by Richard Rashke ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 14, 1982
Based largely on interviews with 18 survivors of the 1943 prison-revolt at the Sobibor death-camp in eastern Poland: an overlong, overheated, excessively novelized dramatization that almost (but not quite) drains the story of its inherent excitement. In the book's first half, Rashke (The Killing of Karen Silkwood) follows several Jews in 1942 to the Sobibor camp--where most inmates are quickly exterminated but a few with particular skills (or great luck) become a relatively well-treated work-force for the Nazi commanders: Shlomo the goldsmith, Josel the medic, Toivi the all-purpose drone, carpenters, tailors, etc. But by 1943 these privileged inmates begin to realize that, with no new shipments of Jews arriving, the camp will soon be shut down--after the killing of those 600 Jewish workers. So, choosing recently-arrived Russian/Jewish soldier Pechersky as their leader (""We need someone whose spirit hasn't been broken yet by the Nazis""), they start making plans for an escape; they kill a German/Jewish ""kapo"" who's sure to betray them; they decide to opt for open revolt, killing guards, rather than a sneak-tunnel escape (which would only benefit a few). Rashke does a moment-by-moment reconstruction of the action, then follows a handful of the 300 fugitives on their post-escape treks through the woods--where many encountered only hostility in their attempts to join the partisans: ""Wasn't there one Pole in Poland whom help a Jew without a gun?"" And the book's final section recounts Rashke's encounters with some of the survivors--in travels to Brazil, Russia, Israel, and the Sobibor site itself. Surefire material? So you'd think. But Rashke's quasi-fictional approach--extensive dialogue (much of it stiffly unconvincing), emotionally-fraught prose (""Pechersky's heart stopped. . . . The cry tore at his heart"")--robs the history of spare journalistic power; his inevitable concentration on those who survived (and those who talked to him) adds to the inauthentic atmosphere; and, even with these docu-drama liberties, the focus is diffuse and the pace is slow--especially since Rashke also includes chapters for Holocaust perspective (material better presented by Walter Laqueur and others). An iffy treatment, then--neither grippingly fictionalized nor authoritatively historical--but the story itself (previously told-in-full only in non-English-language memoirs) has an obvious, built-in appeal.
Pub Date: Oct. 14, 1982
Page Count: -
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1982
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