red Army in 1945, and through a circuitous route, made its way to San Francisco, where its translation and publishing, with extensive background footnotes, was arranged.
Eye to Eye: A Memoir of the Nazi Holocaust in Poland (Ludwig Charatan) is one man’s story that is representative of his survivor generation. The author, a longtime Brooklyn resident, was among four members of a Jewish family in eastern Poland who were rescued by a Catholic family on a small farm for 14 months in the last year of the war. Charatan, who sent his saviors food and money and medicine in the subsequent decades, describes how a typical childhood was interrupted by atypical events.
After Auschwitz: A Love Story (Brenda Webster, Wings Press) is a novel by a veteran writer that tells the story, set in 2010 Rome, of a child survivor of the Holocaust, through the lens of her aging husband, who is coping with Alzheimer’s disease. The book is about love and loyalty and memory, of truth and concealment. Webster offers no easy answers to the moral questions she raises, but challenges the reader to provide his or her own answers.
The Safest Lie (Angela Cerrito, Holiday House), a novel for young adult readers, tell the story of a 9-year-old girl who was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. This is a factionalized account of the exploits of real-life heroine Irena Sendler (code-name: Jolanta), a Catholic social worker who at the risk of her life rescued hundreds of Jewish children from the Ghetto, and smuggled food, clothing and medicine in. Cerrito’s book is based on a meeting with Sendler, and research at Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute.
New looks at the Vatican’s wartime leader …
Nearly seven decades after his death, Pope Pius XII, who led the Roman Catholic Church during the Holocaust and the decade after World War II, continues to fascinate scholars of World War II and the wider Jewish community. Three new additions to the research about Pius XII, and of his predecessor, Pius XI, expand our knowledge of the wartime Vatican and the subsequent period, and of Pius XII’s relations with the Third Reich.
The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (David Kertzer, Random House) documents the atmosphere in which the Vatican confronted and abetted the growing power of Benito Mussolini’s Fascists. Pius XI’s behavior offers an insight into, and created a template for, his successor’s subsequent relations with Hitler’s Nazis.
The Church in the early 20th century held the centuries-old, narrow-minded views of Italy’s small Jewish community, who came to be persecuted by the Fascists and threatened existentially by the Nazis — ditto for the Jews in Europe outside of Italy’s borders. “The general Vatican view [was] that the large number of Jews in central and eastern Europe posed a threat to Christian society,” Kertzer writes.
While Pius XI, the former Achille Riatti, who a decade earlier had studied Hebrew with the chief rabbi of Milan and in the closing days of his papacy drafted an encyclical that boldly condemned anti-Semitism, did not fully absorb his colleagues’ prevailing bigoted views, he inevitably was colored by them. “He insisted that the Jews were a dangerous element.”
At first, the Vatican under Pius XI “threw its full weight” behind Mussolini, who gave signs of respecting the Church, then, as the true secular, anti-clerical nature of the Fascists became clear, “the pope settled into a period of collaboration with the Italian dictator,” remaining silent to a rising tide of Fascist-directed anti-Semitism, hoping to maintain the Vatican’s control of religious education. Similarly, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, as Vatican secretary of state, signed a concordat with Nazi Germany that “guaranteed the German Church the right to manage its own affairs.”
In time, Kertzer shows in exacting detail, Pius XI was forced to take a stand against the Fascists, as his successor would against the Nazis.
Pius XII remains an enigma.
Hailed in his time as a friend of the Jews, his reputation as an indifferent pontiff, a lover of all things German — hence the sobriquet “Hitler’s Pope” — was cemented by Rolf Hochhuth’s 1962 play “The Deputy.” His reputation suffered in comparison with his charismatic successor, John XXIII.
The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War (Jacques Kornberg, University of Toronto Press) presents a balanced picture of Pius XII’s career, which was shaped by his years as the Vatican ambassador in Germany.
Pius XII, for all his personal sympathy for the victims of persecution, was as the leader of the Church above all a believer in the necessity of realpolitik, in reaching an accommodation that would further what he saw as Catholic self-interest. He uttered the word “Jew” only once in a public pronouncement during World War II.
Speak up or criticize, take a public stand against the Nazis or try to reach a rapprochement through back channels, adopt a wider view as protector of peoples outside the Vatican orbit or limit his influence to Catholicdom?
The former usually prevailed.
Pius XII, Kornberg shows, was above all a cautious man, shaped by his decades at the apex of Vatican diplomacy. He would do little to endanger Catholic power, Catholic representatives or the Catholic masses. He would sacrifice his office’s undisputed moral clout on the world stage, leaving Hitler’s victims to their fate, while legitimately fearing that a public confrontation with the Third Reich would endanger the very people he had sought to protect.
“Much was known [in Vatican circles] about the systematic massacres of Jews” throughout Nazi-occupied Europe by the early years of World War II because of the Church’s network of clergy and supporters, Kornberg writes. “Pope Pius XII never issued specific warnings to Catholics committing war crimes.”
Kornberg shows that Pius XII’s caution had papal precedents. “Where is the controversy over Pope Benedict XV’s response to the Armenian genocide of 1915, or Pius XI’s response to the use of mustard gas against civilians during the Italian conquest of Ethiopia?” he asks. “The foreign policies of modern popes just prior to Pius XII — Leo XIII, Benedict XV, and Pius XI — in the face of war and even mass atrocities were all of a piece. … with few exceptions papal policies in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries tended to be elastic and accommodating to governments no matter the kind of state and its ruling ideology.
“Pope Pius XII,” Kornberg writes, believed he could not appear to take sides” – between the Allies and Axis – “not even provide the slightest pretext for such a charge.”
The strongest evidence for Pius XII taking a stand, albeit behind closed doors, comes in
Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War against Hitler (Mark Riebling, Basic Books).
Riebling, in thorough research and documentation, shows that Pius XII, rather than being an acquiescent enabler of the Nazis’ genocidal designs, was an active participant in an intrigue whose goal was the assassination of the Fuhrer.
Through his designated aides, the pope acted as an intermediary between the anti-Hitler plotters in Germany and the plot’s supporters in England. Pius XII “liked to keep important threads in his own hands,” Riebling writes. “No one could more discretely and credibly link Hitler’s internal and external enemies … he was the one trusted power amid powers nobody would trust.”
First, the leader of the Catholic Church had to consider “the conditions under which citizens could kill tyrants.” In the Nazis, those conditions prevailed, Pius XII concluded. The pope joined, in “absolute secrecy. Discovery could — and did — mean death to the on-the-ground plotters.
The pope established an intricate communications chain.” Little was committed to paper; ciphered telegrams and mouth-to-mouth conversations in secure locations, a resistance movement’s practice of knowing no more facts or names than necessary, predominated.
Pius XII, who was briefed on a regular basis, acted “on three fronts,” according to Riebling — giving fatal actions against “diabolical powers’ the imprimatur of his ecclesiastical office; making “practical plans” to recognize a “post-Hitler regime”; and seeking “a separate peace with the Western Allies.”
Though the plot failed, and came to light only many years after the end of World War II and Hitler’s death, at his own hand, in a Berlin bunker, Pius XII had taken a stand against evil.
… and one related book
Samarkand: The Underground with a Far-Reaching Impact (Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman).
Though strictly speaking not a book about the Holocaust, Rabbi Zaltzman’s autobiography shares a common root – a story about Jews struggling against, and prevailing against, a totalitarian society.
The rabbi, a longtime leader of the Lubavitch-affiliated outreach organization that teaches the basics of Judaism to a Russian-speaking population of émigrés in this country, describes, in more than 700 pages of sometimes-numbing detail, how he, and his circle of Orthodox Jews in the former Soviet Union, struggled to keep alive a spark of Yiddishkeit in the dark decades of atheistic, anti-Semitic rule. These were the individuals whom the Soviet Jewry movement, the “Let My People Go” people on whose behalf activist American Jews protested.
Samarkand was a Chabad center in Central Asia, in present-day Uzbekistan, home of the Bukharian Jews who have given New York City’s émigré Jewish community a large part of its still-religious flavor. If they maintained their fealty to their faith in their hostile homeland, they are unlikely to weaken in the freedom of their new home, Rabbi Zaltzman writes.
He writes as a Lubavitcher chasid, but his book reflects the mindset of the wider Soviet Jewish population.
In stories about synagogues and schools, prominent community leaders and rank-and-file Jews, Rabbi Zaltzman makes a disappeared world come alive; the men and women steering the post-communist revival of Jewish life behind the now-fallen Iron Curtain do not face the challenges and threats that the rabbi’s generation did.