Unlike Witness to the Holocaust (p. 110), this anthology of first-person testimony was drawn from a very specific group of...



Unlike Witness to the Holocaust (p. 110), this anthology of first-person testimony was drawn from a very specific group of witnesses: 250 European Jews, who survived the war years and now live in the US, taped their recollections for the Wiener Oral History Library. And from those tapes, Rothchild has fashioned a three-part volume, with sections on life before, during, and after the Holocaust; each section consists of edited excerpts from some survivors (many appear in more than one section), and Rothchild's introductions refer to some of the tapes which have not been excerpted. The resulting book is disturbing, painful, but not quite what you might expect. ""I wasn't prepared for the flashes of exhilaration, for the strength and pride of life-obsessed people,"" says Rothchild. And indeed the sampling here seems to be dominated by positive (or flatly neutral) voices: many who were tough, brave, canny; even more who were resilient, matter-of-fact, and just plain lucky. The first section is short and not particularly effective: we do get the range of Jewish/European life--degrees of religiosity, Zionism, anti-Semitism--but drama is lost by cutting off each memoir as 1939 approaches. In the second section, however, the particularity of these stories (""The survivors. . . did not have the luxury of abstraction"") is riveting: ""I heard my first operatic aria in the barrack,"" says Jack Goldman, who witnessed the Auschwitz 1944 uprising. A Dutch girl's sister begged to be shot by a deathcamp-guard--who laughed at her. Memories of pure-chance escapes from the gas-chamber, of growing awareness (""We saw the flames, we smelled the flesh burning, but our minds couldn't realize anything that awful""), of loved ones dead in an instant before their eyes: ""But whatever I went through, and with all the miserable things still bleeding in me, the biggest loss in my life was when they took that baby from me, that baby crying so loud, and smashed it on the ground."" Then there are those who escaped the camps entirely--hidden by non-Jews (the Dutch and the Italians were best, the Poles the worst), or blond-and-blue-eyed enough to pass with fake papers, or on-the-run through sewers, or lucky enough to have official friends. And the third, life-in-the-US section is even more varied--with surprisingly un-morbid, essentially positive stories of hard-won adjustments. Is this, then, an unrepresentative, too-upbeat reflection of the Holocaust experience? Perhaps. But it is definitely an illuminating cross-section of the survivor experience (though those who stayed in Europe or went to Israel might sound quite different)--with disarming, life-sized particulars to balance the many more sensational approaches to the Holocaust.

Pub Date: April 21, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: New American Library

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1981