by Amos Lassen
Rabbi Joseph Polak won the 2015 Jewish Book Award with “After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring”, a memoir about a mother and child who were able to survive two concentration camps and then deal with the past when they tried to reclaim their lives. They were forced to deal with rejection by society, disbelief and invalidation making it very difficult to come back into the world.
I am sure that it is beyond any of our thought processes how to deal with a world where we are not welcome especially after near death experiences in the most of all living conditions. We meet a child who decides early on that when he grows up he will pursue the only career that speaks to him—he is to be a teacher about the role of God in history; he will become a rabbi. And that is what Joseph Polak did and he is today a rabbi and an academic.
As you can imagine, this is not an easy book to read. This is Polak’s story of how he was reunited with his mother after the war and went on to Canada and became a rabbi.
This is also the story of the deportation of Dutch Jewry to Westerbork, and from there how Polak was sent to Bergen Belsen where he as a three-year old child was liberated. The author tells more than his own story— he poses questions about what happened, about the meaning of survival, about God and the Jewish people. He gives us brilliant depictions of scenes of torment and humiliation. He writes about how the inmates of the camps came together in solidarity and how those who survived maintained that solidarity. He writes about how his life has been troubled and how the influence of what the victims have gone through remains always with them even when they would deny it.
This is about learning to be human again and he raises questions about how man can be so evil. Because he survived, Polak has had his entire life to try to make sense of the Holocaust to find a way to reconnect with the God who seemed not to be there while his people were being killed.
Joseph has the rest of his life to make sense of the Holocaust, to find a way to re-connect with a God painfully absent from the destruction of his people. He and his mother faced years of starvation, brutality, and deplorable conditions.
After the war, the government of the Netherlands forced surviving Jews to prove that they were parents of children who survived in a different location. We can only imagine how difficult that must have been for Polak’s mother whose son’s earliest memories of Bergen-Belsen include playing hide and seek among mountains of skeletal bodies. There were no happy memories.
Instead of forgetting about God like so many others, Polak struggled to understand God’s role in the terror and genocide. He became a rabbi and later he eventually realized that he would be one of the last Holocaust survivors, one of the final firsthand witnesses to the horror. Hence he wrote this book as a way to try to recall those events that so terribly impacted his life and his mother’s life.