The past is present
A Boston University researcher stumbles upon a remarkable Holocaust artifact – and discovers that one of its creators lives just a few blocks away from him in Brookline.
Dr. Michael Grodin, who’s spent the past 33 years studying the Holocaust and other atrocities, stumbled on an unusual bit of history during a trip to Israel in the summer of 2009. The discovery was a museum exhibit featuring a literary magazine called Kamarad – produced by the boys confined by the Nazis in Building Q609 in a Jewish ghetto/camp in the former Czechoslovakia from 1943 to 1944. The magazine issues, created without adult supervision or censorship, were filled with stories about wilderness adventures, pranks, and soccer matches. The boys, ages 12 to 14, patched together the magazines from scraps of paper. All 22 editions, rendered in neat penmanship, have survived.
The story of Kamarad alone was enough to pique Grodin’s interest. “This is pretty incredible stuff,” says Grodin, a professor of psychiatry, family medicine, and human rights at Boston University. He was impressed that the boys had created an outlet that let them explore their fantasies and cope with the hardships of the Holocaust.
Then Grodin noticed something else incredible. The exhibit noted that one of the creators of Kamarad – believed to be the sole survivor – was living in Brookline, Massachusetts. “There I was in the middle of nowhere, in northern Israel, and the guy lives like three blocks from my house.”
Back at home, Grodin looked up Michael Kraus and gave him a call. The two men began meeting at Kraus’s home, accompanied by a few of Grodin’s colleagues, and the result over the last year has been a warm relationship that goes beyond researcher and subject. Grodin hopes that in some small way he can help Kraus, now 80, better understand his childhood war experience. Grodin plays the part of prodding counselor and Kraus that of a reluctant guinea pig who nonetheless seems to enjoy the attention.
Grodin also has larger ambitions. As someone who counsels contemporary survivors of torture from areas such as Tibet and Sudan who have immigrated to Boston, he believes studying Kamarad and talking to one of its creators could illuminate why some people can be resilient in the face of tremendous hardship and maintain a semblance of normalcy.
Susie Rodenstein, a lecturer in Jewish education and early childhood education at Hebrew College in Newton, is one of two researchers helping Grodin examine Kamarad. “Mind-boggling” is how she describes the coincidence of Grodin and Kraus both living in Brookline. “That alone made it feel like it was meant to be, that we all get to discover and get to know this man,” she says. “I think his story and his experience is a treasure for us.”
On December 14, 1942, the Nazis sent Kraus and his parents from their home in Nachod in the former Czechoslovakia to Theresienstadt, a ghetto/camp from which many were ultimately transported to death chambers. Kraus was 12, and an only child. His family left behind a comfortable existence – father Karel had been a physician – for a crowded collection of buildings inside fortress walls. Incredibly, Theresienstadt came to be known for its cultural life, which included concerts, theater, art, and poetry readings. These were a genuine expression of the inmates, but were also capitalized upon by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. Living conditions were poor, food was scarce, and illness was common. After staying in two different buildings, Kraus was transferred to a room in Q609, occupied by about two dozen 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old boys sleeping on three-level bunk beds. Here Kraus was reunited with Ivan Polak, a friend from Nachod.
It was in Q609 that Polak hatched the idea of Kamarad, or “friend.” Czech-speaking boys in the room would submit stories, some fictional, some true. Polak would recopy them and add illustrations, and his mother would bind the pages with string. The first issue appeared October 29, 1943. At Friday evening Sabbath gatherings, Polak would read from new editions of the magazine to entertain his bunkmates. Kraus says Polak complained when copies were borrowed but not returned and when he couldn’t find willing contributors. “He singled me out as one of the most diligent collaborators,” Kraus says.
The boys didn’t sugarcoat their experiences. They wrote about the near starvation and illnesses experienced in Theresienstadt and the punishment meted out to everyone when someone attempted to escape. They also wrote about the petty arguments they had with one another.
Kraus’s offerings included a poem about a mouse that rescues a captured lion (“It is not the size that matters; And even a tiny mouse can be a savior”) and the serialized fictional story “The Treasure of Ralph Langdon,” about trappers looking for fortune in the Canadian northwest. Kraus remembers that he and Polak “did fantasize about having not an empire but a territory in the northwest part of Canada near the Great Slave Lake. . . . And I think that my article was kind of a replay of this.” Rodenstein believes the Langdon story provided more than mere entertainment. “In the pages of this story,” she says, “he’s able to play out this scenario where you can get justice for injustices and sometimes even violent vengeance by the story’s hero on people who have hurt him or killed people close to him.”
“You don’t have to be an analyst” to interpret Kraus’s story, Grodin says, when you consider that he was a child confined by hostile forces, writing about faraway lands.
“It certainly gave us something creative to do,” Kraus says. “Maybe that was the most important thing at that time. We were not prepared that the war would take many more years. We were not thinking about death, because at that time I don’t think we were that aware what awaited us in the so-called East, because nobody talked about Auschwitz.”
On December 15, 1943, after a year in Theresienstadt, Kraus and his parents were sent by the Nazis to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Kraus left behind more stories that he’d written for Kamarad, and they appeared in future editions, but magazine production stopped after the 22d issue, on September 22, 1944. The last article concludes with the line “to be continued.” A short time later, Polak was also transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Polak would die in the Holocaust, as would most of the boys who contributed to Kamarad.
After six months at Auschwitz, Kraus’s father was sent to the gas chambers and his mother was transferred to two other camps, dying at one of them. Kraus, then almost 14, was spared from the death chambers when Dr. Josef Mengele selected him to go to a neighboring men’s camp, where he was assigned to run errands and do other jobs. Kraus eventually was sent to other camps and forced to participate in death marches. When the war ended, Kraus, nearly 15, returned to his hometown of Nachod and attempted to rebuild his life. “After surviving the war,” he says, “many of us were traumatized by the fact that we lost our parents.” During the war, Kraus had kept a diary, but it was confiscated in Auschwitz. Once back in Nachod, he re-created the journal, and four years ago he donated it to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Kraus says he thinks of himself “as a scribe, or as somebody who perhaps thought that something should be left to posterity.”
In 1948, Kraus immigrated to Canada, the land of his and Polak’s childhood dreams. By 1951, he ended up in New York City, where he studied architecture at Columbia University. He married and raised a family in Brookline, where he lives with his 74-year-old wife, Ilana.
All 22 editions of Kamarad ended up at Beit Theresienstadt, a nonprofit organization formed on an Israeli kibbutz by those who survived Theresienstadt. It’s a mystery who saved the magazines.
For at least 15 years, Israeli researchers have recognized Kamarad as something worth preserving and studying. An Israeli woman, Ruth Bondy, wrote a 1997 book about the magazine, and in 2005 Kamarad was featured in a film broadcast on Israeli TV. In 2003, a group of Israeli schoolchildren studied the magazine and created a 23d issue. In response, the eighth-grade class at the Hasten Hebrew Academy in Indianapolis in 2004 created its own issue of Kamarad. “They were into it,” says Marcy Ekhaus, an academy administrator whose son, then a student, participated in the magazine project. “It was certainly impressive to them that [the original Kamarad boys] were children their own age.”
But aside from the Indianapolis project, the existence of Kamarad has not received much attention in the United States. And Grodin knows of no one else who has studied the magazine as an example of childhood resiliency.
While in Israel this summer, Susie Rodenstein, whose late father was a Holocaust survivor and was confined in Theresienstadt, visited Beit Theresienstadt and asked for copies of all of Kraus’s Kamarad contributions. “The journals and the stories and the articles give you insight to things we never could have gotten insight to, especially because many of the people who would have been his age during this time period have either repressed, suppressed, or just don’t have complete memories because they were young,” Rodenstein says. “But now he’s able to read the materials that he and his friends wrote, and it has in some cases been able to bring back some memories. . . . I think he’s really enjoying discovering what he was about at that age and what the things were that were of import to him.”
Rodenstein envisions a Holocaust educational program built around Kamarad, gearing it to Boston-area students the same age as the Kamarad contributors and maybe even having them meet with Kraus. Leah Weiss Ekstrom, a PhD student of theology and education at Boston College, has accompanied Grodin on several visits with Kraus and is excited, too, by the potential of young students discovering Kamarad. “I remember being very young in Hebrew school and seeing one of the poems from a Holocaust survivor child,” she says. “The fact that that was written by a child and I was a child was the first time that I really related at all to the facts of the Holocaust. . . . I think there’s something very powerful for kids seeing something from another kid.”
In Grodin’s book-filled office near Boston Medical Center is a map of the world dotted with pins, each marking a country or region from which one of his patients hails. There are pins in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tibet, and the former Yugoslavia. “My whole career I’ve been very interested in resiliency,” Grodin says. “I’ve always been interested in why some people do better than other people. I care for contemporary survivors of torture, and it’s really unclear. . . . Some of it is obviously situational, just this crazy thing that somebody happened to be in a certain place. But there are also personality traits that allow people to survive.”
Studying Kraus’s Kamarad contributions, Grodin says, “reinforces the fact that people cope in their own way, that it’s a big mistake to tell people how to cope, that group experience is very helpful, that trying to survive as an individual is hard, that children have an incredible capacity to try to put together something that is safe for them.
“The boys used the magazine to fight their boredom and calm their anxiety,” Grodin adds. “Children played in order to maintain a sense of normalcy, this is my sense, as well as to be creative and exchange ideas of an imaginary escape in order to dull their suffering.”
Grodin recognizes how valuable it is to his research that a contributor of Kamarad is still alive and living so close to him. Rodenstein, too, is eager to continue the meetings with Kraus: “We walk out every time inspired and wanting to know and understand more.”
Susanne Althoff is the editor of the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.