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Book Notes: Sentenced to Remember. My Legacy of Life in Pre-1939 Poland and Sixty-eight months of Nazi Occupation, William Kornbluth

David Cesarani

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Sentenced to Remember. My Legacy of Life in Pre-193 9 Poland and Sixty eight Months of Nazi Occupation, William Kornbluth. Edited by Carl Calendar (Bethlehem, NJ, Lehigh University Press, 1994) no price, pp. 223. William Kornbluth begins his memoir with a short, fictional tale. In it a family is gradually dismembered as 'God takes' first the pious father, then the mother and 244</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes finally the sister of the author. God asks the father if he wants his son to join him too, but the father replies that the boy should be 'tested' before he can ascend to heaven. His trial is that he be obliged to remember the fate of his family. Memory becomes a curse. For many people it is a puzzle why survivors of the 'Final Solution' remained silent about their experiences for so long. Kornbluth's autobiography goes far to explaining that conundrum. He arrived in America on Christmas Day 1947, having survived the Tarnow ghetto and no less than five concentration camps. Initially he lived with family who had emigrated before 1939. He also mixed with the Tarnow Landsmannschaft in New York. To these people he talked incessantiy about what he had endured and what befell their former home city with its people. Through the network of survivors he was introduced to the woman who became his wife, herself a survivor. She comforted him through thirty-eight years, punctu? ated with nights broken by horrific dreams in which he relived his time in the ghetto and camps. All the while he was trying to earn a living, without the benefit of a finished education. He finally became a chicken farmer in New Jersey (an occupation favoured by a number of survivors) and had to work ninety-hour weeks to maintain his family. He was not able to sell up and retire until 1987. Only then did he have the wherewithal and the time to read and write. Earlier, on the recommendation of a doctor who tried to alleviate the nightmares, he had written two chapters of what became his memoir. He also wrote an unpublished essay 'under the influence of the Eichmann trial'. But he was not in a position to pull the threads together until forty years after the end of the war. Prior to that time he had avoided Holocaust-related actitivies because he found the subject too painful to discuss. His attitude was changed by a Holocaust exhibi? tion at a New Jersey synagogue. He became involved, wrote an essay about his fourteen days in Mauthausen, and was impelled to continue. Suddenly, the 'sur? vivor' was in demand in schools and colleges. Even so, when he started speaking in public he had sleepless nights long afterwards. He still feels inadequate to the task of explaining what he went through, and utterly helpless to convey the larger story of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. 'It goes beyond the speaker to convey and the capacity of the listener to absorb.' The Holocaust will remain for him 'an ineffable enigma'. The candidly declared agony of this recovered memory gives Kornbluth's enter? prise a noble quality. He was driven by the cry of his thirteen-year-old sister, before she was dragged off to Belzec, to bear witness. He wanted his children to know what had happened to their father. In this he has succeeded admirably. Excepting a couple of speculative chapters at the end of his book, he sticks to a spare, factual style of writing that draws the reader easily into a narrative that becomes progressively more nighmarish. It perhaps reaches its nadir when the writer recalls that at such and such a point in the story he no longer cared about cases of sadism or depravity. We, however, still have the capacity to respond emotionally, and the gap between the barely human spectacle on the page, and 245</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes our own privileged vantage point exposes with appalling clarity the suffering of those in the ghettos and camps. It is almost incredible that they were able to recover their humanity along with their physical strength; and some never did, as Kornbluth hints by describing how his brother Natan remained permanently depressed and morose after the war. After reading this account it is hard to understand how any surviving Polish Jews could have escaped such emotional damage. Kornbluth experienced it all, from the day the Germans entered Tarnow in September 1939 to the liberation of Ebensee camp in Austria in May 1945. He was one of four children whose father was a deeply Orthodox man, trained in yeshiva, who was as unworldly as his wife, to whom he was married by arrangement, was efficient and business minded. The young Kornbluth had little respect for his father and reflects with shocking brevity on his eventual fate. But his mother was a tower of strength who stood by him through the rigours of a gymnasium education in anti-Semitic interwar Poland. Ironically, as a boy he was a Polish patriot. It says much for the mood in the country that when a school newspaper accepted a patriotic piece he had written, he was advised to publish it over his non-ethnically-specific initials rather than his Jewish patronymic. His recollections of life in prewar Tarnow are detailed and fascinating. The portrait of this vibrant community makes the record of its destruction even grimmer. Kornbluth describes life under the early years of Nazi occupation and the random bouts of forced labour to which men were subjected. His father, bearded and with sidecurls, stayed indoors rather than risk being attacked with scissors and razor in the street. Eventually he succumbed to the barber, but was nevertheless shot in one of several Aktionen in June 1942, which reduced the ghetto population from around 40,000 to 19,000. Kornbluth's mother later suf? fered a heart attack and expired 'peacefully' in the ghetto. He, his brother and sister survived because they obtained work in the clothing workshop run by the German entrepreneur Madritsch. Many years later Madritsch, who had collabor? ated with Oscar Schindler, was awarded the title of 'Righteous Gentile'. Yet Kornbluth reflects bitterly that Madritsch did little to prevent the selections in the autumn of 1942 which claimed his adolescent sister and so many others. After the liquidation of the ghetto he was sent to Plaszow camp, where he and Natan were united with their older brother Shimon who had escaped from a POW camp for Polish soldiers. Remarkably, the three brothers were able to stay together through all the subsequent 'selections', shipment to Auschwitz, Mauthausen and St Valentin, a sub-camp, and Ebensee. Kornbluth so strives to reveal the bestiality of the SS and Ukrainians that at times he tumbles into what appears to be sensationalism. Yet there seems no way to avoid this pitfall when describing the attack on Jewish women and their sexual? ity. In addition an echo of many other survivor stories banalizes what is being told: but there seems no way to have a large number of such memoirs without 246</page><page sequence="4">Book Notes running the danger of sameness. Of course, most people read only one or two such harrowing tales, and their similarity is a function of the systemic brutality endured by the survivors rather than any conspiracy to produce mutually reinfor? cing accounts. Future critics, however, may be less generous in their appraisal of this genre. The memoir contains important accounts of Plaszow and Mauthausen, adding to what we know of those hellish places, and St Valentin, a small camp serving a tank works which would otherwise be almost unknown. Time and again Kornbluth dredges up an experience that brings home the horror of his situation. Near the end of the war, as the inmates were marched through an Austrian village, he saw a woman with a pram. 'I had nearly forgotten about babies', he recalls. Or perhaps he had suppressed the almost insupportable scenes in Tarnow and Plaszow when babies and children were slaughtered in front of their parents. These things still go on in parts of our world, but we will never understand how and why, until we understand the mechanism by which society in Europe broke down between 1939 and 1945. In the near future all we will have to guide us will be interviews and memoirs by perpetrators, bystanders and survivors, such as this. Few were com? pelled to look evil in the face longer than Kornbluth. His struggle to recover that experience, and set it down as an admonition and a reminder, is both necessary and brave. David Cesarani</page></plain_text>