FORGOTTEN VOICES OF THE HOLOCAUST: A New History in the Words of the Men and Women Who Survived
edited by Lyn Smith
Ebury Press £19.99, 352 pages
HOLOCAUST MEMOIR DIGEST: A Digest of Published Survivor Memoirs, Volume Two
edited by Esther Goldberg
Vallentine-Mitchell £12.50, 176 pages
More than 60 years have passed since Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz, American forces liberated Dachau and British forces liberated Belsen. The films and photographs of what they found there were given wide publicity, causing shock and horror among all who saw them.
In the decade and a half that followed, the testimony of the survivors of the camps was an important part of the many trials that followed, from the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg to Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. Did anything more need to be said?
In the past 60 years, more than 6,000 survivors have published their memoirs. Others have given oral testimony to different institutions, including Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which has filmed tens of thousands of interviews - 117,000 hours’ worth of them. Almost every day, somewhere in the world, a survivor publishes a memoir.
For the constantly dwindling band of survivors, the Jewish imperative “write and record” - a command attributed to the Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who was shot dead in Riga in 1941, at the age of 81 - has been a major factor in making sure that as many experiences as possible should be left for future generations.
Both books under review advance that desire, that the story of the Holocaust should be preserved and made known. Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust is a compilation of oral testimony collected by Lyn Smith for the Imperial War Museum’s sound archives. Holocaust Memoir Digest (the current volume two, as well as volume one published last year) takes extracts from published survivor memoirs and sets them into the categories of pre-war and wartime European Jewish experience.
Both books make clear just how wide-ranging that experience was. Pre-war Jewish communal life was rich in culture and family values, embracing the physical and spiritual needs of more than 10,000 localities. In more than 90 per cent of those localities, from big cities such as Berlin and Warsaw to villages and hamlets in remote regions, Jewish life was destroyed between 1939 and 1945. Even Yiddish, the Jewish language predominant in eastern Europe and a vibrant binding social and literary force, was all but eliminated from the spoken languages of the world.
The Jews of the Greek port city of Thessaloniki spoke another language, Ladino, derived from medieval Castillian. Almost all of Thessaloniki’s 43,000 Jews were deported by train to Auschwitz. Their voice survives in the Holocaust Memoir Digest through the memories of Erika Myriam Kounio Amariglio. She was in Auschwitz on the day that all the Roma gypsies of the camp were sent to the gas chambers.
Like many of the survivors in both books, Amariglio eventually plucked up the courage to return to Auschwitz. She did so 20 years after the end of the war. “How quiet. My God, how quiet,” she writes. “But in my ears I could hear the lamenting, the screams of pain, the prayers, the howls of the dogs…“
Forgotten Voices contains equally powerful cries of pain. Some of those interviewed have also published their memoirs. All of them capture some element of the torment, and of hope. Kitty Hart-Moxon recalls how the girls in Auschwitz looked after one another: “You couldn’t survive on your own; you guarded, you fought for your friends the same way you fought for your own life.”
A question raised by both books is the nature of survival. In Holocaust Memoir Digest we read the words of the painter Samuel Bak, who was a young boy in the Vilna ghetto. “Ten improbable miracles were the minimum rate for survival,” he writes. “Nine miracles, if the 10th did not happen, were not enough.” One of the miracles was the help given by non-Jews, those sometimes referred to as the Righteous Gentiles.
Every memoir writer whose story is extracted in the Holocaust Memoir Digest owed his or her survival in part to a non-Jew who was willing to risk punishment to protect Jews. A woman SS supervisor in the slave-labour camp at Bolkenhain saved Gerda Weissman Klein from a dreaded selection: “She displayed humanity, she gave us hope that perhaps not all Germans were cruel.” Fanya Gottesfeld Heller and her family were saved in Eastern Galicia (now part of Ukraine) by a Ukrainian who hid them in a friend’s barn, and faced the anger of his own family for doing so. In the labour camp at Babitz, an SS sergeant major protected Solomon Gisser from the savagery of a camp supervisor.
Forgotten Voices has many stories of chance survival. Ruth Foster recalls how, towards the end of the war, she was hiding in a ditch with two friends: “A German soldier or SS man passed us. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘they’re not worth a bullet,’ and he just walked away.” There are also recollections, as in Holocaust Memoir Digest, of Jewish resistance, ranging from individual acts of defiance to the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, when virtually unarmed Jews raised the banner of revolt, before being crushed by German military power.
And then there are accounts of Jews who managed to flee to the forests and establish partisan groups, attacking German military convoys, and protecting Jews in hiding. Samuel Bak records in his memoirs the tragic fact “that many Polish partisans hate Jewish partisans and try to finish off any Jews the Germans have missed”.
Jack Kagan recalls how a Belorussian farmer sent his son to the Germans to tell them that 10 young Jewish partisans were in his house. “The Germans came and shot them all.” Two weeks later the partisans took revenge, killing the farmer and his family.
If Forgotten Voices has a serious - and preventable - fault, it is that the single map is quite inadequate. Each of the “voices” comes from a place named in the book, yet not one of these places appears on the map. Nor are most of the labour camps that are named shown. The reader would have been well served by one or more maps showing the places that are so vividly described. By contrast, Holocaust Memoir Digest has at least one specially drawn map for each of the memoirs that it contains, locating every place mentioned by the memoir writer, while a further 30 maps, in colour, show ghettos, camps, deportation routes to Auschwitz, the numbers of survivors from each country, and country-by-country statistics of those Christians who risked their own lives to save Jews.
When Lyn Smith, the editor of Forgotten Voices, began her impressive recording work more than a quarter of a century ago, she was struck by the variety of experiences of those whom she interviewed. What might seem a monotonous roll of horror stories becomes, under her keen ear, a mosaic of infinite variety. Esther Goldberg, the editor of Holocaust Memoir Digest, reveals that same freshness in each individual’s account. Both books can be read with an assurance that there will be many aspects of Holocaust in them that will be new, remarkable and thought-provoking.
Martin Gilbert’s latest book is “Churchill and America” (Free Press).
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