ON BURNING GROUND by Michael Skakun


A Son's Memoir
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A stirring and provocative memoir by the son of a Jew who survived the Holocaust by posing as a gentile. The author, in his first book, relates his father’s dangerous saga of survival with drama and detail. For the first few years of the Nazi occupation, Joseph Skakun is just another victim of the roundups, deportations, and ghettos that stalk and eventually destroy his family across Poland. A friend startles the pious yeshiva boy by telling him that with his blond hair and blue eyes he can shed his Star of David armband and pass for a gentile. It is thus disguised as an outsider that he witnesses Jews, including relatives, getting their skulls cracked open and dying with “these final Hebrew words [which] bound them to those who slaved and died on the pyramids, who shed their blood during the Crusades, and the Inquisition.” Joseph has a Jewish memory and identity. He does not feel that the Holocaust is a historical aberration, an unfair punishment by a faulty God, and a betrayal by a Western world whose values he shares. The fact that this unassimilated Jew had not always dreamed of being a gentile intensifies the drama of Skakun practicing Christian and Moslem lore to pass as a Pole or Tartar (and therefore circumcised) to get foreign worker status in Germany. His situation among Hitler’s many willing executioners is all the more precarious because he must fool even the SS, into which he is inducted near the war’s end, despite the yeshiva boy’s cultural limitations. Soon after liberation Skakun tears up his Nazi passport, flings it in the toilet, “sending the remains of his false identity into the netherworld of Poland’s sewers.” A unique Holocaust memoir for its second-generation authorship, its erudition (Skakun displays an easy familiarity with a wide range of European and Jewish writers), and its traditional Jewish sensibility.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-20566-X
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1999