A son’s memoir in words and pictures stands out among new Shoa books
Martin Lemelman likes to say it all began with a frozen chicken.
Many years ago, his elderly mother dropped one on her foot and, since she couldn’t easily take care of herself, he brought her from her home in Queens to live with him for six weeks. This meant that Lemelman, who is a professor in the communication design department at Kutztown University in Allentown, Pa., and his mom unexpectedly spent a lot of time together. And so he took advantage of the situation to convince her to open up and talk about her life, something she had always been reluctant to do. Wisely, he videotaped the conversations.
The result is this captivating book, Mendel’s Daughter, a memoir of sorts that elegantly, simply, and poignantly tells one person’s moving and harrowing tale of enduring and, ultimately, surviving the Shoa. Filled with vivid black-and-white sketches and a compelling storyline, Lemelman displays a compassionate knack for capturing emotion and detail that makes the story of the dead and the near-dead come alive.
Beginning with his mother’s humble origins in Germakivka in Poland, which is now in Ukraine, Lemelman lets his mother tell her story in her own words and voice, complete with Yiddishisms that slightly twist the English language. He enhances her story by allowing each frame to nicely advance the facts and emotions she conveys, from her happy family life as a young girl to the harrowing experiences avoiding detection by the Nazis and their collaborators.
This is a riveting way to explain the unfathomable horror of the Shoa. Granted, Art Spiegelman’s Maus series told a Holocaust story with comic book techniques. But Mendel’s Daughter is distinguished by a straightforward approach to storytelling that doesn’t rely on metaphor. Moreover, the work is extremely accessible for youngsters, who may otherwise not be able to imagine or understand the overwhelming jumble of events that are found in most Holocaust memoirs.
Mendel’s daughter, Gusta, died in December 1996. Lemelman finally pursued this book after she spoke to him one night in a dream. As a result, the rest of us can better understand what her nightmare was like.
Nov. 9 marks the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night the Nazis and their supporters in Germany burned and looted more than 100 synagogues, destroyed almost 7,500 Jewish businesses, arrested 26,000 Jews who were then sent to concentration camps, and killed 91 Jews among countless others who were attacked and beaten. As the generation of Shoa survivors dwindles, eyewitness accounts become increasingly important. Here are a few recent books that shed additional light on, and offer new meaning into, those sorrowful years.
Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans
This memoir was written by Vivien Spitz, who was a court reporter during the Nuremberg Trials and a particularly compassionate observer of the horrors she heard in court. But more than a first-person recollection, Spitz’s work relies on court documents and testimony to describe in chilling detail the atrocities committed by 20 doctors and three medical assistants during the Shoa. As the foreword points out, the professional group that had the largest percentage of Nazi party members was medicine. And the crimes she describes were committed by “politically co-opted scientists and physician opportunists.”
The Seventh Miracle
Jorge Klainman, who was originally known as Srulek in Kielce, a Polish city, describes a harrowing saga of suffering and survival. He was nearly 70 when he finally began writing about his past, which until then he had buried. But his memories came flowing out of him as he wrote in painstaking detail about every indignity and wound that hurt him and his family. He never says what he does for a living, but Klainman is a good writer who knows how to tell a story he writes with ease even as he recounts torture and unimaginable anxiety. And his tale is fast-paced as he takes us from hiding places to concentration camps, where several miracles, as he puts it, occur to keep him alive. The last and seventh miracle, he writes, is being able to publish this book. Miracle would seem to be the correct description.
The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi who Saved Jews
Haunted by the fate that befell his parents and their relatives during the Shoa, Michael Good dives into what can only be described as a detective story to learn more about the German army officer who saved the lives of Jews in the Vilna ghetto. After the ghetto was liquidated in September 1943, some Jews survived in the houses of the HKP, an industrial workplace for the Germany army, almost until liberation. And they were protected by the Wehrmacht commander Karl Plagge. But who was this man? Why did he save Jews? How did he manage to subvert the Nazi system? Good, a practicing physician, spent five years trying to answer these imponderable questions. The story is riveting and offers just a little hope for humanity amidst unspeakable horror.
Bitter Freedom: Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor
Imagine hiding for nearly two years in someone’s dank cellar, knowing your world could end at any moment. But on the off chance that at least your children may somehow survive, you start writing about your life “what it was like before the discrimination, tortures, killings and war broke out. One day, you hope, your children will better understand their mother, her life before it turned into a hell and what she wanted for you.” That’s what Jafa Wallach, who came from a small Polish village, wrote while hiding from the Nazis with her husband and four-year-old daughter. Years later, that little girl decided to dust off the story and have it published. And so Rena Bernstein, whose mother now resides in an assisted-living facility in New York, painstakingly edited the manuscript and even traveled to Poland to see just where her parents and their families once lived. A moving tale, Bitter Freedom underscores life’s fragilities. It is, unfortunately, a story that every parent should read.
Taking Risks: A Jewish Youth in the Soviet Partisans and his Unlikely Life in California
Joe Pell may live in the San Francisco Bay area and have a reputation as a successful real-estate developer. But he has much more modest roots he was born Yosel Epelbaum in a small Polish village, where he once traded livestock. As an 18-year-old, he crawled on his hands and knees to escape a round-up of Jews in a Ukrainian ghetto. From there, he joined a band of pro-Soviet partisans, who were led by what he calls a “warlord” and functioned in what can only be described as a fleeting but formidable little republic in the woods behind Nazi lines. And for roughly 18 months, these partisans continually disturbed the German war effort and, in the process, saved hundreds of lives. His is a fascinating recounting, complete with compelling insights into the ways people find to survive, from life in the forest to outwitting others in Europe’s postwar black market.
The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them
Eugen Kogon was a German political prisoner who was a concentration camp inmate at Buchenwald between 1939 and its liberation in 1945. A former journalist, he was chosen to chronicle the Nazi death machinery, and this is his report a shocking examination of a brutal state within a state that provides gruesome details about the extent to which the Nazis sought to systematically murder Jews and others. This is not only compelling journalism, but required reading for anyone seeking to better understand just how the Nazi system functioned the organization of the camps, the categories of prisoners, daily routines, working conditions, food and mail distribution, reprisals and liquidations, and scientific experiments. Make no mistake, this book is aptly titled.