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In a Child's Hand

October 26, 2006 By:
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It's rare that the mails bring news of a small, independent press of note, and rarer still that the books it publishes are of interest to the Exponent. Rarest of all is that these works are of superior quality, ones that any press would be proud of having on its list.

Such was the case with a small but obviously enterprising publishing house called Dryad Press, located in Takoma Park, Md., which appears to be run pretty much singlehandedly by Merrill Leffler, a poet and critic in his own right with a remarkably firm sense of what he wants to place out into the world. But Leffler struggles to get his books into the stores, as well as into the hands of critics who can get the word out about them.

That was how he approached the matter when he contacted me after sending the first book, 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four by Ephraim F. Sten. It was yet another Holocaust memoir, and my heart sank. Not that I don't take the subject seriously or think it doesn't deserve space in the paper, but I had just reviewed a few difficult, important texts on the Shoah, and felt as if my battered insides needed a respite.

But Leffler persisted, pointing to the book's most interesting facet: that the majority of it is a diary begun by Sten when he was 13 years old and in hiding in his native Poland; but, in addition, as the author was translating the manuscript from Polish into Hebrew, so that his children would know about his experience, he began remarking on the entries made by his youthful self. So a double portrait began emerging. Because of this added layer, Leffler was also trying to "sell" the book as an unexpected slice of personal psychology. His efforts -- perhaps I should call it his salesmanship -- won me over. Thank goodness he persisted!

Leffler went on to send me several other volumes, a number of them Holocaust-related, others purely literary, and I will be writing about them in several pieces over the next few months.

Tension and Comedy

1111 Days in My Life Plus Four is like no other Holocaust volume I know of. It is absorbing as drama, and the echoing of the text through Sten's later additions is riveting. In the end, the story that's told is also illuminating about a particular form of Jewish experience during World War II -- and all of it is overwhelmingly moving. (Much of the credit must go to the translator from the Hebrew, the esteemed Israeli poet Moshe Dor.)

Sten was 13 in 1941 when he began his diary in his hometown of Zloczow, Poland -- now part of Ukraine -- which was already occupied by the Nazis. He and his mother soon went into hiding with several other Jews in a small house in the nearby village of Jelechowice that belonged to Hyrc Tyz and members of his Ukrainian-Catholic family. None of these factors stilled Sten's hand; he returned to his diary almost on a day-to-day basis for the next three years, recording the personal quirks of his fellow Jews and their various protectors. There is constant tension here, but comedy as well, as everyone struggles to get along and ensure that they all survive.

The first portions of the diary deal with the tragic death of Sten's father, a lawyer, and the slow enforcement of restrictions as the Nazis tighten the noose on Zloczow. Then, on Oct. 9, 1942, there is a panic in the town; a new akcja, or "action," against the Jews has begun. Sten's mother decides they must go to the home of Hyrc Tyz, who, along with his relatives Helena Skrzeszewska and Misia Koreniuk, have agreed to hide them.

They leave after 8 in the evening, despite the fact that the curfew has begun.

"We put on warm clothes, took a bag with bread and sugar and set off. A heavy rain poured and the winds were too powerful for the umbrella to open. We ... heard shots. Mother stopped in fear and wanted to return. But I managed to talk her into going on. By our warehouse we suddenly saw someone with a flashlight and we hid among the scraps of iron. After waiting for awhile we resumed our walk through the Jewish Quarter ... and from there through ... the fields, up to our knees in mud, to Jelechowice. The night, the darkness, the rain, the wind, the mud and the fear -- I'll never be able to forget that night."

By December, we hear the first note of frustration in the diary, as Sten seems worn down by his lack of "freedom":

"I have reading material. It's very important because what else can one do here? It's rather difficult to be in jail. When I look in the direction of Zloczow I remember the words of Mickiewicz [considered Poland's national poet], 'My country ... how much you should be prized only he can learn/who has lost you.' "

But then we are met by the unmistakable and rather harsh voice of the elder Sten, judging his younger self:

"My country? What country?

"Yes, I was born in Poland, but is she my country? I felt like a guest there. Centuries but still a guest. Does somebody born on a boat wear a sailor uniform all his life? Isn't this writing in Hebrew a proof of something? Kafka wrote that language has the sound of the motherland breathing."

Until April of 1943, Sten and his mother are the only recipients of the Ukrainians' assistance. But in that month, the final akcja in the Zloczow ghetto begins, and Helena intercepts several Sten relatives and brings them to live in the house.

Boredom and tension alternate in the lives of those being hidden. A more concealed hideout is fashioned so that when partisans are fighting in the area, there is a place for the Stens to withdraw to.

Even more astonishing, by February 1944, the Ukrainians are hiding 13 people, who live in fear of encroaching Germans and Ukrainian informers. Houses in the area suspected of harboring Jews are burned to the ground. Every noise makes the "prisoners" jump, but when it's quiet, boredom seeps in again.

Then the rumors begin: The Soviets are near, and liberation could be at hand. The captives know they are racing with the clock. If they are discovered, it will matter little where the Soviet army might be. Bombs also begin falling. But at last on July 16, 1944, Sten writes in capital letters: "THE BOLSHEVIKS HAVE ARRIVED!!!" He was 16 years old at the time.

As the biographical note at the end of the book makes clear, Sten remained grateful to those who saved him and his mother, and he corresponded with Hyrc Tyz for years and had him recognized as a "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Sten also visited with him in Ukraine before Tyz's death.

It is also fascinating to discover what Sten did after his "freedom" was restored. He attended engineering school in Poland for two years but then decided to study theater. By 26, he was artistic director of Gdansk's Municipal Theater, but he'd also begun thinking about immigrating to Israel. In 1957, before departing, he wrote the head of Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater, offering to work as a stagehand. Joseph Milo wrote back, and shortly after Sten arrived, he began his stage career in "Romeo and Juliet" as Romeo's father. By 1959, he was working for Israeli Radio.

"During his career, Sten became the first chief director of radio-drama, then its department head. He directed and adapted numerous radio plays, introducing the work of many Polish artists." Three-time winner of the Israel Broadcasting Authority Award, Sten moved to Israel National Television in 1971, then returned to Kol Israel. He also published short stories and novels.

In November 2003, Zaikes, the Polish Association of Writers, honored him for his contribution to the advancement of Polish literature in Israel. He died of cancer in 2004.

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