Review of After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring by Joseph Polak

A similarly artful framing may be found in Joseph Polak’s slender work After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring. Like Kulka, Polak was a child survivor. Whereas the Israeli historian was a boy of seven when the family’s nightmare started in Prague, Polak was a mere infant when his mother became an inmate at Bergen Belsen in 1944. The older child had suppressed personal recollections of the Shoah for the sake of scientific inquiry. The infant from the Hague had pushed off recalling his first steps among the corpses by becoming a noted professor and rabbi at Boston University.

Polak’s memoir also struggles with language explicitly. A key chapter in his book takes the shape of a metaphysical drama, a play for two voices deeply anchored in Jewish texts. The soul of the infant and his angel are arguing moments before the mother starts giving birth. Both are able to see across worlds and time. Both know about the disaster that is already leading more than a million children to their deaths. Rightfully, the infant’s soul proclaims: “I am not going into that inferno.” [Joseph Polak, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2015), 4.16 Ibid., 30.]

The angel, hastened by the mother’s dilating cervix, wants to cut the conversation short, but at the same time the heavenly messenger cannot lie. He explains to the child that he is condemned not to be among the martyred children but among those who will have to bear witness. The question for both the angel and the soul centers on where is God.

Only a highly evocative writer can picture for us the Beit Midrash, the Celestial Study Hall, where God has exiled himself to be both near and far from the murdered children’s crying. In the Hall of Judgment, where God should have been, sit the children, “their faces ashen, their hair grey, weeping, weeping, not understanding.” These are not exactly stage directions in a conventional literary sense, but they do guide the moral imagination into crevices where theories of phatic language cannot penetrate. Pared down to the bare bones, these words create a listening space in which the reader is both accosted and elevated.

This double impact is more powerful for not being sought. The best writers about the Shoah are those who allow the reader to glimpse their own reluctance to enter the nightmare. Kulka, like Levi and Polak, avoids reading and adding to Holocaust literature. He confronts the Shoah within himself and does not become one of the easily classified Holocaust writers. This confrontation takes place despite words. It is as if language had been squeezed through the roughest wringer and only its darkest stains remain. Kulka speaks eloquently about the thwarted desire to “smash and shatter the invisible wall of the city forbidden to me”—the city in which life goes on as if the Shoah did not happen (82). But the metropolis of death keeps reclaiming him. The boy who skirted “piles of skeletons of the corpses” on the way to the youth hut to practice music and black humor keeps haunting the historian who had already addressed Nazi ideology in his scientific research (84). The willful doubling up of the language of death haunts the reader as well, and thereby casts a new light upon the Shoah.

Similarly, Polak, draws us into the barracks of Bergen Belsen where typhus infected inmates are literally drowning in their own feces. Terrence Des Pres had already circled this nightmare skillfully in his 1976 book The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. What is new in Polak’s evocation of the “excremental assault” is the understated but forceful tone that the twenty-first century needs in order to stem the tide of willful forgetting. This tone is most evident in small details about a mother who weighs less than fifty pounds and who is so weak that she cannot lift her buttocks off the floor while yellow stool bubbles on her thighs. No one wants to linger on this image, none of us wants to inhale the stench. Neither does the author, the son of a cultured woman reduced to the kind of helplessness we all want to avoid. But it is precisely in allowing avoidance its linguistic space that we are enabled to see what is impossible to conceive.

Vera Schwarcz, “To Catch the Echo: Rethinking Acts of Witnessing to the Shoah” in History and Theory 54 (October 2015), 436–437.

 

 

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