Book reviews – Holocaust survivor memoirs make sure we never forget

Holocaust survivor memoirs

Holocaust survivor memoirs – The year 2020 has not only been a tumultuous year, but a significant milestone year when it came to one of the most turbulent events of the last 100 years. It was 75 years ago that Germany and Japan surrendered to the Allied forces, thereby ending six years of hostilities that was World War II. Also, it was 75 years ago that the Charter of the United Nations was signed in San Francisco, which laid the foundation of a global organization whose aim was to avoid deadly wars and look after the concerns that affected the entire world at large, such as health, hunger, children’s issues and conflict resolution between nations.

Also, 2020 marks 75 years since the Nazi concentration camps that were located mainly in Germany and Poland were liberated by Allied troops, and opened the eyes of the entire world of the Nazis’ systematic plan to eliminate those races of people who did not fit into their plans of conquering the entire European continent. As a result, over 12 million innocent civilians were brutally murdered by the Nazis during its 12-year Third Reich; six million of them were Jews.

This tragic episode, better known as the Holocaust, has seared in the conscience of the entire world over the past 75 years, especially how far hate can go if it’s allowed to fester. However, thanks to museums, documentaries, education programs, lectures, books and annual events such as the March of the Living, subsequent generations can take away from these events the valuable lessons that have been taught from the Holocaust so that it should never happen again.

When it comes to books, a genre to the Holocaust canon has surfaced over the past two decades that gives a rather vital point-of-view to this unspeakable human tragedy: the survivor memoir. Here in Canada, thanks to the Azrieli Foundation, a series of professionally published memoirs written by Holocaust survivors who settled in Canada after World War II have created quite an impact with generations of readers. Since 2005, the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs have published over 50 titles – in French and English – by these survivors that are distributed free of charge to schools and educational institutions (and are sold in bookstores for a reasonable retail price) that create a permanent record of testimony of survivors from practically every corner of continental Europe of their harrowing, yet brave experiences of avoiding certain death at the hands of the marauding Nazi war machine, which breathes of luck, planning, cunning and a great deal of sacrifice.

To mark this significant historical milestone, I am reviewing five Holocaust survivor memoirs (four of them published and distributed by the Azrieli Foundation) who made Canada their post war home and whose painful stories cry out loud their far reaching message to the rest of the world: “Never Again!”.

My Silent Pledge by Sidney J. Zoltak (MiroLand Publishers, $25)

Montrealer Sidney Zoltak has carved out a successful career running an insurance business for many years. However, his road to Montreal was a dangerous one, which started in Nazi-occupied Poland, then to Italy, then to Israel before he reached Canada in 1948. As a child Holocaust survivor, the experience of watching your hometown, family and joyful way of life being destroyed by the Nazis is just as harrowing and traumatic to someone of such a young age. Zoltak tells his story of survival in his compelling memoir My Silent Pledge.

The premise of the book takes place in 1997, when Zoltak pays an emotional visit to his hometown of Siemiatycze, Poland, where he was born in 1931, to show his family where he lived before immigrating to Canada, and to reunite with the surviving members of the Krynski family, who took a tremendous risk by hiding Zoltak and his immediate family from the Nazis during the occupation of Poland. From there, he gives the reader a well-documented history of his hometown, which reflected the richness of life, tradition and culture that was typical in Jewish communities in pre-war Eastern Europe. And what is interesting about the tone of this book is how his mother’s steely determination to keep the family together through this hell on Earth – even if it meant sacrificing certain aspects of her own survival – was quite a brave goal when families were usually torn apart before and after deportations to the concentration camps.

The second half deals with a common thread of many Holocaust survivors, and that is how to put together a new life in a new country, which sees him endure the DP (displaced person) camps, boarding school-type facilities and plenty of bureaucracy towards that new life. And this phase shows that such post-war experiences of Holocaust survivors were tough at the beginning, but with gradual adaptation to a new lifestyle can have rewarding results.

Zoltak is currently retired from the insurance business, and spends his time speaking to groups and students about his Holocaust experiences and the importance of never forgetting such a tragic period in history (and he also performs similar duties as a survivor escort/educator with the Montreal delegation of the March of the Living). My Silent Pledge is a compelling, riveting account of impossible survival that was made possible. It’s a pledge that thankfully Zoltak continues to live up to with resounding reverberations.

A Cry In Unison by Judy Cohen (Second Story Press, $14.95)

While attending a virtual launch for Judy Cohen’s memoir A Cry In Unison earlier this fall, she told how she chose the title for the book. It took place in the fall of 1944, where she was an inmate of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In her barrack, she asked one of the Jewish “Kapo” guards for a candle to perform the Kol Nidre ceremony that started the high Holyday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As the candle was lit and the prayer was being said, a sudden, loud cry emitted from the mouths of the hundreds of women in that barrack, which was emblematic of the solemn nature of Kol Nidre, but performed in place they didn’t want to be at.

That haunting image stuck in my mind and prompted me to read this book.

Cohen, who was born in Debrecen, Hungary, traces her experiences as part of the chapter of the tragic genocide of Hungarian Jews during the final year of the war. This journey of hardship and survival saw her go from Auschwitz-Birkenau, to Buchenwald, to working as a slave labourer in the Junkers aircraft factory, to finally liberation while hiding in a barn located in a small town in Germany.

After she retired from her bookkeeping job, and when her two children grew up, Cohen became an activist for Holocaust awareness as a guest speaker, March of the Living participant and a researcher. One aspect that she focused on, which she steadfastly believes was a long overlooked aspect of the Holocaust, is how women survived the horrors of Nazi oppression and the concentration camps (in which many of the female guards were more sadistic than their male counterparts). This is the overlying theme of the book, and her diligent research unveils the hidden story of the Holocaust from the women’s point-of-view. In fact, Cohen attributes her survival to managing to staying close to her sisters, as well as creating a sense of sisterhood amongst her fellow inmates throughout her ordeal.

A Cry In Unison speaks volumes to the story of how this genocide affected the female population of occupied Europe. It’s a cry that should never be ignored.

Too Many Goodbyes by Susan Garfield (Second Story Press, $14.95)

She was born Zsuzsanna Loffler in Budapest, Hungary in 1933. But when the Nazis invaded her native country in 1944, 11-year-old Zsuzsanna started to keep a diary that chronicled her experiences of Hungary under Nazi rule. Now, as Susan Garfield, she published her diary in book form called Too Many Goodbyes.

Reading the diary portion of the book shows how the effects of losing family (her father is sent to a labor battalion, and her mother was taken away by a group of pro-Nazi collaborators) can have a devastating emotional toll on a child. The diary, which runs from 1944-1951, also gives a portrait of a person under angst, pain and cynicism and how it made it difficult for her to initially settle into a new life in western Canada (Alberta and Manitoba, in particular), and how that bleak atmosphere just compounded her angst, especially her unsuccessful attempts to apply for residency in the much more cosmopolitan Toronto.

The second part of the book, which is the actual memoir, actually fleshes out Garfield’s story, and gives the reader a much more clearer picture on how the Holocaust made her post-war way of life a much more painful one. Overall, Too Many Goodbyes is an angry testimony to how the idea of survival does not always equate with instant happiness once the struggle is over.

Always Remember Who You Are by Anita Ekstein (Second Story Press, $14.95)

Another aspect of the story of Holocaust survival is how children were taken in or hidden by other families who were not subject to Nazi persecution, but risked getting shot if caught. To ensure that survival, the child in question had to learn the customs and traditions of that family (and learn new, yet unfamiliar, religious practices), and above all, get a new identity.

That was the case of Anita Ekstein, who retells her own survival story in Always Remember Who You Are.

Ekstein was seven years old when the Nazis marched into her hometown of Lvov in Eastern Poland in 1941. Things go from bad to worst when she and her family are sent to a ghetto, and then her mother disappears shortly afterwards. Her father finds a way for Anita to escape certain death within the walls of the ghetto or in the gas chambers. He convinces a Catholic man named Josef Matusiewicz to secretly take Anita into hiding at his home in the town of Rozdol. From there, she gets a new name (Haneczka) and quickly becomes a member of the Matusiewicz family … only this time as a practicing Catholic.

The rest of her story deals with keeping up a new identity for the sake for survival, but also the struggle to return to one’s original identity once the war ended and starting a new life in Toronto. It’s a fascinating book that deals with a valiant, yet confusing, two-pronged issue that many hidden children of the Holocaust have faced.

Confronting Devastation edited by Ferenc Laczo (Second Story Press, $14.95)

This 450-page book is a collection of stories by 22 survivors who recall the “last chapter” of Hitler’s Final Solution, which was the murder of 550,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944-45. The chapters are divided into the significant events of the genocide of the Jews of Hungary, which occurred – ironically enough – at a time when the tide of the war was turning in the Allies’ favour, and that the Nazis were on the run on both Eastern and Western fronts.

From the rule of the authoritarian Miklos Horthy, to the rise of the virulently anti-Semitic Arrow Cross Party that opened the door to the Nazi occupation of Hungary, to the labour battalions, to the massacre of Jews on the banks of the Danube River in Budapest, to the uneasy liberation, Confronting Devastation gives a thorough retelling of this widespread genocide in such a short period of time, but also explains the political circumstances of why it was allowed to happen at a time when the war was coming to an end, and this example of willful murder could have been avoided.

By: Stuart Nulman – [email protected]

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