Monday, October 21, 2013

The Last Jew of Treblinka by Chil Rajchman translated from Yiddish by Solon Beinfeld, published in the U.S. in 2009 with a preface by Samuel Moyn

"Rajchman’s searing story, frequently narrated in the present tense, has a powerful authenticity and should not be forgotten." from a review in Kirkus Reviews 10/25/2010
Chil Rajchman’s memoir of his incarceration in Treblinka is an important eye-witness account of the workings of a deadly camp set up not as a clearing house or a labor camp, but strictly as a site for killing all Jews who were transported there. In spare prose that highlights the horror, Rajchman describes in short vignettes the geographical layout, the personnel, and the daily activities that were arranged and monitored so that the camp worked as efficiently as possible.
That Rajchman survived is astounding because so few did. He was young, in good health when he arrived, and had his wits about him. He knew that he had the best chance to survive for some length of time if he could work, especially in a capacity that didn't involve backbreaking physical labor, so when they needed barbers, he stepped forward and said he was a barber, though he wasn’t. When they needed dentists he stepped forward and said he was a dentist, though he had no such training.

He relied on those more experienced than he to teach him what he needed to know so he could perform these tasks. But what he learned in the camp from others that was most important were general lessons about how to survive. He learned that he needed to do what he could not to anger guards and other officials, he needed to keep his head down and to work quickly,  to not make mistakes or in any other way call attention to himself. He could not let officials know if he got sick, and he needed to avoid getting beaten on his face where a visible wound would prompt someone in charge to shoot him.

Rajchman’s matter-of-fact style conveys the reality of the camp with all its terror where the abnormal was quickly normalized. His job as a barber was to cut off the hair of women who were about to be gassed. He worked as a dentist removing gold from the mouths of gassed corpses on their way to the burial pits.

The end of Rajchman’s memoir describes a revolt he and many of his co-laborers planned and carried out. Many were caught and killed, but luckily he escaped and hid in the nearby woods. He eventually made his way to Warsaw where a Polish friend provided him with Aryan identity documents.

This memoir includes an informative Preface by historian Samuel Moyn who places Treblinka in the context of concentration and extermination camps. He also discusses the importance of the memoir as the recording of an eye-witness account of Treblinka where very few lived to report about it.

This memoir also includes a map of the camp and family photos.

To watch a clip of a documentary that includes interviews with Chil Rajchman click here
To read an interview in 2012 with the two last survivors of Treblinka (Rajchman died in 2004) click here.

Abraham and Java Froim
   Yekhiel (Chil) Rajchman son of Abraham and Java; author
         Jose, Andres, Daniel Rajchman – sons of Chil
Rivka – daughter of Abraham and Java
Monek – son of Abraham and Java
Ratza – daughter of Abraham and Java
Ruska – daughter of Abraham and Java
Isaac – son of Abraham and Java

Wolf Ber Rojzman
Leybl Goldfarb
Moyshe Ettinger
Zhelo Bloch
Rudolf Masarek
Yankel Wiernik

Ostrow Lubelski
Treblinka, Poland

Monday, October 7, 2013

Journey to Poland by Alfred Doblin translated by Joachim Neugroschel from German, published in English in 1991

"Compelling Journey to a Vanishing World" the headline of a review by Ron Grossman in the Chicago Times 5/15/1991.

For two months in late 1924 Alfred Doblin, a noted German Jewish novelist, made a tour of major cities in Poland to see what Polish Jewish life was like. Although Doblin’s family had been from Poland, he was raised in Germany and was a highly assimilated German Jew who lived and worked amongst the intelligentsia of Berlin. He sought a more “authentic” Jewish life than he was aware of in Germany, not necessarily to embrace it, but to better understand it.

He observed Jewish life in all the cities on his itinerary: Warsaw, Vilnius, Lublin, Lvov, Cracow, Lodz, and everywhere he had experiences that deepened his knowledge of Judaism. He walked through neighborhoods, listened to people tell stories – he loved folk tales, visited schools and synagogues, and sought meetings with important rabbis.

What he saw in Warsaw, his first stop, amazed him. He was totally unfamiliar with the appearance and the customs of very observant Jews which struck him as medieval. And he was appalled by their poverty and living conditions. He describes with great vividness his experience following the crowds to the cemetery the night before Yom Kippur and how many wailed at the graves of members of their families. In Wilno (Vilnus) he learned about the Gaon of Vilna and the Ba’al Shem Tov and their adherents. In Cracow he learned about the mysticism of Cabbalah through some of its texts and was fascinated.

Doblin characterizes as soulless and anemic the intellectualizing of Western Europe and extolls what he sees as the vibrancy and cohesion of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. For example, he cites his own educational experience as typical of Western Europe: What he remembers is that the teachers were authoritarian and focused on discipline. In Poland he seeks out the opportunity to observe classes in Jewish schools where he finds that learning is a communal affair and teachers and students work together to interpret the text.

Throughout this memoir Doblin expresses his strong feelings about borders, and he uses the line from Schiller, “For every border wields a tyrant’s power” as its epigraph. He expresses much frustration and despair about the deleterious effects of nationalism on all people and property.  In many places he visits he still sees evidence of unrepaired destruction that occurred during World War I. But he’s also alluding to other kinds of borders – the “border” between Christianity and Judaism, which he questions, and the various “borders” that separate the sects of Judaism. He advocates universalism in politics and religion.

One last border must be mentioned. In line with the dualities mentioned above, this highly intellectual writer appended a “Bibliography” to emphasize the border between the aridity of book research hardened into “truth” and the vitality of authentic experience. His “Bibliography” has three categories (borders, you might say). The first,  he labels “I Leafed Through” and is followed by a list of nine books in German. The second category called “I Read Very Carefully,” lists only one book: Bernhard Guttmann’s Tage in Hellas. The third category is called “I Neither Read Nor Leafed Through” and is followed by the phrase: “The national libraries in Berlin, in Warsaw, in Cracow, and in Lwow.”

Besides the bibliography there is an introduction by the translator, Joachim Neugroschel, a map of Doblin’s travels, and footnotes.

To read an article about the lives of  Polish Jews between the wars, click here.

Max Doblin
 Alfred Doblin, son of Max , author

Friends and Acquaintances
Artur Rubenstein
Yekhiel Kestenberg
Avrom Kashe – Lublin
Rebbe Jakob Pollack

Stettin (Szczecin), Poland
Posen (Poznan), Poland
Hamburg, Germany
Berlin, Germany
   Nalewky Street, Warsaw Jewish District
   Lubartowska Street
  Kazimierz Jewish District
  Esthera Street, Krakowski Street, Jozef Street
 Petrikow Street
 Ballut – Alexander Street