A gripping tale that traces the unlikely survival of a Ukrainian teen during the Holocaust.
The atrocities of the Holocaust have provided the backdrop for many books and films, but few are as detailed and harrowing as Rekhtman’s stomach-churning account. Transcribed and translated from Russian by his grandson, this slim volume serves as the only record left of an entire Ukrainian village wiped out in 1942. While such a scenario often leads to heavy-handed sentimentalities and overwrought emotions, the author resorts to very few of those elements. Instead, readers are served a clear-eyed retelling of the cruelty and inhumanity that reigned during World War II. The story opens with a description of the secluded village of Kalyus, where Rekhtman was born and few of its 850 residents ever left. At 14, Rekhtman experienced a peaceful existence in which Jews and Ukrainians lived and worked together. Of course, this reality changed quickly when Communist officials fled during the night and rumors of German brutality toward Jews floated to the town. As the German army advanced into the Ukraine, the author’s neighbors and childhood friends began treating Jews with distrust and hate. A police unit arrived to enforce intense, useless labor such as moving snow from one side of the road to the other, on the Jewish residents. The author was transported to a labor camp where he worked in a stone quarry and became accustomed to constant beatings and starvation. His village was turned into a ghetto enclosed by barbed wire. When it was announced that the Kalyus ghetto was closed and everyone would be transported to another ghetto, none of the villagers realized that they were walking to their deaths until it was too late. Able-bodied people who could work were picked out, including the author’s father, uncle, great-uncle and his two sons. His father refused to leave his family and was shot by rounds of machine guns along with the rest of the village. With quick wit and a huge will to survive, Rekhtman evaded Nazi killing fields and death camps for four years, despite failing eyesight and an emaciated body. This story holds no bitterness or outrage but reveals the unfathomable strength of the human spirit.
A well-crafted, touching account of horror and fortitude.