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 Poland and occupied Russia became a towering darkness, full of indistinct shapes which could not be taken in even when the first eyewitnesses crept into Losice. Pinkus heard from a friend what he had seen when the Einsatzgruppen turned on a Jewish community in Russia; at forced labor, he saw the trains from the Radom ghetto passing on their way to Treblinka, shedding sometimes a car-load of suffocated corpses. But “the normal processes of thinking and reacting, the horror of the truth, and the deliberate confusion planted by the Germans, all these combined to produce a frightful weariness, a wish to get it all over with—what-ever that entailed: deportation, resettlement, concentration camp, death.”
In the end came the day of Losice. While the ghetto poured shrieking and wailing downstairs into the streets, climbing into the carts to take them to the railhead for Treblinka while the SS whips fell and machine-pistols fired into the mob, Oscar Pinkus and his family hid in a recess beyond their attic. When at last silence fell and the ghetto was empty but for odd pockets of Jews crouching behind walls and under floors, the survivors had only entered the next stage of their sufferings, a fresh dissolution of reality. It seemed obvious that one should escape as soon as possible into the fields and the forests, leave the silent ghetto and its remaining guards. But the fugitives found that the countryside, too, was against them. The Poles, accepting the aims if not the methods of the Nazis, would not take them in, and instead often handed them over to the police. For gold, one might bribe a peasant to hide a few people at the risk of his life and against his inclinations. The land was for the Jews hostile territory in which they might at any time be killed or betrayed, in which they were as alone and helpless as gold-fish in a pike pond. And in this area, at least, the Home Army (resistance) killed the Jews it found, ragged creatures living like animals in moist burrows in the forest. Better, it seemed, to return to the old ghettoes, to live a few more weeks among friends and in a house, and to be deported in their company to the gas chambers.
Pinkus was incredibly lucky (so, necessarily, was anyone who now writes a book about that time, because he lived). For the last two years of the war, he and seven other Jews hid in a pit beneath the byre of a peasant named Karbicki, a primitive who took their money greedily, threatened to turn them out when the war went badly, sometimes fed them and sometimes tried to starve them out, and yet somehow became their friend. The portrait of this discouraging man, reliable in his very unreliability because he had only two uncomplicated aims—to survive the war and make money out of his Jews—is the best thing in the book.
Donat’s narrative takes the great calamity to a further stage. With his wife and child, this Warsaw journalist found himself in the ghetto, and subjected to the same gradual, bewildering process of illusion and isolation. Within the walls, half a million people swarmed in a world of misrule and of a cancerously exaggerated normality: there were newspapers and currencies, and children dead of hunger lying against the windows of shops stuffed with exotic food. There was typhus, and grocers making Vichy water. There was political chaos. Then, in July 1942, began the great “resettlement,” as the troops and police poured in and, with the help of the Jewish Police, began to round up the population, drive them to the sidings, and load them into the cattlecars. In eight weeks of desperate confusion, over 300,000 were secured and taken on the four-hour journey to Treblinka.
Now, in Warsaw, began the talk of resistance, “undertaken solely for death with dignity.” Mr. Donat describes in great detail the preparations for the ghetto rising, the building of bunkers, and the almost fruitless efforts to get arms from the indifferent Polish resistance outside. The Jewish Armed Organization (“Z.O.B.”) took hold of the survivors and transformed them; they became “soldiers without arms,” men and women who fought and then took cyanide among the flames, consciously in the tradition of Masada. The battle began in April 1943. Donat’s record of what he saw and lived in those days cannot be forgotten.
He and his wife were sent to Majdanek, then to many other camps. They both lived, to write down how others died in countless ways and agonies. Their son lived, too, through the misery of a barefoot, scabies-ridden Catholic orphanage where Polish teachers explained that Jews mixed the blood of Christian children with their matzoes. Meanwhile, the oily black smoke rose and drifted all over Poland.
It would not be possible to keep these two books out of the Arendt controversy, even if the indefatigable Judge Musmanno had not scrawled on the back of Mr. Donat’s memoir that “this dynamite of a book explodes into smithereens Hannah Arendt’s thesis that Eichmann received to an ‘extra-ordinary degree’ the ‘co-operation’ of the millions of Nazi victims in their own destructions.” Both books are full of important evidence on the matter, mostly tending to confirm what Miss Arendt wrote (though rendering still more painful the tone in which she wrote it). Admittedly, these are records of what happened to the Jews of Poland, with which Eichmann in Jerusalem was not directly concerned. But there is no reason why their experience should have differed in kind from that of the Western Jews. Both these writers have guarded sympathy for individual members of the Judenräte, but they are quite clear about the part they played. “They might be compared to beaters in a hunt…by and large, they were shrewd, middle-aged operators who did not realize whom they were getting ready to serve” (Losice). “The well-meant efforts of the Judenrat served only to hasten our inevitable doom” (Warsaw).
I take it that the deadly quarrel over Hannah Arendt’s book was not a genuine quarrel about history, although never, for some reason, throwing off historical disguise. However, if anybody is still interested in what actually happened and why, Pinkus and Donat—especially the former—have a lot of evidence on the “failure” of the Polish Jews to resist their doom. These were naive communities, committed to a tradition of submission and endurance against Gentile attack, so cohesive that when Losice was liquidated, hundreds of Jews left the hide-outs they had prepared for months against this moment, went downstairs and set off for Treblinka with the rest. The same factors, and more sophisticated ones (like the reluctance to believe that splendid Berlin, source of law and culture, had turned to genocide) worked in Warsaw against armed resistance to the first “Resettlement.”
It is senseless to deny that this was the case, and insolent, surely, to blame Polish Jewry for it. For one thing, this is to undervalue the transfiguration of the survivors in Warsaw into “ghetto fighters” and—just as important—the armed Jewish resistance which from then onwards operated elsewhere in Poland. Hunted by Germans and partisans, disowned by their country, condemned by the pacific tradition of their families, and without a chance, some fought. That was what the ghetto soldier Antelewicz meant when he spoke his Nunc Dimitis—“now I have seen Jewish self-defense in all its glory.”