Listen to him in conversation with Susannah Heschel here.
After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring
by Joseph Polak
Foreword by Elie Wiesel
Hardcover, 141 pages
“Another book on the Holocaust? Yes and no; this book is about a different Holocaust—the one that survivors of concentration camps endured after April 1945. That is when survivors began to experience the horrific and persistent memories of what they had lived through, according to Joseph Polak, who entered the camps when he was just a toddler.”
-Eleanor Ehrenkranz, Jewish Book Council
“As one of the last witnesses to the Shoah, certainly one of the youngest, Joseph Polak has written a memoir that is an essential contribution to the body of Holocaust literature….This is a must read for anyone not afraid of grappling with the unfathomable.”
“Joseph Polak has written a memoir that begins where Anne Frank’s diary leaves off…. 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.”
-Jack Reimer, South Florida Jewish Journal
“The story is so fantastic that, as Polak himself says, it goes against what we know of the Holocaust and the concentration camps. Every page teaches the reader something new, in language that is fresh and original.”
-Alan Rosen, PhD
“It is haunting and melancholic, unforgettable and poignant. Polak is a wonderful writer, proffering a terrifying truth while speculating about the wisdom of the Torah and the apparent absence of God.”
-Charles Weinblatt, NY Journal of Books
Another book on the Holocaust? Yes and no; this book is about a different Holocaust—the one that survivors of concentration camps endured after April 1945. That is when survivors began to experience the horrific and persistent memories of what they had lived through, according to Joseph Polak, who entered the camps when he was just a toddler.
In the camps, the goal was simply to survive day to day. At night, the constant noises of people crying and climbing up and down the bunks to go to the bathroom, and the smells when they didn’t make it in time, did not give anyone time to meditate. So it was only after liberation that survivors who had physically recovered fully realized and relived the subhuman lives they had been living.
That is when the nightmares began, mostly because of guilt; many knew they had behaved badly under duress. How many Dutch Jews, given a little authority, sent other people’s children off to Auschwitz to save their own, and how many inmates stole life-saving slices of bread from sleeping inmates? Who created those lists of people the Nazis used to round up the Jews in Holland? Why is it that 90% of the Jews in the Netherlands were slaughtered? These questions have obvious and disturbing answers.
Since this book is told from three different time periods, Polak asks many questions related to each of the periods, and not all of them have answers. At the beginning of the book, Polak is revisiting Troebitz (where his father is buried) in 1995 with a group of survivors; his memories of what happened fifty years earlier surface and he recounts some of them. He wonders why he, a boy of three when he entered the camp, found a Nazi guardian who watched over him but asks why his father was so soon stricken with typhus and died. He intersperses these periods with a timeless, surrealistic philosophical discussion with an angel. And he asks the eternal questions of the Angel of God: How did He allow the slaughter, especially of so many children? Why hasn’t He avenged this slaughter?
As an example of one atrocity, Joseph Polak’s beloved Uncle Anton, a widower, had the job of soothing people selected for deportation. And what happened to him? He, ”together with his four children, Isaac, age 11, Judith Hadassah, age 10, Shulamith Ruth, age 8, and Ben Zion Baruch, age 6—all were forced to run nude down the chute in Sobibor, where on July 9, 1943, they were gathered into the gas chambers. The powerlessness of it all—a father in his thirties, huddled naked with his four children, waiting for the gas.” Why?
This wrenching vision is only one of the stories Polak tells of the humiliation and destruction of body and soul that went on daily and toward which Polak periodically questions God’s attitude.
And yet, there is something to be learned from the way in which two types of people survived in larger numbers than others. One group was composed of Zionist teenagers who kept planning to get to Palestine and sang their pioneer songs together. About 80% of them survived. The other group was composed of Orthodox Jews who spent over an hour a day in deep Torah study and met three times a day to pray together. These groups had one thing in common—they did not succumb to despair.
Another major point seems to be reflected most in a photograph most people have never seen before, of a seven-year-old boy on a sunny day, walking down a path in Bergen Belsen lined with dead, unburied bodies. He doesn’t look at them and seems unconcerned. Is this denial or is he following the dictates of Jewish law, which forbids one to look at a dead body? Perhaps the boy represents the world’s attitude toward what happened during the Holocaust.This is one of the many unanswered questions we are left with after reading this profound book.
This review originally appeared on The Jewish Book Council
Joseph Polak is from the same nation as Anne Frank, The Netherlands. As Jewish children, they are taken captive by Nazi Germany, deported to Westerbork and then to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne dies from typhus. 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.
Joseph is an infant when he and his parents are forced onto Nazi train transports and sent to Westerbork. Joseph’s father dies shortly after their next train transport. He and his mother face years of starvation, brutality, and deplorable conditions. They, along with other Jews, await final transport to a Nazi death camp. Read the rest of this entry »
By Shlomo Greenwald
I’ll admit it. I sometimes choose to read a book based on its cover. I know. I know. I’m breaking a cardinal rule of…well…of life, of one that we’ve all been taught, at least as a metaphor, since pre-school.
Whether the rest of us admit it or not, covers draw our attentions and create the intial impressions we have with books. Which is why I’ve long bemoaned the state of book covers in the Orthodox publishing world. There had always been exceptions, but in general the covers were boring and cookie-cutter.
In the last five to 10 years, though, Jewish book covers have gained some vitality and personality. On this page are a few of the new titles whose covers have won my attention and praise.
After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring by Rabbi Joseph Polak
Designer Shanie Cooper says:
“The cover of After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring is comprised of three separate elements: the train tracks and the typewriter-style font, which together evoke the Holocaust experience, and a post-war image of the author as a child with his mother. I gave the mother-son photo visual prominence by superimposing it over the train tracks that fade into the background. This served to illustrate the idea that no matter where the Author went or what he did after he was liberated at age 3 from Bergen-Belsen, the Holocaust was a constant shadow throughout the life of one of the youngest Survivors.”
This originally appeared in The Jewish Press
Hays Media and Urim Publications are honored to announce the North America publication of of an important new memoir of the Holocaust from one of Bergen-Belsen’s last and youngest survivors,who would become a prominent American rabbi.
Rabbi Polak attempts to portray the madness of an incomprehensible period and the irresponsible reaction of society that followed it. Neither God nor man emerges unscathed from this searing volume. Early critics suggest that this book constitutes the missing chapters of Anne Frank’s diary, had she but survived Bergen-Belsen to conclude her narrative. Read the rest of this entry »