Review of After the Holocaust the bells still ring

RabbiJosephPolak

Review of Rabbi Joseph Polak’s memoir, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring

by Claudia Moscovici

Early childhood development specialists emphasize the importance of having a nurturing and stable environment for infants and toddlers. That’s when the foundations of a child’s personality are formed and influence the rest of their life. For instance, studies have shown that many of the children who grew up in the Communist Romanian orphanages during the 1980’s, living in deplorable conditions and deprived of love, attention, adequate sanitary facilities and healthy food, developed personality deficiencies. Many felt emotionally detached from others and could barely communicate.

What about the youngest children of the Holocaust, growing up in the most hellish circumstances imaginable? We know that most of them perished in the fires of the crematoria, being the first to be selected for immediate death. The few so-called “lucky” child survivors recall bits and pieces of what might have been an even worse fate. Rabbi Joseph Polak’s memoir, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring (New York, Urim Publications, 2015), winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award, depicts surviving as a toddler in environments whose only certainties were suffering, squalor, misery and death.

Joseph Polak was born on October 16, 1942, in a Jewish family in German-occupied Netherlands. The Dutch Nazis were ready to snatch him from normal life and send his entire family to the transit camp Westerbork before he was even born. His mother recalled the loud pounding on the door in the middle of the night by “the Police” when she was nine months pregnant with Joseph. She courageously warded off the Dutch Nazis by pointing out the advanced state of her pregnancy. Unfortunately, they didn’t stay away for long. A year later, on September 29, 1943, the Nazis returned. The Polak family was sent to Westerbork for about four months, joining 100,000 other Jews who would be deported to “the East”.

Being so young, Joseph retained only hazy traces of memory of the transit camp, enhanced by his mother’s subsequent descriptions: its crowded, sweaty, uncomfortable conditions; the state of anxiety of so many uprooted, displaced people deprived of their roots, assets, professions, families and identities while awaiting to be sent to what they rightly suspected would be a miserable place. The Dutch government set up Camp Westerbork in the fall of 1939 for Jewish refugees who were not Dutch citizens and had entered the country illegally. Following the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, the camp grew and became, between 1942 to 1944, a transit camp for all Dutch Jews on their way to the Nazi concentration camps. While the camp organizers, who were also Jewish, attempted to create some semblance of normalcy through various routines and activities—which included entertaining diversions such as plays and musical shows—inmates were obsessed with the weekly lists of candidates for deportation to the East. Staying versus leaving Westerbork could mean the difference between life and death. Eventually almost everyone was deported.

Joseph and his parents were sent to Bergen-Belsen on February 1, 1944, when the camp was known for its relatively good conditions. Those didn’t last long, however. In December 1944, the camp began receiving a large intake of prisoners from Eastern camps evacuated by the Germans faced with the advance of the Soviet army. Grossly overcrowded and without sufficient food and medical supplies or sanitation facilities for its growing population, during its last few months, Bergen-Belsen became a breeding ground for typhus, dysentery, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and death. Starving and deprived of adequate care, with a mother who had become a shadow of her former self and weighed only 50 pounds, little Joseph wandered around hungry and in rags, playing among the miles of corpses lined up at Bergen-Belsen. The narrator depicts, vividly, the overpowering stench of feces and decomposing bodies. Ultimately, his family was “lucky” again. On April 9, 1945 they were sent along with 2500 other Jews to Theresienstadt. On the way, they were liberated by the Soviet Army in Tröbitz, a little village of 700 people in East Germany. Unfortunately, by then his parents had lost their health and stamina. His father passed away in May, while his mother fell gravely ill. Joseph was taken by the Dutch authorities and placed in the care of another Dutch-Jewish family.

Joseph doesn’t have many memories of this brief period. He only recalls the fleeting impression of security offered by his adoptive father. The young boy held on tightly to the man’s jacket as they rode together on a scooter, enjoying the sights and the breeze. Their destination, however, would be a new shock for little Joseph: a white hospital bed where he’s reunited with a mother that he can no longer bond with or even recognize. It takes time for mother and child to begin to heal and grow together again in the more livable conditions offered by a center for Jewish survivors in The Hague. They spend there the next three years, from 1945 to 1948. Later, his mother tells Joseph how she managed to put the atrocious conditions of the concentration camp momentarily out of her mind by imagining that she was at her favorite department store, far removed from the squalor of Bergen-Belsen. Then she takes him to that store again. Flashes of memory spark in the child’s mind, as he perceives, with a sense of wonder and incomprehensible nostalgia for the sordid yet familiar past, the contrast between the luxurious goods in front of his eyes and the misery of his first years of life. In December 1948, mother and child sail to New York together. Later, they end up living with her family in Montreal.

It took Rabbi Joseph Polak decades to return to his early childhood past, which he only vaguely recalls in bits and pieces, and which, for a long time, he wanted to forget. When he was fifty years old, ten years after his mother had passed away, he returned to Bergen-Belsen after a trip to Paris, where he lectured on Jewish law. He was ready, by then, not only to recollect his family’s experiences of the Holocaust, but also to preserve and share them with others. It occurred to him that, as even the youngest child survivors of the Holocaust age and pass away, there is a risk that their memories will disappear along with them. Reading After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring accomplishes more than remind readers of the Holocaust. It also helps us empathize with the victims by placing readers in those circumstances through different narrative means.

Above all, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring is a beautifully written, evocative memoir. In parts, it’s also a theosophical dialogue, staging discussions between the narrator and the Angel of Death on the timeless question of theodicy: namely, how can an omnipotent and omniscient God allow the horrific suffering of children, of innocents? I’m not sure that this question is answered in any definitive manner by the text, but readers can find some solace in the evolution of the author’s own life. Rabbi Joseph Polak used his good fortune of being one of the few very young child Holocaust survivors to fill the void of nihilism left by the trauma of his past and make something worthwhile and redeeming of his life. Instead of turning his back upon humanity for what so many did to their fellow human beings, he reached out to help and heal others, both as a religious figure and as a writer.

His narrative is also an educational text. It makes pedagogical bridges with new generations of readers. Where relevant, Rabbi Polak offers helpful historical background and places the Dutch Holocaust in proper perspective. Middle school and high school students, exposed to Anne Frank’s diary and little else about the Holocaust in the Netherlands, may perceive the Dutch citizens of the era as heroes who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. While many courageous individuals certainly did, as Polak points out, the Netherlands was at the same time a country that rounded up Jews with remarkable zeal and efficiency. Between the summer of 1942 and the fall of 1944, the Dutch collaborators sent over 100,000 Jews, or 75 percent of the country’s Jewish citizens, to concentration camps. Only 5,200 among them survived. The odds were better for those who went into hiding with the aid of the Dutch underground or of their non-Jewish friends. Of the 30,000 Jews who hid from the Nazis, two thirds survived.

Last but not least, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring has a beautiful, authentic and lyrical style. At times, it reminded me of Marguerite Duras’ writing: vivid yet also vaguely suggestive; drawing out the philosophical implications of sensory descriptions; versatile in the way it reaches out to readers. Memoir, philosophical and religious treatise, oratory, history lesson and literary text: you will find all this and more in Joseph Polak’s After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 

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Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 

Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 by Claudia Moscovici

Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night (New York, Hill and Wang, 2006, translated by Marion Wiesel), is one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed works about the Holocaust. The New York Times called the 2006 edition “a slim volume of terrifying power”. Yet its power wasn’t immediately appreciated. In fact, the book may have never been written had Wiesel not approached his friend, the novelist Francois Mauriac, for an introduction to the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes France, whom he wanted to interview. When Mauriac, a devout Catholic, mentioned that Mendes stated that France was suffering like Jesus, Elie Wiesel responded that ten years earlier he had seen hundreds of Jewish children suffer more than Jesus did on the cross yet nobody spoke about it. Mauriac appeared moved and suggested that Wiesel himself write about this difficult subject.

The young man followed his advice. He began writing in Yiddish an 862-page manuscript about his experiences of the Holocaust. The Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina published an abbreviated version of his book, under the title And the World Remained Silent. Wiesel later translated the text into French. He called it, more simply and symbolically, Night (La Nuit) and sent it to Mauriac, who helped Wiesel find a publisher (the small and prestigious publishing house Les Editions de Minuit) and wrote its Preface. The English version, published in 1960 by Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang, received strong critical acclaim despite initially modest sales. Over the years, Elie Wiesel’s eloquent books and informative interviews helped bring the difficult subject of the Holocaust to the center of public attention. In 2006, Oprah Winfrey selected Night for her high-profile book club, increasing its public exposure.

This work is autobiographical—an eloquent memoir documenting Wiesel’s family sufferings during the Holocaust—yet, due to its literary qualities, the text has also been read as a novel or fictionalized autobiography. The brevity, poignant dialogue, lyrical descriptions of human degradation and suffering, and historical accuracy of this multifaceted work render Night one of the most powerful Holocaust narratives ever written.

Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel was only 15 years old when the Nazis entered Sighet in March of 1944, a Romanian town in Northern Transylvania that had been annexed to Hungary in 1940. At the directives of Adolf Eichmann, who took it upon himself to “cleanse” Hungary of its Jews, the situation deteriorated very quickly for the Jewish population of Sighet and other provincial towns. Within a few months, between May and July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews, mostly those living outside of Budapest, were deported to Auschwitz aboard 147 trains.

Wiesel’s entire family—his father Shlomo, mother Sarah, and sisters Tzipora, Hilda and Beatrice—suffered this fate. Among them, only Elie and two of his sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, survived the Holocaust. However, since women and men were separated at Auschwitz upon arrival, Elie lost track of what happened to his sisters until they reunited after the end of the war. In the concentration camp, father and son clung to each other as the only family they had left.

Night recounts their horrific experiences, which included starvation, forced labor and a death march to Buchenwald. Being older and weaker, Shlomo becomes the target of punishment and humiliation. He’s abused by SS officers as well as by other prisoners who steal his food. Weakened by hunger and fatigue, he dies after a savage beating in January 1945, only a few weeks before the Americans liberate the concentration camp. Throughout their tribulations, the son oscillates between a filial sense of responsibility towards his increasingly debilitated father and regarding his father as a burden that might cost him his own life. Elie doesn’t dare intervene when the SS officer beats Shlomo, fearing that he himself would become the next victim if he tries to help his father.

In the darkness and despair of Night, the instinct of self-preservation from day to day and moment to moment counteracts a lifetime of familial love. Even when Elie discovers the death of his father in the morning, he experiences a sense of hollowness: not only his father’s absence, as his bunk is now occupied by another inmate, but also the lack of his own human response: “I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!” (112)

Night offers a stark psychological account of the process of human degradation in inhumane conditions. Even the relatively few and fortunate survivors of the Nazi atrocities, such as Elie Wiesel, became doubly victimized. They are the victims of what they suffered at the hands of their oppressors as well as the victims of what they witnessed others suffer and were unable (or unwilling) to help. Although Night focuses on the loss of human dignity in the Nazi concentration camps, the author’s life would become a quest for regaining it by writing and talking about the Holocaust. As Wiesel explains to his audience on December 10, 1986 during his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, his message to his son–and to the world at large—is about the empathy required to perpetuate Holocaust memories. He declares, “I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. … We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (118).

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 

 

Between Fanaticism and Terror: Hitler, Stalin and The Noise of Time

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by Gustaw Herling, a Polish prisoner in the Soviet Union: “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (A World Apart, 175-76). The similarities between these two evil dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that the two tyrants selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of Soviet society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force during a period of time when preparations for war should have been a priority.

Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, describes the arbitrary nature of Stalin’s Great Terror in his biographical novel about the composer Dimitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (New York and London: Knopf, 2016). Tellingly, the title phrase is borrowed from Osip Mandelstam’s memoirs, who himself died in a transit camp during the Great Terror of 1938. In personalizing the plight of millions by focusing on the tribulations of a single life—particularly that of a famous musician—Barnes illustrates that nobody was immune to Stalin’s subjugating power. Even the great Soviet General and Chief of Staff, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the composer’s patron, fell victim to Stalin’s paranoia during the purge of the military in June 1937.

By some miracle or good fortune, Shostakovich’s life is spared by Stalin. But the composer’s reputation isn’t, rising and falling with the vicissitudes of the Soviet regime, which the narrator calls “the Power”. In 1936, Shostakovich suffers a humiliating reprimand for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, deemed by Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper and propaganda mouthpiece, to be representative of the “fidgety, neurotic music” of the bourgeoisie. Although later Stalin personally calls the composer on the phone and undoes some of the damage to his reputation, Shostakovich, along with millions of Soviet citizens, lives in constant fear of the dictator’s arbitrary—and often fatal–displays of power.

Success and failure have a way of boiling down to the same thing in totalitarian regimes, which subsume artistic merit to ideological whims and injunctions. Even after Stalin’s death, during Nikita Khrushchev’s milder authoritarian regime, when the composer is pressured to join the Communist Party in order to become the Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, Shostakovich feels almost as humiliated and harangued as he did when he was vilified by Stalin’s acolytes in Pravda. In channeling the character of Shostakovich so compellingly and revealing with a keen sense of irony the arbitrary nature of Soviet totalitarianism, Barnes depicts its inner workings as well as those who had suffered its effects first-hand: authors such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Eugenia Ginzburg.

By way of contrast to Stalin’s arbitrary purges, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). There are many hypotheses concerning what might have caused Hitler’s hatred of the Jews, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These speculations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any obvious signs of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that would later dominate his life.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving poor grades in physics, mathematics and German. He performed better in art, but wasn’t original. As a young man, he pursued his floundering artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of his frustration with being rejected by the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They surmise that he blamed his failure on the Jews. While there may be some truth in this conjecture, there’s evidence to the contrary as well. Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from its sales, supplemented by funds from his family. Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg points out, “Apparently, two of the [art] dealers were Jews” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWI seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler’s life. But even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power and wield death and destruction throughout Europe. Hitler was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time that he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of WWI, Hitler was gassed and spent a considerable period of time recuperating in a military hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany in WWI. After the war, Hitler took a course in Pan-Germanism and became more radicalized in his anti-Semitism. Adolf Gemlich, a German army soldier wrote Hitler a letter asking him about the importance of the “Jewish Question”. Hitler wrote Gemlich a response that prefigured the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, or what he called a “rational” and “scientific” anti-Semitism, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, manifested by pogroms. Only the former, he stipulated, could efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (For more information on Hitler’s letter, see the Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/adolf-hitler-s-first-antisemitic-writing)

This letter, and particularly the delineation of a systematic and “scientific” anti-Semitism, earned Hitler a reputation on the “Jewish Question” among anti-Semitic radicals opposed to the Weimar Republic. So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

 

“The art of leadership as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies…it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

 

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919. He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent was to simplify the root of Germany’s social and economic problems to the Jews—considered outsiders in most European countries–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. His choice wasn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of pathological hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it was primarily the product of an insatiable and malicious will to power. This answer–which boils down to power for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags; a question which still echoes to this day: “Zachto—Why?”

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 

 

Foreword by Joseph Polak for Holocaust Memories

Foreword for Holocaust Memories

 

This book, full of considerations of the unbearable, is haunted by a question posed, but never fully articulated by the author, along the following lines: How is it that I am so drawn to the Holocaust and its ensuing literature, especially as I was born so many years after 1945? Why am I somehow so intuitively familiar with it, with its darkness and its cold, its choiceless choices, its helplessness?

 

It is an amazing work not just for its considerable breadth and scholarship, but because in the enormity of its range, in its drive, in the unyielding brutality of its subject matter, the author never fails to write her essays with anything but the highest discipline and deepest scholarly calm. The book’s moral outrage, manifest on every page, is delivered between the lines, perhaps by its very thoroughness. Yet it also provokes a second disturbing question –what part of her soul seeks satisfaction, needs answers, from all this?

 

It has to do, it seems to me, with being raised in Romania, behind the iron curtain, in the shadow of what Stalin had wrought, his murders more numerous than Hitler’s, and from the helplessness that comes from living in a regime where your activities are not constrained by your own values but by those of Big Brother. There is humiliation that comes from having lived in, and thereby unwillingly acceded to, a morally-compromised society, and this humiliation, far from going away as the years move on, begs for resolution.

 

Claudia Moscovici is not the first scholar to face this challenge. Hannah Arendt left Europe when the maelstrom had already begun, surely offended, and ultimately deeply humiliated by her relationship not just with her teacher Heidegger, but with the intellectual heights of German culture that had so finely nurtured her, and that had in the end, so unforgivingly betrayed her.

 

Arendt, the subject of more essays here than anyone else, is omnipresent in this book. Moscovici is talking about her when she is ostensibly talking about Eichmann, she is talking about her when she speaks of Stagneth; in fact, I suspect that she is talking about Arendt whenever she introduces concepts of evil in every one of these essays, asking, without always articulating it –“Banality? –is this what characterizes evil? Really?”

 

Arendt attended a limited number of the sessions of Eichmann’s trial, and was always in the press room and never in the court room when she did, so it is not clear that she actually saw the man falsely claiming to be just following orders, nor certainly that she had the opportunity to study Eichmann long enough, like an artist gazing at his model, to judge him banal. Arendt, in a tasteless moment, chose to blame the victims (“sheep to slaughter”) of the Holocaust, rather than to excoriate the behavior of its key perpetrator (Eichmann). This is Arendt, I believe, coping badly with her own humiliation by the Third Reich and its intellectuals.

 

Not so our author, who it seems, has heard other, more mature voices. She manages to find in Arendt the closest understanding yet about how Auschwitz and the Gulag mirror each other, and learned from Arendt’s writing, if not from her example, how to talk about the two in the same breath without compromising and without diminishing either one.

 

The screen that portrays the horrors of the twentieth Century is fading more rapidly than its audience can bear. Claudia Moscovici’s book will go far to help keep it lit longer.

 

Rabbi Joseph Polak,

Author of After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring,

Winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award

Boston, December, 2016

 

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

 

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction