Pitch Black


About a month ago, I wrote the first of what will be a number of pieces about Dryad Press, a small, independent venture out of Takoma Park, Md., kept afloat pretty much singlehandedly by Merrill Leffler, himself a poet and critic whose work is worth getting to know. The first Dryad title I discussed was 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four, primarily a diary begun by Ephraim F. Sten when he was 13 years old, the bulk of which deals with his life in hiding during the Holocaust in his native Poland.

What makes the work so compelling is that it is not only a Holocaust diary. As the author began translating the manuscript from his native Polish into Hebrew during the 1990s (so that his children could become familiar with what he'd experienced in the war), he began commenting on the diary entries committed by his once youthful self. And so a double portrait emerged.

Another Dryad title, One Who Came Back by Joseph Katz, is equally compelling. Though subtitled The Diary of a Jewish Survivor, it is very different in form from Sten's book. Katz, a German, was 23 years old in 1941, when he was deported from his home in Lubeck to a series of ghettos and camps throughout Latvia. Katz's entries are dated, but they don't read like a conventional diary and that may be because, unlike Sten, he wrote his work in what seems like a white-hot streak of composition after liberation, when he had returned to Lubeck after withstanding four years of unrelenting brutality. That he was also 10 years Sten's senior, and was recalling the immediate past in retrospect, no matter how indelible it was for him, means that both his tone and manner are significantly different.

It is not belittling to Sten's terrible three years in hiding to say that what the two men experienced was world's apart. Sten's life was filled with tension; death was always just a hair's breath away. But Katz's experience was one of relentless horror for most of the four years during which he was moved about the Baltic region, to camps like Kaiserwald and Stutthoff in and around Riga, as well as any number of smaller though equally vicious labor camps in the area. Then came a death march into Germany that lasted from January to early March 1945, which brought him to the brink of death. That human beings could resort to such unmitigated barbarity still comes as a shock, even this far beyond the Holocaust. That human beings could withstand such persistent brutishness is an equally astonishing thing to contemplate.

This is not to say that his story was written as some brave testament to the human spirit. Katz would be the first to deny that his story contains any usable lessons for his readers. As so many other survivors have noted, his fate was a matter of being fortunate, of being the recipient of a certain number of well-timed bits of fortune. According to Katz, he "escaped death in a mysterious, incomprehensible manner."

And because his book is a fairly non-stop record of brutal behavior, when kindnesses are extended to him — and they were, a number of times during those four desperate years — they seem as startling as the cruelty he met with on an almost daily basis.

There was a camp commander, for example, a Nazi, who took pity on the men he guarded, insisting that the Jews had never wronged him, so he tried to do his best by his inmates. But they were under his charge for only a short time; as they left him for some unknown future, he wished them luck, aware that cruelty and possible death might await them on the next leg of their journey.

Perhaps the most astonishing show of generosity came in Kaiserwald in June 1942. Writes Katz: "Often an old woman visits the nursery [where the author was then working]. She owns a chicken farm outside the camp. Lately, whenever she passes me, she drops a bag with dry bread crumbs. She collects them in the neighborhood for her chickens. I nod my head to show my gratitude. She probably saved my life with her stale bread." As Herman Taube notes in the foreword to the book, given the danger of such gestures, these moments seem truly heroic and a countervailing force to the perpetual debasement that was the norm.

Katz's book is of note because it also informs us about a portion of the continent-wide disaster we call the Holocaust that has only recently — meaning in the decade-and-a-half since the fall of communism — come to light in scholarly and eyewitness accounts: the Jewish experience throughout the Soviet Union and its neighboring states.

Forms of Suffering

What is amazing to realize, as Taube points out, is that Katz and his fellow prisoners were taken to Riga months after the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi's mobile killing units, had murdered the majority of the people in the Riga ghetto by taking them to the outlying forests and shooting them en masse. They were buried in pits that the prisoners themselves had had to dig. According to Taube, only 4,500 men and 300 women remained in Riga when the first of the German Jews arrived. Why these human beings were taken there remains a mystery.

But just as Katz and his fellow prisoners had gotten "settled in," so to speak, there began the round of displacements from camp to camp, with no clear sense or purpose, except, it appears, to heighten the inmates' suffering and keep them uncertain about what life had in store for them.

Suffering takes all sorts of forms in these recollections. Aside from the terrible beatings and demoralization, the most unyielding torture had to be hunger, a hunger of such depth and breadth that it nearly drove Katz mad. The potato, he writes, "has become the greatest treasure we can still possess." He watches after the mass feeding of the inmates how the Kapos partake of their meal. "It makes my mouth water when I see them dig deep into the bucket and come up with ladlefuls of potato peels and meat scraps which they gobble up with relish. I have known for a long time that only the worst and most brutal kind of person can survive here. Everyone else is fated for the mass grave." And later in the text, "Who is going to give up a potato here without a struggle? These people who are hardly able to stand on their feet are fighting and wrestling with each other; there is nothing human left in us anymore."

Katz is a highly effective writer, and his book is filled with striking set pieces. Near the end of his terrible journey, the inmates of Camp Kaiserwald are taken to Riga harbor and put on a boat headed for some unknown destination in Germany. The sea voyage becomes almost surreal in Katz's recounting of it. The inmates are told individually what holds they will be placed in. They climb down the long ladder, one by one, into the bowels of the ship. "It is pitch black down there; you can't see your hand in front of your eyes. There is no straw, nothing but the bare iron which seems to grin at us scornfully."

At one point, the hatch opens and light floods in, and the people see that on the first deck a Jew in a prayer shawl is davening. They soon come to realize that it is Rosh Hashanah. These once lifeless Jews are now "one big family," as people wish one another a good year.

"In the meantime a group of musicians has gotten together and gives a concert with all kinds of improvised instruments. Artists from all parts of the East tell their stories. Everybody is laughing. One man sings in Hebrew about Rachel. The beams of several flashlights are focused on him, as he leans at the railing around the steerage: only the outline of his figure is visible in the darkness. He could be standing on a stage — he sings with great feeling, softly accompanied by a violin. Everybody cheers and applauds when he finishes his performance. Another man tells anecdotes about his shtetl in Lithuania, singing in conclusion, 'I want to go home' — he wants to see his home once more, his little room, and the small ghetto street where he lived his childhood. Everybody joins in the refrain."

But just as suddenly as it began, it is over. The hatch is slammed shut, and the total blackness returns. Then begins another of Katz's stunning set pieces, as the ship is fired upon by Russian planes and the Jews, in the darkness, fear for their lives as their saviors — the Red Army — ironically try to sink this German ship and its troubled human cargo.

Perhaps the saddest point to be made about Katz's life is that he could have gotten out of Germany, as his siblings had, but he, the youngest, refused to leave his mother behind. It is to her memory, "and to the six million Jews who perished in the inferno of Hitler's Europe," that his unforgettable book is dedicated.


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