Books: Memory and Resistance
Our roundup of Holocaust books emphasizes the actions of individuals who did not stand idly by and let murder occur without incident. From a French priest who rescued thousands of Jews and a postwar Nazi hunter to a human-rights activist and a Polish resistance fighter, they took the pain and suffering they endured and transformed it into a passion for helping others. Through memoir, biography and historical narrative, these writers have placed the trauma of the Jewish experience during World War II into book form both as a remembrance and as a way of ensuring that the Holocaust will never happen again.
Their hopeful outlook on the perseverance of a just world is both inspiring and humbling.
Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz. by Thomas Harding. (Simon & Schuster, 352pp. $26)
Hanns and Rudolf offers an in-depth look into the complicated psyche of one of the main instigators of the mass murders in Auschwitz. The author’s portrayal of the duality of Rudolf Höss’s character is realistic and confusing at the same time. The psychologist who spoke with him while he was in jail describes him as a “sadistic psychopath” who was enabled “to commit unprecedented inhumanities in a framework of apparent social and political respectability.” He is “apathetic” toward others, murdering children by day, yet playing with his own children at night.
Hanns Alexander, the man who captured him, was, before the Holocaust, a carefree troublemaker who enjoyed a wonderful life in the German-Jewish high society. He escapes with his life, he loses many family and friends. These losses fuel his determination to hunt down Nazi war criminals. Even as he grows into an intelligent investigator and soldier, he maintains his playfulness.
Hoss’s stories become increasingly dark, while Alexander’s stories are interspersed with comical interludes. Hoss’s story comes full circle when his grandson comes back to see the site where he was hanged for murdering thousands of people. Hann’s story comes to a close when his nephew recounts his tale of capturing the Kommandant of Auschwitz.
Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue: How a French Priest Together with Jewish Friends Saved Thousands during the Holocaust. by Susan Zuccotti. (Indiana University Press, 264 pp. $35)
Susan Zuccotti’s biography gives the background and history of Catholicism in France and in the Vatican as well as a description of the rescue operations performed by Capuchin priest Père Marie-Benoît and the group Delasem.
The author describes Catholicism’s huge impact on Marie-Benoît’s life and details how his town was affected by religion. Marie-Benoit’s personality is reconstructed through interviews with people he was close to; however, there is little that tells us about his conflicting views of converting Jewish people to Catholicism when they were in a fragile state.
Zuccotti describes Desalem’s work, including both the group’s achievements—they rescued thousands of Jews—and failures. Marie-Benoît’s relationship with several of the key members of the group is documented as well. Included also are the priest’s letters and correspondence, but he proved to be a private man and his documented, heroic actions must speak for him.
Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin. by Raphael Lemkin, Edited by Donna-Lee Frieze. (Yale University Press, 293 pp. $35)
Raphael Lemkin’s autobiography shows his transition from a country boy into a strong-willed human rights activist. Even before the Holocaust, he fought for human rights. When the Germans occupied Poland, Lemkin took action and escaped to carry on his work to save the Jewish people.
The despair Lemkin felt over the loss of so many lives fueled his ambition as an educator, philosopher and, ultimately, champion of anti-genocide action. Despite sickness, poverty and loneliness, he was driven to protect and avenge—not only Jewish people but all who are affected or could be affected by genocide. Lemkin expanded the meaning of genocide to apply to not only the inhumanity of murdering the helpless and innocent but looking at the loss of ideas and culture. Therefore, preventing the growth of a culture, religion or peoples becomes genocide as well. His view of justice for all people became widespread, and he felt that it must be enforced now and for all time..
Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss, Introduction by Francine Prose. (W.W. Norton, 240 pp. $24.95)
Helga’s Diary consists of a series of journal entries by Helga Weiss, which she wrote during and after the war. Weiss details the journey from her home in Czechoslovakia to the ghetto, and eventually the concentration camp, through the perspective of a child. She also delves into the emotions of the children of Terezin coping with the harsh realties. The intricate balance between facing this reality and keeping up morale is demonstrated in the descriptions of the anxiety when people awaited deportation, and the entertainment, education and colloquial speech that developed within the Terezin culture.
Weiss also depicts the attitude of the authority figures within the camp and the way the Germans duped the Red Cross when they visited the camps and improved conditions for a day.
While full of compelling and crucial historical information about, this book is accessible for young children and those unfamiliar with the Holocaust. It includes extensive footnotes and a glossary to help explain the background of the events described in the diary. Helga’s Diary is both an emotional journey and an eye-opening historical book.
Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and a Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other. by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. (Potomac Books, 293 pp. $23.96)
The title image is a symbol of trauma described in the book. This idea of a pain that stays with you for all time is demonstrated in two remarkable people who survived World War II in Poland.
Writer Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg switches back and forth between interviewing Lou Frydman, who was a young Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Jarek Piekalkiewicz, who became a member of the Polish government in exile. Both relate how they survived the war, lost most of their family and found a way to start life over again.
Both survivors struggled and succeeded in furthering their education. They married and eventually made their way to America. They met in 1975 when both taught at the University of Kansas and became fast friends. Today, Frydman fights for human rights and Piekalkiewicz collects evidence of communist activity for the army and teaches on a base. That is how they took their tragedy and turned it into something extraordinary.