Monday, December 31, 2018

Remember Us by Martin Small and Vic Shayne - a book review

Many, if not most, of the histories written of the Holocaust, tend to be big picture overviews. The horrors of those who died or survived are viewed from a safe distance, perhaps as vignettes, while the story itself, intending to serve as a warning, can get lost in statistics and psychology. As Stalin said, one man's death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.

Remember Us is the story of one man's "journey from the Schtetl through the Holocaust".  If you recall the D-Day landing scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan, you will remember it was shot at waist height, close up. It revealed what the individual soldier saw. Total chaos, friends killed or wounded, no idea of progress except his own. 

That is how this book is written, up close and personal. All we know is what the author knows, all we see is what he sees. We feel his happiness, his pain and suffering, his loss, and finally his contentment and activism in his new life.

Martin Small was born Mordechai Lieb Schmulewicz in 1916 in the Polish town of Molozadcz, west of Minsk in what is now Belarus.  The Jews referred to their schtetl (small town) in Yiddish as Maitchet. The population was about 2000 people of which half were Jews and half Polish. They had lived side by side for centuries as had all the Jews and Gentiles in the villages, town, and cities of the Pale of Settlement. Everyone was poor and everyone struggled; they worked together because they had to.

There were two churches, Catholic and Orthodox, and one synagogue. The Catholic Church preached hatred as it had done for centuries. Jews were responsible for all the evil in the world from the death of Christ to the failure of crops.  The Orthodox priest was a kind and gentle man worried about anti-Semitism. The Jews were tolerated but despised for their way of life, their language, their education. They were second-class citizens and their future was never secure but they thrived in spite of it. On the street, Jews and Gentiles were friends and neighbours and had been for centuries.

Martin (Mordechai) spends a great deal of time describing life in the schtetl because he felt the loss of that way of life so greatly.  He was a scholar, studying at the local Yeshiva and traveling to other Yeshivas in other schtetls. Several chapters describe Jewish customs and traditions that he knew growing up and that had remained unchanged for centuries. Then in 1939 things began to change.  First, the Russians came but disrupted little.  However, a steady stream of Jewish refugees from the west began flowing through the village on their way east with horror stories which Mordechai and his community could not believe and ignored them as not happening to them.  Then the Germans came.

The villagers could hear the fighting in the distance but the Germans who came were SS Einsatzgruppen. They were welcomed by most of the Poles who suddenly found they were free to give full vent to their hatred of Jews and overnight turned into savage mobs.  Jews were hauled out of their homes, "beaten, burned, butchered", and shot. Their homes were ransacked and everything stolen. Mordechai and his friend Shmulek along with other men were tethered to a wagon and force-marched 30 km to Baranowicz (Baranovichi), the thriving city and Jewish centre of his youth. It had been turned into a holding centre and ghetto as had other cities with plenty of help from Poles, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians. The Jewish men were turned into slaves until their turn came to be shot.

Mordechai managed to escape and made his way back towards Maitchet.  He stopped at a farm whose Polish owner was a friend of his fathers and found them sheltering several Jews including Mordechai's cousin who informed him that his entire family had been driven to a pit outside of the village, shot and buried.  Moise was still alive and managed to crawl out in the night.  

The Jews scattered.  Mordechai was on the run in the forest where there were several Partisan groups, some of which were Jewish, some of which killed Jews on sight and some of which welcomed Jews. Mordechai kept moving but was eventually captured and sent to Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. Mauthausen was one of the oldest slave labour concentration camps, in operation from shortly after the Anschluss in 1938.  The complex of camps was built with private money as a profit-making enterprise based on slave labour. The main camp at Mauthausen was a Category III which meant the cruelest torture was to be used to exterminate the prisoners who were mainly Polish and Russian intelligentsia and finally Jews.  Life expectancy was 3 to 6 months. 

On April 5th, 1945, Mordechai's time ran out.  As the American army entered the camp, he lay on the floor, as skeleton among skeletons, with dead and dying scattered and piled around the camp.  A GI noticed there was a spark of life in one skeleton and carried the barely alive Mordechai to an ambulance. The chapters on Mauthausen are hard to read.  There is more detail in the Appendix told by the Americans who liberated the camp. Man's inhumanity to man knows no boundaries.

The remainder of the book tells of Mordechai's recovery, his time as a displaced person in camps in Italy, fighting the Egyptian Army in the 2948 War of Independence, immigration to New York where he was reunited with his mother's sister, Frieda, and her family, somewhat making up for those he lost. He changed his name to Martin Small for several reasons, the main one being to fit in as an American and eventually settled in Colorado, where he built a Holocaust Museum in his basement and spoke with student groups and others about his life.

At age 87 and over the next three years, with the help of Vic Shayne, he wrote his autobiography, "not so you will understand but so you will know you can never understand". . . "how friends and neighbours can turn to heartless killers overnight". 



8 comments:

  1. A testament to the powerful evil of hate, in general, and of antisemitic hate, in particular. An ongoing lesson to us all.

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    1. It is not just Antisemitism though that is one of the oldest. It is hatred from anyone who is different: Black, Brown, Muslim, Gay, Feminist. Given the vitriol spewed in comments sections and the small numbers of murders and brutality on the streets because they are given permission by Trump to hate, it would not take much more freedom to see both raging mobs and orderly round ups of minorities in Europe and in America.

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  2. I wonder if our local library would be able to get me this book. I'll ask next time I'm there.

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  3. Holocaust stories horrify me. Partly because it makes me sick to think that so-called human beings could commit atrocities like that; and mostly because I know that given the opportunity, today's hate-filled people wouldn't hesitate to do the same thing against the minority of their choosing. *shudders*

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    1. Humans have never really stopped. In our lifetime there is East Timor, Pol Pot, Rwanda, Yugoslavia in the 90s,the Tamils and the Rohingya, just to name a few. Closer to home we have Ecole Polytechnique, Dylan Roof, Pittsburg Synagogue and so on forever. The lynchings and mass murders of Blacks would return in a flash, as you say, if people felt they had "permission".
      We think we live in a wonderful world because it hasn't touched us. . . yet. I do not want to live to see it but it will come.

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  4. Humans killed more than 100 million of their own species in the 2oth century alone. I sure hope we do better in this century, but I don't have any faith that we will.

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  5. Far more than 100 million. WWII and the Great Leap Forward accounted for 40 million deaths each. No, I don't hold out for fewer in this century either, I am afraid.

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