Last week, I told you how my recent trip to Poland inspired me to read Sala’s Gift and The Lost, but I never got around to talking about the books themselves. I’ll rectify that now and, to thank you for your patience, I’ll throw in a number of bonus book suggestions as well.
In 1945, Ala was executed for participating in the only armed uprising in Auschwitz.
The camp was liberated shortly thereafter.
You’re never going to find a cheerful Holocaust book, but Sala’s Gift by Ann Kirschner is as close as you’ll get, thanks to the resilience of its subject, Sala Garncarz of Sosnowiec, Poland. In 1940, 16-year-old Sala volunteered to take her older, more delicate sister Raizel’s place in a Nazi slave labor camp. Sala was supposed to be there for six weeks; instead she spent five years in seven different camps until she was liberated in 1945. She survived thanks to a combination of luck and personal charisma that helped her create a support network wherever she landed.
Another thing that gave Sala the strength to keep going — and the basis for the book — was the collection of letters from family and friends that she managed to smuggle with her from camp to camp, even though such keepsakes were forbidden. After the war, Sala married a Jewish-American soldier named Sidney Kirschner. Ann Kirschner, the author of the book, is their daughter. Sala didn’t speak of the war to Ann or her other two children until 1991, when, faced with triple-bypass surgery at the age of 67, she handed Ann her collection of letters and photographs, which she had hidden in the box of a game called Spill & Spell. (The collection was donated to the New York Public Library in 2005; the library site is the source of the two photos used above.)
Only two of Sala’s family members survived the war: her sister Blima and — amazingly — Raizel, the sister that everyone thought was too delicate to survive hardship. With Blima’s help, Raizel not only survived the Neusalz slave labor camp; she also survived a 280-mile, two-month-long death march from Neusalz to the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Death marches took place at the end of the war. When the Nazis realized they were losing, they tried to cover up their crimes by tearing down camps and keeping survivors out of the hands of the Allied armies. To achieve the latter, they’d force their barely clothed and starving prisoners on marches to distant camps in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. People dropped dead as they walked from cold and starvation, and others who fell behind were shot. A thousand women began the march with Raizel and Blima; fewer than 100 lived till the end. Those of you who have read the diary of Anne Frank will remember her beau, Peter. He apparently survived a march from Auschwitz, but died shortly after, as others did from the privations they suffered during a march. (Those of you who haven’t read Anne Frank’s diary should read it immediately or be shamed for life. That book is required reading for everyone.)
When my sister and I have bad hair days, we say we have “Anne Frank hair.”
Anne was actually a very beautiful girl.
Another survivor from Sala’s hometown of Sosnowiec was Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman’s family was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto; he was the family’s only survivor, thanks to luck (random good luck is part of every survival story) and his local fame as a pianist and composer. His account of his experiences became a book, The Pianist, which was published immediately after the war but then suppressed for many years by the anti-Semitic Communist authorities in Poland. It was eventually made into the movie The Pianist, which in 2003 won Oscars for best actor (Adrien Brody), best director (Roman Polanski) and best adapted screenplay (Ronald Harwood).
The Pianist is one of only two major movies I can think of — the other being The Godfather — that so far surpass their source material that I’d say it is safe to skip the book entirely (as opposed to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for instance, where I think the book should still be read by anyone who sees the terrific movie version). The book version of The Pianist by Szpilman is written in a flat, emotionless tone that is haunting in its own right because it is symptomatic of a challenge faced by many survivors of the Holocaust: how can mere words capture the enormity of such an apocalyptic trauma? (I checked with my gorgeous friend Monika, who read it in the original Polish, and she confirmed that the tone of the writing is not the result of the English translation.) You see the same issue with Sala, who didn’t talk to her family about what happened to her for half a century. The challenge of telling a story about such an event is a major part of The Lost, which I’ll get to at the end of this post. I think even Roman Polanski’s direction of The Pianist is emblematic of this issue. Polanski himself was a child survivor of the Krakow Ghetto. He certainly could have done an autobiographical work, but I suspect that recreating his own story would have been too painful. In fact, it’s been said that Polanski was approached by Stephen Spielberg to work on Spielberg’s 1993 movie Schindler’s List, a true story about events in and around the Krakow Ghetto, but that Polanski found it too traumatic. (He passed along that trauma to someone else: There’s a 40-year-old rape case against him.)
I’ve been looking for a clip showing one of the most powerful moments in The Pianist, after an admirer pulls Szpilman out of the line of Jews being loaded onto transportation to a concentration camp. Afterwards, as Szpilman put it in his book, “I turned away and staggered down the empty street, weeping out loud, pursued by the fading cries of the people shut up in those trucks.” What the movie added to that was the visual of Szpilman lurching through a sea of discarded suitcases and personal possessions. I couldn’t find a clip that included that moment, but here’s a still.
Here’s a clip of the scene of Szpilman being saved from the transport. The woman he’s talking to at the beginning of the clip is his sister.
After this scene, Szpilman goes on to spend years in hiding, often entirely alone and nearly starving to death. (Brody lost 30 pounds to play the role.) Towards the end of the war, he’s discovered by a German officer who protects him after Szpilman plays the piano for him. The book describes the scene: “I hadn’t practiced for two and a half years, my fingers were stiff and covered with a thick layer of dirt, and I had not cut my nails since the fire in the building where I was hiding. Moreover, the piano was in a room without any window panes, so its action was swollen by the damp and resisted the pressure of the keys.” Here’s the clip from the movie.
Since I mentioned the movie Schindler’s List, I’ll spend a little more time on that though I already wrote about Oskar Schindler — the ethnic German of whom the Poles are so very proud — in last week’s post. I recommend reading the original Schindler’s List book, a fictionalized account of the Schindler story by Thomas Keneally, as well as seeing the movie by Spielberg. Keneally has a new book coming out, called Searching for Schindler, which is the story behind his original book. Keep an eye out for that. After you read the first book and see the movie, you might want to pick up the book Schindler’s Legacy, which catches up on what happened to some of the List survivors after the war.
Here is a long clip from Schindler’s List, showing the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto. At about 4:25, you’ll see one of the most memorable appearances in the movie — the little girl in the red coat.
If you want to find out more about the inspiration for that little girl, read The Girl in the Red Coat by Roma Ligocka, who just so happens to be Roman Polanski’s cousin. Roma was only about 3 1/2 at the time the ghetto was liquidated, and she did wear a red coat. She and her mother survived the war thanks to a Polish family who hid them. Unfortunately, the Polish protectors threw the child and the mother out several times, whenever the Poles felt the situation was getting too dangerous. At one point, Roma and her mother wound up hiding in the attic of a strange building, each clutching a cyanide capsule — just in case — as they listened to Nazis pounding on doors and shouting while searching the rest of the building. The Nazis didn’t find them, the mother put the cyanide away for future use, and the two returned to their jumpy Polish saviors.
The Girl in the Red Coat is especially interesting for its insight into the emotional impact of the Holocaust on someone that young. She struggled with her relationship with her mother afterward. “I feel a lot of anger about my lost childhood and it hurts,” Ligocka told the BBC decades later. Like Sala, she didn’t want to talk about her wartime experiences with her son, Jakob. “Years later,” she wrote, “I realized that the psychological wounds suffered by Holocaust victims also causes wounds in their children. But in those days I did not want to admit to it, and so I didn’t tell Jakob much about it. All my strength went into suppressing the past. With will power, and with love, I tried to shut out my memories. It didn’t work.”
Before I get to my last book, here’s a disclaimer. There are thousands of worthwhile Holocaust-related books to read. I’ve probably read hundreds of them over the years. This post is NOT an attempt to list all the books that exist or all the ones that I’ve read. I’m just discussing a few that have been on my mind since my trip to Poland. If you wish to use the comments here to recommend a different book to your fellow commenters, you are more than welcome to do so. Just please don’t start naming the most famous books and asking me if I’ve heard of them because I will get up, take my copy of that book out of my bookshelf, and smack you with it. Seriously, my hand will come out of your computer screen holding a book and you will be smacked by Elie Wiesel or Sophie’s Choice. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The author died in Auschwitz.
Now that I got that off my chest, I can get to The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn. This book pissed some people off, so, naturally, I love it. The subtitle of the book is “A Search for Six of Six Million” and it is ostensibly about Mendelsohn’s investigation into the lives and deaths of his grandfather’s brother, Shmiel Jager; Shmiel’s wife, Ester; and their four daughters in Bolechow, Poland, during World War II. Mendelsohn does find out quite a lot about what the Jagers went through, but he’s also just as concerned with the concept I mentioned above: How do you tell a story about something so big, so terrible, so abundant with individual stories that specifics become lost in the larger narrative of mass mayhem?
To help illustrate the story-telling challenges, Mendelsohn cites, among other things, famous commentary on Biblical stories including Noah (a story of mass extermination), Sodom and Gomorrah (more mass extermination) and Cain and Abel (brother killing brother). Some people think these digressions make the book too meandering. I, however, not only love digressions, as I’m sure you’re all aware, but I also love how the commentaries provide a gloss on human nature throughout the ages. It doesn’t matter whether you read the Bible literally or as literature: The story of Cain and Abel puts the lie to ex-Beatle‘s and beauty-pageant contestants‘ childish wishes for world peace by vividly illustrating humans’ historic predilection for jealousy, greed and violence. (Someday I will get back to my all-time favorite history book, A Distant Mirror — mentioned briefly here — which similarly tells you all you need to know about the 21st century by examining the 14th century.)
It means “Work will set you free.”
An example of the Nazi sense of humor.
Mendelsohn also comes in for some criticism for his intense focus on the story of his relatives, to the point where he feels that his visit to Auschwitz was not particularly helpful to his project. He wrote, “Auschwitz, by now, has become the gigantic, one-word symbol, the gross generalization, the shorthand, for what happened to Europe’s Jews … ” And it is true that for many people, Auschwitz is all they will ever know of the Holocaust. For them it IS helpful to have a general idea and see, for example, the two tons of human hair (cut from the heads of Jewish women) that the Germans planned to turn into fabric.
But, as Mendelsohn went on to say, “…what happened at Auschwitz did not, in fact, happen to millions of Jews from places like Bolechow, Jews who were lined up and shot at the edges of open pits or, failing that, were shipped to camps that, unlike Auschwitz, had one purpose only [My note: Many people still don’t realize that Auschwitz had different sections. Auschwitz I was a slave labor camp. Auschwitz II – Birkenau was a death camp.], camps that are less well known to the public mind precisely because they offered no alternative to death and hence produced no survivors, no memoirs, no stories.”
I agree with Mendelsohn that for people steeped in the history of the Holocaust, the more earth-shaking moments can be the smaller ones. When I arrived at Auschwitz I, with its hordes of tour groups and signs warning us to watch out for pickpockets, I came with about 30 years worth of preparation for the hair, the artificial limbs, the torture rooms. It was all disturbing, but no more so than it had always been. It was at the much quieter Birkenau camp that I was shocked. I had grown up seeing pictures of survivors stuffed into the barracks at Auschwitz like this:
I get choked up just looking at this. It’s as if on top of the big horror that everyone knows about (or should) — the random violence and starvation in the ghetto, the carefully organized gassing of thousands of people — the Nazis just had to make sure that every tiny aspect of life was pure torment. On top of all your other innumerable sufferings, you had to sleep in the dirt. The story of the Holocaust (or, for that matter, the story of any group’s persecution) is filled with cruelty writ both large and small, so I think it was entirely fair for Mendelsohn to focus on the smaller, untold stories rather than on the larger, often-told ones. The details are just as meaningful as the big picture.
Speaking of the details, all the tour groups at Auschwitz got colored stickers so that we could find each other and our tour guide. MrB and I were barely able to suppress our laughter when our group got yellow ones. Awkward!
Jude here means “Jew,” not “dude in a Beatles song.”
I thought this was so remarkably, yet hilariously, insensitive that I made MrB take a picture of me wearing my yellow sticker at Birkenau. Despite my amusement, I suppressed my ever-present smile out of respect for the dead.
On the way back to our hotel in the bus, I scandalized MrB by borrowing his big yellow square and combining it with mine to form something vaguely star-shaped. What?! Sometimes you have to laugh or else you’re going to cry.
UPDATED 9/11/11 TO ADD: Apologies about all the movie clips that no longer work. YouTube is a bitch that way.