This is not a book that one can really review, for to review means to be objective and detached. It means to pass judgment on the techniques of the author and to evaluate how well or how poorly he expresses his ideas. But when someone writes a book that bears witness to the horrors that he has gone through, and when someone pours out his soul, and when someone reaches into the very depths of your being, detachment is not an appropriate response.
Joseph Polak has written a memoir that begins where Anne Frank’s diary leaves off. She wrote about the trials and the travails of growing up in a hidden room, and of learning how to become a teenager in a hideout. Her book ends with her and her family being discovered by the Nazis and taken away to Auschwitz. We hear nothing of the starvation, the filth, and the typhus that took away her life there. Jospeh Polak’s book begins when he was taken, first to Westerbook, and then a year and a half later, from there to Bergen Belsen when he was still a small child.
His book is not so much an account of what happened to him there as it is an effort to understand and to convey how what happened to him there has remained within his consciousness ever since.
I read every page of this book at least twice: sometimes wincing, sometimes shivering, sometimes wishing it would end already. In this review, let me share just a few of the insights in it that stay with me ever since I encountered them.
The first is the photographs. There are many photographs in this book that I found simply overwhelming. They moved me, not because they portrayed sadism or brutality. They moved me because of their ordinariness. There is not a single picture of a Nazi in this book, nor are there any pictures of the train stations or the gas chambers or of the dogs that kept people in line. Instead, there are pictures of Joseph Polak’s mother, and of her mother, and of his father—a picture that sits on his desk and is his only memento of his father’s existence, and a picture that is gradually deteriorating with the passage of time. There are pictures of his uncle, and of the man who taught him aleph bet in Montreal after the war, and there are pictures of himself in his childhood and in his youth. And when I look at these pictures, I find myself realizing: “I know these people! I know them! I remember seeing these faces, or faces just like these in my childhood shul!” And the awareness that ordinary people like these could have gone through such extraordinary experiences in the concentration camps—that human beings like the ones that I knew lived in a place where their dignity, their selfhood, their ability to parent their children, and their ability to make rational decisions were taken away from them, even before they were sent to the places where their physical lives were taken away from them—this knowledge is overwhelming.
Two scenes from this book will haunt me for a long time. One is the scene in which a bureaucrat tells a man that his wife has already gone on the previous train that goes once a week from Westerbrook to Bergen Belsen. She has already left on the journey from which there is no return. The bureaucrat looks up from the list in his hand, and says to this man: ‘It is up to you. You can go there too –on the next train, which leaves in a few minutes, or you can stay here.” The man is unable to respond. How do you choose between suicide and betrayal? How do you choose between joining your wife or maybe having a little bit more life? The man with the notebook says: “I’ll give you five minutes to decide” as if he is asking him whether he wants a ham sandwich or a turkey sandwich!
And you realize, as you try to imagine yourself in that unimaginable situation, that you have no right to judge those who were there, those who had been transformed from being bankers or barbers or businessmen into being bewildered, exhausted, confused former human beings, whose only task was to somehow keep their names off the List, the list of those who were transported from Westerbrook to Bergen Belson every Tuesday morning.
There is a photograph in this book of a child, perhaps six or seven years old, walking along a road, in shorts, looking to his left. And on the right side of the photograph, you see heaps of corpses, lying on the ground.
And you wonder: Did this child see these bodies heaped up on his right as he walked by? Did he realize what they were? Is he looking away out of horror or out of innocence? And you wonder even more about whoever it was that took this picture. Was it a Nazi soldier, who was struck by the contrast between innocence and ugliness that he saw? Was it a Jew who wanted the world to know—to know and to care—to know and to at least be revolted—at a world in which little kids played near feces and walked around among bodies without even feeling horror?
One of the things that you learn from this book is that for the survivors the Holocaust did not end in 1945. It continued when people came back, and found that it was their neighbors who had turned them in, and that it was their neighbors who now lived in their homes. It continued when a small child has to learn to cope first with the death of his father in Bergen Belsen and then with the brokenness in body and in spirit of his mother. His mother somehow got them to Montreal after the war, and she married again, perhaps so that he might have a father, but Joseph Polak says that he hated the man who dared to take his father’s place. He tells of how hard it was to fit into the new world, of how he and the others were told not to talk about where they came from, and what they had gone through there, but to become “like everyone else” instead. And he shows us how utterly impossible that was to do.
We don’t have many books like this one, books that tell what Hell was like for children who were too innocent to understand where they were, and too young to remember it clearly afterwards. So read this book and absorb what it has to say. And take some comfort from the fact that its author grew up to be a teacher of Torah and a counselor of young people on campus, hard as that is to comprehend.
This review originally appeared in South Florida Jewish Journal