A Holocaust narrative in the words of refugee Jews

By Michael Kenney
April 7, 2009
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Through the "kindertransport" program organized by international aid groups, some 530 Jewish children from Vienna arrived in England as refugees in December 1938.

Among them was the teenage Kitty Pistol who by the following summer was able to arrange a guarantee of employment that would allow her mother to join her. But by September 1939 it was too late.

"If the war would have started two weeks later, my mother would have made it," she wrote. When, after the war, Pistol returned to Vienna, she found her mother's trunk, packed for the hoped-for flight to England, which had been hidden with non-Jewish friends.

"She did not find her mother," write the authors of "Flight From the Reich," with affecting understatement.

And as Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt write at one point, escape was often a matter of timing, fortuitous circumstances - and of luck.

Dwork is director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, and Van Pelt, professor at University of Waterloo in Canada. In this, their third collaboration on Holocaust subjects, they have crafted a powerful narrative that is both a well-documented account of Nazi anti-Semitic policies - and of the halting challenges to them by the Western democracies - and emotionally charged stories of personal loss and thwarted hopes.

By focusing on the refugees - why some successfully escaped what the authors have called the Nazi "machinery of death," while others either failed, or waited until it was too late - they provide a new dimension to the Holocaust narrative.

There were the schemes to find resettlement areas in Africa and South America - and one backed by the German government involving the French colony of Madagascar.

And there were the letters, too often bearing news of deaths or deportations - which, in time, would amount to the same thing. And well into the early 1940s, the Germans created postcards to be sent home from the concentration camps announcing their safe arrival and good conditions. They were, the authors write, "markers of death."

The authors put the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust between five and six million, noting that by late 1943, the number being killed had dropped to about 500,000 a year. The Germans, they write, "had run out of Jews to kill."

There is no firm figure of how many escaped, but among them were the 10,000 children brought to Britain by the kindertransports, and the groups of children who arrived, unescorted, in Switzerland - as well as the young adults and families who made their way to Palestine.

Dwork and Van Pelt carry their narrative into the postwar years.

Jewish observers, they write, realized that the European Jewish communities "had suffered total annihilation." As one observer wrote, "there is no sound stock" in all the German-occupied countries "upon which to graft the stricken members" who had survived.

Another stirring account of the will to survive as annihilation loomed is provided by "Who Will Write Our History?" which details the creation of the Oyneg Shabbes, the secret archives of the Warsaw Ghetto, and its rediscovery after the war.

The account, by Samuel D. Kassow, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, was originally published last year to little notice by Indiana University Press. It has now been republished (Vintage, paperback, $16.95) for the wider audience it fully deserves.

Some 450,000 Jews were forced into the four-square kilometer Warsaw Ghetto during the fall of 1940. After deaths from hunger and deportations to the camps, only some 60,000 were left when the Jewish underground launched a bold but hopeless rising in April 1943.

During those years, interviews were recorded and documents were collected by researchers, many of them teenagers, under the direction of historian Emanuel Ringelbaum.

Only three of those researchers survived the war and Kassow credits one of them, Rachel Auerbach, with leading the search to find the archives that had been buried inside the ghetto.

As David Graber, a Jewish teenager working on the archives project wrote in August 1942, "What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground."

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

FLIGHT FROM THE REICH: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946 By Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt

Norton, 496 pp., illustrated, $35