Academic journal article Shofar

Displaced: The Memoir of Eliezer Gruenbaum, Kapo at Birkenau-Translation and Commentary

Academic journal article Shofar

Displaced: The Memoir of Eliezer Gruenbaum, Kapo at Birkenau-Translation and Commentary

Article excerpt

Eliezer Gruenbaum, the communist son of Yitzhak Gruenbaum, who was a prominent leader of Polish Jewry between the two world wars and Israel's first interior minister, was a kapo in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Eliezer survived only to die fighting in the war for Israeli independence. His story is captivating not only for its biographical appeal but also for the unique "statement of defense" memoir he has left behind. This paper will expose the English-speaking reader to excerpts of this singular text for the first time. It will also offer a careful analysis and interpretation of Eliezer Gruenbaum's psychological struggle to work through his controversial past. We will frame his narrative as wavering between two perhaps contradicting identifications-with his readers and with the victims-with neither of whom he can fully identify. The same activist stance that urged him to write, appealing to his readers acquittal, prevented him from truly understanding the total helplessness of the real victims.

Eliezer Gruenbaum's memoir constitutes an extraordinary piece of testimony. While there are numerous personal accounts of life in the camps written by Jews who had been inmates, Eliezer Gruenbaum's text is unique for being the testimony of a Jew who served as a kapo in Birkenau, a precise recitation of his experience as the deputy chief of a barrack, and a vehement defense of the moral code he developed there in order to justify his situation. This was a perspective of events that had not yet been presented to the world, being published so soon after the war itself. Gruenbaum offers us a point of view that few others have chosen, doing so with a great measure of integrity.

Gruenbaum's unflinching observations force us, today's readers, to directly confront the maelstrom of moral predicaments that he lived through. Clearly, the passage of time, the decades that now separate us from his experience, now make this confrontation possible. They have created a space in which the contemporary reader can respond with empathy, and less judgment, than did those who encountered Gruenbaum's text when it first appeared.

We propose to read Gruenbaum's memoir fragment as a text that seeks, on the one hand, to bridge distant worlds - the world of the readers and the world of the victims - while, on the other hand, reflecting a figure of great solitude who has fallen between the worlds, who belongs to neither of them.


Eliezer Gruenbaum was born in Poland in 1908, the second son of Yitzchak Gruenbaum, the uncompromising and proud Zionist leader of Polish Jewry. Yitzchak, consistently described as a stubborn and honest man, brought the Jews of Poland to an unprecedented social footing. A pronounced atheist engaged in a bitter dispute with the religious parries, he succeeded in uniting the Jews, together with additional minorities in Poland, into a significant political force. They formed an electoral bloc able to muster a third of the country's votes, enough to help elect a president. However, the subsequent murder of that same president-elect provoked disappointment within the Jewish community and disenchantment with Yitzchak Gruenbaum's strategies. He himself bluntly declared that there were a million superfluous Jews living in Poland, and then he emigrated to Palestine in 1933. His political career in Israel, crowned by his appointment as Interior Minister in the country's first government, was fraught with struggle and conflict. His most controversial act came when he served as the chairman of the Rescue Committee, that body which represented the Yishuv, that is, the Jewish community of Palestine, in its attempts to rescue Jews living under Nazi rule. Apparently, Yitzchak Gruenbaum failed to grasp the significance of the Holocaust. He was blamed for suppressing information concerning the murder of European Jewry. He also proposed that the needs of the Yishuv be put before rescue efforts in the Diaspora, and he even blamed European Jews for not choosing a dignified death over oppression. …

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