Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
Early childhood development specialists emphasize the importance of having a nurturing and stable environment for infants and toddlers. That’s when the foundations of a child’s personality are formed and influence the rest of their life. Studies have shown that many of the children who grew up in the Communist Romanian orphanages during the 1980’s, living in deplorable conditions and deprived of love, attention, adequate sanitary facilities and healthy food, developed personality deficiencies that marred their lives. Many felt emotionally detached from others and could barely communicate, even as adults.
What about the youngest children of the Holocaust, growing up in the most hellish circumstances imaginable? Most of them perished in the fires of the crematoria, being the first to be selected for immediate death. The few so-called “lucky” child survivors recall bits and pieces of might have been an even worse fate. Rabbi Joseph Polak’s recent memoir, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring (New York, Urim Publications, 2015), winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award, depicts surviving as a toddler in environments whose only certainties were suffering, squalor, misery and death.
Joseph Polak was born on October 16, 1942, in a Jewish family in German-occupied Netherlands. The Dutch Nazis were ready to snatch him from normal life and send his entire family to the transit camp Westerbork even before he was born. His mother recalled the loud pounding on the door in the middle of the night by “the Police” when she was nine months pregnant with Joseph. She courageously warded off the Dutch Nazis by pointing out the advanced state of her pregnancy, but they didn’t stay away for long. A year later, on September 29, 1943, the Nazis returned. The Polak family was sent to Westerbork for about four months, joining 100,000 other Jews who would be deported to “the East”.
Being so young, Joseph retained only hazy traces of memory of the transit camp, enhanced by his mother’s subsequent descriptions: its crowded, sweaty, uncomfortable conditions; the state of anxiety of so many uprooted, displaced people deprived of their roots, assets, professions, families and identities while awaiting to be sent to what they rightly suspected would be a miserable place. The Dutch government set up Camp Westerbork in the fall of 1939 for Jewish refugees who were not Dutch citizens and entered the country illegally. Following the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, the camp grew and became, between 1942 to 1944, a transit camp for all Dutch Jews on their way to Nazi concentration camps. While the camp organizers, who were also Jewish, attempted to create some semblance of normalcy through various routines and activities—which included entertaining diversions such as plays and musical shows—inmates were obsessed with the weekly lists of candidates for deportation to the East. Staying versus leaving Westerbork could mean the difference between life and death. Eventually almost everyone had to leave.
Joseph and his parents were sent to Bergen-Belsen on February 1, 1944, during a period of time known for relatively good conditions. Those didn’t last, however. In December 1944 the camp began receiving a large intake of prisoners from Eastern camps evacuated by the Germans faced with the Soviet army’s advance. Grossly overcrowded and without sufficient food and medical supplies or sanitation facilities for its growing population, in its last year Bergen-Belsen became a breeding ground for typhus, dysentery, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and death. Starving and deprived of adequate care, with a mother who had become a shadow of her former self and weighed only 50 pounds, little Joseph wandered around hungry and in rags, playing among the miles of corpses lined up at Bergen-Belsen. The narrator depicts, vividly, the overpowering stench of feces and decomposing bodies. Ultimately, his family was “lucky” again. On April 9, 1945 they were sent along with 2500 other Jews to Theresienstadt. On the way, they were liberated by the Soviet Army in Tröbitz, a little village of 700 people in East Germany. Despite being “freed,” his parents no longer had the strength to survive. His father passed away in May, while his mother fell gravely ill. Joseph was taken by the Dutch authorities and placed in the care of another Dutch-Jewish family.
Joseph doesn’t have many memories of this brief period. He only recalls a fleeting impression of security offered by his adoptive father. The young boy held on tightly to his jacket as they rode together on a scooter, enjoying the sights and the breeze. Their destination, however, would be a new shock for little Joseph: a white hospital bed where he’s reunited with a mother that he can no longer bond with or even recognize. It takes time for mother and child to begin to heal, to grow together again, in the more livable conditions offered by a center for Jewish survivors in The Hague, where they spend the next three years, from 1945 to 1948. Later, his mother tells Joseph how she managed to put the atrocious conditions of the concentration camp momentarily out of her mind by imagining that she was at her favorite department store, far removed from the squalor of Bergen-Belsen. Then she takes him to that store again. Flashes of memory spark in the child’s mind as he perceives, with a sense of wonder and incomprehensible nostalgia for the sordid yet familiar past, the contrast between the luxurious goods in front of his eyes and the misery of his first years of life. In December 1948, mother and child sail to New York together. They end up living with her family in Montreal.
It took Rabbi Joseph Polak decades to return to his early childhood past, which he only vaguely recalls in bits and pieces, and which, for a long time, he wanted to forget. When he was fifty years old, ten years after his mother had passed away, he returned to Bergen-Belsen after a trip to Paris, where he lectured on Jewish law. He was ready, by then, not only to remember his family’s experiences of the Holocaust, but also to preserve and share them with others. It occurred to him that as even the child survivors of the Holocaust age and pass away, there is a risk that their memories will disappear along with them. Reading After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring will do more than remind readers of the Holocaust; it will help us empathize with the victims by putting us in those circumstances through different narrative means.
First of all, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring is a beautifully written, evocative memoir. In parts, it’s also a theosophical dialogue, staging discussions between the narrator and the Angel of Death on the timeless question of theodicy: how can an omnipotent and omniscient God allow such horrific suffering of children, of innocents? I’m not sure that this question is answered in any definitive way by the text, but readers can find some solace in the evolution of the author’s life. Rabbi Joseph Polak used his good fortune of being one of the few very young child Holocaust survivors to fill the void of nihilism left by the trauma of his past and make something worthwhile and redeeming of his life. Instead of turning his back upon humanity for what so many did to their fellow human beings, he reached out to help and heal others, both as a Rabbi and as a writer.
This narrative is also an educational text. It makes pedagogical bridges with new generations of readers. Where relevant, Rabbi Polak offers helpful historical background and places the Dutch Holocaust in proper perspective. Middle school and high school students, exposed to Anne Frank’s diary and little else about the Holocaust in the Netherlands, may perceive Dutch citizens of the era as heroes who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. While many certainly did, as Polak points out, the Netherlands was at the same time a country that rounded up Jews with remarkable zeal and efficiency. Between the summer of 1942 and the fall of 1944, the Dutch collaborators sent over 100,000 Jews, or 75 percent of the country’s Jewish citizens, to concentration camps. Only 5,200 among them survived. The odds were better for those who went into hiding with the aid of the Dutch underground or helpful non-Jewish friends. Of the 30,000 Jews who hid from the Nazis, two thirds survived.
Last but not least, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring has a beautiful, authentic and often lyrical style. At times, it reminded me of Marguerite Duras’ writing: vivid yet also vaguely suggestive; drawing out the philosophical implications of sensory descriptions; versatile in the way it reaches out to its readers. Memoir, philosophical and religious treatise, oratory, history lesson and literary text: you will find all this and more in Joseph Polak’s After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring.