Out of Chaos: Hidden Children Remember the Holocaust.
ELAINE SAPHIER FOX, ED.
INTRODUCTION BY PHYLLIS LASSNER
EVANSTON, IL: NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2013.
This anthology is aptly titled. The volume pulls together the life stories of twenty-four different American Jews who survived the Holocaust as children, bringing their stories, quite literally, Out of Chaos and into print. But, beyond offering a fine teaching tool for Holocaust or Life-Writing classes, the anthology challenges us to think about the conditions of memory for American Jewish Holocaust survivors in the twenty-first century. On the back cover, historian Peter Hayes hails this book as "an awakener of empathy." Does this mean that our capacity to empathize in general--or with American Jewish Holocaust survivors in particular--may have gone to sleep? Possibly. Books like Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life or Gary Weissman's Fantasies of Witnessing have offered academics a thick vocabulary for criticizing North American Holocaust commemoration practices, educational efforts, and popular culture. (1) Scholarship has become so alert to all forms of sentimentality, hyperbole, or political manipulation that there remains little terrain for remembering well--whatever that might mean. As Caroline Dean puts it, " [I] n this rhetorical context it is impossible to imagine any means of claiming to have been or to be a victim other than by having already resolved ones relationship to that experience." (2) Those American survivors who wish to tell their stories in the second decade of the twenty-first century thus face a distinct challenge: How to make room for ones memory in a world that is convinced it has already remembered you--or, leaving aside any concern for public recognition, how to think about ones suffering as a child in an environment saturated with mnemonic noise. (3)
With this in mind, the book is both about surviving the Holocaust as a child as well as the process of authoring memories on the streets of Chicago. Out of Chaos offers us an exceptionally vivid picture of what this memory process was like for these particular twenty-four narrators. A mission statement and editorial afterword tell us that in 1992 a group of child survivors began meeting every other month in Chicago, inspired by the first international gathering of Hidden Children in New York in 1991. The book is a culmination of more than twenty years of co-remembering, with the help of "non-survivor" facilitator and editor Elaine Saphier Fox, who joined the group in 2006. In her afterword, Saphier Fox does not try to claim that the texts emerged spontaneously from the witnesses' mouths, but instead shares the guidelines through which participants edited one another's stories: "To help and instruct them, I discussed writing techniques and proper grammar usage.... We discussed the writings at the meeting, where the authors always had the final say, unless it involved grammar or accuracy" (248).
Perhaps with one another's encouragement, many of the authors take shelter from the saturation of Holocaust memory in their shared environment by writing small--whether writing in short scenes using sensual description or with childlike voices. For instance, Margeurite Lederman Mishkin, who survived the war hidden in rural Belgium, writes, "We arrived at this big dark, scary-looking building. It looked as if a witch might live in the building" (82). Along the same lines, many of the authors write in the present tense, as in "I am nearly three years old. It is a beautiful spring day in Berlin" (Leonie Taffel Bergman, 9) or "My mother shakes me awake from a deep sleep and sternly orders me to dress in a hurry" (Aaron Elster, 21). Many of the authors also actively point out things that they do not remember. In this sense, Phyllis Lassner, who authored the book's insightful introduction, is right to compare these life stories to Ida Fink's A Scrap of Time. (4) Most of the authors seek out "fragments of memory" (xiii), rather than temporal continuity. It is as if these minimalists were responding to a quip written by another Jewish man from Chicago, Saul Bellow, on the topic of autobiography: "Furthermore (concluding) America is a didactic country whose people always offer their personal experiences as a helpful lesson to the rest, hoping to hearten them to do good--an intensive sort of public-relations project." (5) Writing nearly forty years after their urban peer, these authors seem to avoid didacticism at all costs. This too seems to be a condition for biographical truth in the twenty-first century; fragmentation, the removal of conclusions, becomes its own ideal, a method of making one's story hearable.
But then there are those authors who adopt a different approach, choosing to maintain narrative coherence. Kurt Gutfreund speaks buoyantly, telling how he lost his father and siblings, survived Theresienstadt, "arrived in the United States with five dollars to (his) name," and now owns "a home in Vail, Colorado, and a condominium on Chicago's Gold Coast" (181). His resilience story gestures more toward dining room conversations than print literature. Indeed, Gutfreund narrated his story aloud to Saphier Fox, who transcribed it in his name. In a similar vein, Isaac M. Daniel organizes his memories of survival in the Baron Hirsch camp of Salonika around a series of improbable events, which he numbers, "miracle number one," "miracle number two," and "miracle number three." In the context of the volume, these "diachronic" (6) narrators struck me as the rebels in the class, the ones who ignored the fragmentation guidelines. The American provenance of these life stories emerges time and again through intertextual layering. There are intriguing moments in which these authors show us the kinds of images, story lines and informational venues that they have lived with over the years. These include references to popular culture: One author speaks of "Shirley Temple's corkscrew curls" to depict the way her hair did not look. Another recalls the dog who stars in the movie Benji, an emblem of a healthy, suburban pet, who contrasts the wounded stray dog she clutches in the story. (The animal-human parallels are more than implicit.) In these instances, the narrators let us in on how "America" becomes a text to them, a pastiche of images and expectations, against which they measure their own inclusion and recovery. Witnessing is an ongoing process of input as well as output.
The feedback loop between life and art appears especially complex in the story of Miriam Studniberg Webster. She lived and worked as a translator at the Aglasterhausen UNRRA camp outside of Heidelberg after the war. This camp, as Webster points out (154), was among those visited by Austrian-Jewish American film director Fred Zinnemann in preparation for making The Search (1948), parts of which were filmed on location in Germany. (7) The heroine of both the 1948 film and the 2013 life story is the American camp director, Rachel Green Rottersman, or Mrs. Murray as she is called on screen. In both the Hollywood version and the personal life story, Rottersman works tirelessly for the well-being of the displaced children who arrive under her charge. Webster, in recollecting this fragile period of her life, recalls that Rottersman took her under her wing and even helped her emigrate to Chicago. The Search ends with a miraculous mother-child reunion. In her autobiographical version, Webster recalls a parallel scene with her own father, who knocks on her door unexpectedly after the war. "I looked up and ran to the door, hugged him and said, 'Tatasiu!' ... I was so happy to see him" (153).
But that is where the parallel ends. Zinnemann's film starts to roll the credits following the parent-child embrace--whereas Webster shares a more complex aftermath. Miriams father eventually joins her in Chicago, but then has trouble acclimating to the new setting. He eventually returns to Germany. Webster puts it simply: "He was a broken man. He could make a better living in Manheim, partnering with other Jews" (156). The result of this encounter between autobiography and popular cinema is not a refutation of one by the other, but a quiet misalignment--uninflated, yet unmistakable.
Throughout this volume, the ambivalence of postwar family reunions is a theme treated with subtlety and humanity. Many of the narrators discover their parents in a state equally vulnerable to their own. After catastrophe, making a family requires something other than, or more than biology, yet survivors feel compelled to find their bloodlines nonetheless. This is the theme of an especially evocative piece that earns discussion in Lassner's introduction as well. Toward the end of the volume, we read "The Story of Adam Paluch." Paluch, the narrator, remembers nothing of his early childhood, not even scraps or fragments, and has no information on his birth identity. Though he is a circumcised male, his birth certificate lists him as a Polish female. The author searches the world over for family members. He recalls this journey with dry humor: "My adoptive mother tells me that I was born out of wedlock (shsh!)" (226), "[The rabbi] checks to see if indeed I've been circumcised. He is not disappointed" (227). Toward the end of the piece, Paluch reveals how he finally discovered a long-lost twin sister. That woman is Ida Paluch Kersz, whose autobiography appeared in a much earlier section of the book. In her story, Paluch Kersz made no mention of this late-life reunion with her brother. It is a credit to the editor that these two stories were kept apart, requiring the reader to puzzle at the connection between the distinct trajectories of these two individuals, just as the siblings might have done as well.
Adam Paluch's story ends, but does not conclude: "For those people that question whether Ida and I are really twins, we have no doubt about our relationship. Therefore, we decided that DNA testing is unnecessary. We believe we have sufficient evidence to verily that we are brother and sister." One cannot help but wonder at his insistence on instinct over biotechnology. Neither sentimentality nor learned critique offer the reader an easy way out of this final assertion, and the questions that it raises. Clearly, this is not a false memory incident, as in the infamous Binjamin Wilkomirski diary, (8) or a Hollywood ending or even a "helpful lesson to the rest." If empathy is what this awakens in me, it must be of a new strain.
In sum, this volume offers a rich array of new Holocaust life stories, and in a format that makes it accessible to students. As material for researchers, the value of the volume lies primarily in the way that it narrates its own creation, letting us glimpse into the meetings and exchanges of a group of American Jewish survivors at the end of the twentieth century and start of the twenty-first. It updates our impressions about American Holocaust memory from the 1990s, when most of the large-scale recording projects were completed. We see the witnesses facing new challenges in their writing: an anti-moralist ethos and thus the demand for fragmentation, a skepticism generated by false-memory incidents, and a rising fatigue with Jewish pain. For these reasons, Out of Chaos is a welcome contribution to Holocaust and American Jewish literary studies.
(1.) Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000): Gary Weissman, Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).
(2.) Carolyn Janice Dean, Aversion and Erasure: The Fate of the Victim after the Holocaust (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 54.
(3.) See Regine Robin, La memoire saturee (Paris: Stock, 2003).
(4.) Ida Fink, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995).
(5.) Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (New York: Penguin, 1975), 65.
(6.) Galen Strawson, "Against Narrativity," Ratio 17, no. 4 (2004): 428-52.
(7.) J. E. Smyth, "Fred Zinnemann's Search (1945-48): Reconstructing the Voices of Europe's Children." Film History: An International Journal 23, no. x (2011): 75-92.
(8.) Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood (New York: Schocken, 1997).
HANNAH POLLIN-GALAY UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS, AMHERST
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|Publication:||Studies in American Jewish Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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