The Art of Survival
Gornick, Vivian, Moment
COUNTRY OF ASH
A JEWISH DOCTOR IN POLAND, 1939-1945
Translated by Magda Bogin
Bellevue Literary Press
2013, $16.95, pp. 256
I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness!--Victor Klemperer, 1942
In 1997, the Israeli Prime Minister's office issued a report on living Holocaust survivors that put the figure somewhere between 834,000 and 960,000 worldwide. At the time it often seemed as though half of them were writing memoirs, most of which were made valuable simply by virtue of the information they supplied of what had happened when, where, and to how many. Very few, however, were marked by the gift for literary composition that makes a work of nonfiction emotionally memorable. Among those that were made memorable were the distinguished books written by Primo Levi and Victor Klemperer, one giving us a visionary account of human behavior in the most infamous of the Nazi death camps, the other a quotidian recital in the form of a diary kept by a low-level Jewish academic who survived the war in Dresden because he had a gentile wife.
Country of Ash most resembles the memoir written by Victor Klemperer. Committed to paper sometime in the 1960s, the memoir is the almost daily account of a Jewish doctor named Edward Reicher who, together with his wife and infant daughter, lived through the Second World War in Poland, dodging bullets, uprisings and deportations--not to mention betrayal, starvation and airless hideouts--in a manner more reminiscent of a talented outlaw than a mild-mannered dermatologist who'd never known an illegal moment in all his 39 years when, on September 1, 1939, "our calvary began." It is the impressive simplicity of the good doctor's writing that makes his book resemble Klemperer's, and the detailed observations of its report that makes it emotionally memorable.
At five o'clock on that September morning in 1939, the Luftwaffe attacked the airfield in the suburb of Lodz where the Reichers lived. Edward walked into town to help his aged father, and within hours all the Jewish men in Lodz, a prosperous center of textile manufacturing, were ordered to walk to Warsaw, about 85 miles away. There, they were ordered to build the fence that would ultimately pen them in. Reicher was soon retrieved from this camp by a gentile medical colleague and reunited with his wife in Lodz, where every day their situation became more dire. "[T]hey were killing Jews like rabbits on a hunt," he recalled.
Six months later the Lodz ghetto was formed, and the Reichers crammed into two small rooms. Aside from daily humiliation and torment, meager rations and constant anxiety, soon one epidemic after another was raging through the district, typhus proving the most lethal. Edward determined to escape to the Warsaw ghetto, thinking it had to be better there. What he found seemed hard to believe.
"It was a world that could only have taken root in the mind of a medieval inquisitor: filthy, dark streets, swarms of children, huge tattered crowds. Leszno Street led straight to hell," with thousands of beggars on it crying out--many could only moan--for a piece of bread. ("Fellow Jews! Have pity!") In short: Haifa million people were wandering about, as though in a vast 19th-century asylum.
The Reichers were assigned a tiny room in an apartment already filled to bursting, and Edward went to work in a Jewish Council-run hospital where again typhus was raging. Outside the hospital, however, hunger trumped sickness. People were being shot daily for smuggling bread. And now we see Edward Reicher's talent for survival beginning to operate.
The deportations to the Eat began in late July of 1942. Thousands actually volunteered for them, thinking the Germans meant it when they promised work and bread at the end of the line. …