The House of Ashes
The Holocaust Kingdom
These books describe the experiences of two Polish Jews under the Nazi occupation. Both are written by men of unusual intelligence and literary skill; both of them contribute to our understanding of what was possible for the Jews—resistance or self-abandonment—when the first tales came home from the destination of the long trains. The Pinkus book is concerned with the fate of the Jews in Losice and the small towns around, in the relatively remote land of Podlasie to the east of Warsaw; The Hotocaust Kingdom is about the Warsaw ghetto and the rising of the Jews in the capital, and about the camps’ which followed.
The first thing to be said is that both men have waited some twenty years to put down their memories. They appear to have forgotten nothing, but in the interval they have gained enough mastery over that past to dare to make it live again for a reader. These are not, then, “indictments” so much as steadily written memoirs, recollections of the subjectively felt and marked, and immensely the more effective for that.
“Hostilities between Germany and Poland” began at the end of a lovely summer. Oscar Pinkus was a schoolboy, evidently rather a bright one, loitering about warm streets of the small town, visiting a girl to discuss literature in ardent terms. Over the town, the airplanes twinkled; the boy studied the poems of Mickiewicz, the defeats with honor, and the proud, quiet men who die significantly. Oscar Pinkus was a Jew, aware that he was disliked by the “pious, tough, half-literate peasants” but feeling himself—in the way of culture—perhaps more intelligently Polish than they. The huge, hot forests, the rivers, the countryside of Poland stood behind him as they had stood behind Pan Tadeusz. Then this lucid world began to warp, not all at once as the first Germans drove into Losice, but gradually. There were atrocities, but then there had been hard times and persecutions in the First World War; there was a Jewish tradition of putting up with these things and regarding them as a recurrent but not fatal pestilence. For too long, until too late, it was not considered that the Nazi intentions differed in kind from those of other makers of pogroms. Some people crossed the Bug into Soviet-occupied Poland. Most thought, even in 1940, that “there wasn’t much in it” between Nazis and Communist Russians; one might as well stay put. The choice was argued without heat, at leisure.
The Germans organized a Judenrat, and the Losice Jews went out to back-breaking forced labor. There were more shootings, typhus and starvation and over-crowding, and yet one or two people came back from beyond the Bug, feeling that home was after all home. A ghetto was established in December 1941, which at first gave an odd sense of security. Gradually it became a cage within which the Jews froze and starved and died. The mystery of what was happening to the other Jews of …