‘The Remnant,’ a Holocaust Memoir
The Remnant: On Burning Wings: To a Displaced Persons Camp and Beyond
By Michael G. Kesler (Vallentine Mitchell)
The title of this poignant Holocaust memoir, The Remnant, is an allusion to the biblical phrase she’erit hapletah. In Chronicles I 4:43, it refers to the surviving remnant of a group that has almost totally been destroyed. Today, the phrase is used to describe both Holocaust survivors in general as well as those who were gathered into displaced persons camps after the war.
The Remnant is the story of the harrowing journey that author Michael G. Kesler took with his older sister, Luba, after the German invasion of their hometown of Dubno. Dubno, in eastern Poland (now Ukraine), was one of the most important Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Almost all the city’s 8,000 Jews were systematically murdered by the Germans and their local collaborators. At war’s end, only 300 remained.
Most survivor stories have similar beginnings—the Germans come—and the same ending—somehow, they lived. But the middle element, the how and where, makes each story different. And Kesler’s experiences are indeed unique.
After the Germans broke through the Russian lines in 1941, Michael and Luba’s parents urged the two to flee eastward toward Russia. Once they arrive, he serves briefly in the Russian army. In the book, he describes the constant guilt and sadness he felt as a teenager about his abandonment of his parents. It is only the sympathetic guidance of his sister and his good friends that pulls Kesler out of his depression.
The brother and sister keep moving east and eventually arrive in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, some 3,000 miles from home. There he finds work as a veterinary assistant and later as an apprentice weaver, selling yarn on the black market. Kesler also has a brief romance with a local girl, but ultimately cannot commit himself to someone outside his faith.
Stories like these, with their dramatic content and crisp characterization, are paradigmatic of the quality of The Remnant and had me eagerly turning pages to find out what would happen next.
The book also describes Kesler and his sister’s journey after the war. The siblings return to Dubno to discover the mass graves of the city’s Jews, including their parents. They then find refuge in a displaced persons camp in Germany, where they wait for more than a year for a country to open its doors to them. With each setback and catastrophe, Kesler describes his struggles with God: “During four years of exile, Luba and I had never celebrated the Sabbath or any other Jewish holiday. The torrent of conflicts began to tear me apart. I felt myself floating in mid-air without mooring.”
At the camp, he takes a course in radio repair and trains on a kibbutz-like farm. Kesler applies for and, in 1947, wins a scholarship that enables him to study at Colby College in Maine. He later transfers to MIT. (Luba obtained a visa to Uruguay. After a number of years, she immigrated to the United States.) In the United States, for the first time since the start of the war, he finally experiences the feeling of total freedom.
Kesler passed away in August 2021 at the age of 97, a few months after his memoir was published. His enthralling recollections artistically combine a novelist’s keen insights with a historian’s detailed accounts of an era.
Curt Leviant recently published a translation of a long-forgotten Sholom Aleichem novel, Moshkeleh the Thief, as well as his 12th novel, Me, Mo, Mu, Ma & Mod; or, Which Will It Be, Me and Mazal or Gila and Me?