A terrifying view from the epicenter of the Holocaust, preserved in the adolescent memory of a young Polish Jew with a mission.
Halter (b. 1927), the architect renowned for his design for Israel’s Holocaust memorial, tells a harrowing story, narrated in simple, straightforward prose that harkens back to his mother’s admonition to “record, don’t judge” when he began keeping a notebook. Even before the war, writes Halter, the Jews in the small Polish village of Chodecz faced school quotas, suspicion, prejudice and discrimination. But not everything was bad—since Roman Catholics don’t consider the water safe until it’s blessed by a priest, customarily in late June, they had the lake to themselves for swimming in spring. They realized, however, that when the Nazis arrived, as everyone believed they would, nobody would be able to stand between the SS troopers and their principal prey. And that’s exactly how it happened. Halter witnessed the killing, as if for sport, of several of his friends, a memory that will haunt him forever. The Halters were transported, as were all the Jews from nearby towns, to the ghetto of Lodz for forced labor. Starvation and disease killed the author’s grandfather and father, and Halter was eventually separated from his mother as other relatives were dispersed to destinations unknown. The author amazingly survived Auschwitz, Stutthof, the Allied firebombing of Dresden and an SS death march, from which he escaped with the help of a German couple later persecuted for aiding Jews.
Remarkably, a sense of adventure and joy of life are sustained in an account that moves through civilization’s worst nightmare.