Bitter Prerequisites: A Faculty for Survival from Nazi Terror

Article excerpt

by William Laird Kleine-Ahlbrandt. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2001. 479 pp. $24.95.

Memory is one of the five canons of rhetoric created by Cicero and derived from Aristotle. It is often connected to what is remembered from a speech or the memory needed for the delivery of a speech. Yet, memory for the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Jews was also focused on the future. The recording of events and their stories were formed into bodies of literature that eventually made those stories both timeless and universal. The Torah, Neviim, Judges, Kings, etc. as they are seen in their canonical versions have become the corporate memory of the Jewish people handed down from generation to generation. What will be the memory of the Shoah? Will it be the historical documents of the perpetrators or will it be the writings of the victims in the ghettos and camps or will it be the remembrances of the survivors? I have argued often that that memory will be some combination of all of the above. In any case it would be the statements of the survivors that would have lasting impact in educating our children about the moral, ethical questions derived from any study of the Shoah. In fact there is being discussed in places like California the idea that the testimony of survivors should be an anchor for teaching about the Shoah and genocide.

Bitter Prerequisites is one of those collections of oral history of the Shoah that have begun to show up in the last decade. This work is not a memoir. It is an oral history of a group of people who shared two things: their exposure to the Shoah and their being hired to teach at Purdue University. On the surface this seems to be at best a facile basis for a book and at first glance I felt this work was self-serving and an ego trip. Then I read the book. I was captured. Page by page, I found myself being drawn into the stories of each of these survivors. The book contains twelve survivor stories organized in four parts. Part one deals with Germany, part two deals with Austria, part three focuses on Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, and part four focuses on the experience of all twelve survivors in the United States.

While the entire survivor oral statements contained in this book are important and compelling, two specially stand out. The two I want to comment on are the stories of Joe Haberer and Bob Melson. Haberer and Melson are both founding faculty of Jewish Studies at Purdue. …