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". 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Time to start blogging again

Many people have asked me to start blogging again. Sorry, couldn't resist.  Would you believe two people?

I needed a break.  I was physically tired and mentally tired of idiots on the left and right that well deserved rants so I contented myself with trolling them in the comments section rather than blogging.

I had a couple of interesting things to do that kept my mind from rotting entirely. Did some consulting work for a long time client and learned how to convert current prices into inflation-adjusted prices. And I was coerced into chairing the 50th reunion of 1969 College of Agriculture Graduates.

Every year the Saskatchewan Agricultural Graduates Association (SAGA) organizes a reunion of graduates from the College in early January. Any graduate is welcome to attend but specifically, those who graduated 10, 20, 30 etc years ago are encouraged.  2019 marks 50 years for our class. There were about 60 of us, including a half dozen who were in 4th year but graduated at a later date or not at all.  I started with contact information for about half and set out to track down the rest.

People lose touch with each other over the years and so not every graduate was contacted in past years. Ten years ago, I could not have done it but with the internet, you can run but not hide. Facebook, Google, 411, all helped as did knowing people who might know people. I got all but two graduates. Email addresses and phone numbers included.

We are not getting younger. Several of the guys (only one girl in the class) had no interest in coming back in January from their warm winter dwellings so we will discuss a summer reunion. We lost 6 of our class to various causes so will likely look at summer reunions every 5 years too as from here on in there will only be fewer of us.

Tanya was home all summer, returned the end of September. My ileostomy was reversed at the end of October so I am rid of my pouch finally, though persuading things to work after a 16-month hiatus was no simple task. After two months things are returning to normal. My next and I hope last surgery is scheduled for January or February sometime. I am sick of being sick but at least I am above ground still.

The family was all in Regina for Christmas. First time we had been together in 9 years. Of course, we forgot to take pictures but my second youngest is getting married in July so for sure we get pictures then.  And by then I hope to be well enough to go home.  It will have been two years. Tanya and I celebrated our 11th and 12th wedding anniversaries in Regina.  Time to go home.