Category Archives: contemporary fiction

Advance Praise for Holocaust Memories: An Anthology of Holocaust Memoirs, Novels and Films

 

The screen that portrays the horrors of the twentieth Century is fading more rapidly than its audience can bear. Claudia Moscovici’s book will go far to help keep it lit longer.

Rabbi Joseph Polak, Author of After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring, Winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award

 

This book fills a present and mounting need for all readers interested in the Holocaust, including scholars and teachers.  With the literature about that unprecedented crime becoming steadily more extensive, Claudia Moscovici’s work offers a valuable and well-written guide to key works on various aspects of the Holocaust or on its entire history.

Guy Stern, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Wayne State University Director, International Institute of the Righteous Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Center, Farmington Hills, MI

Holocaust Memories is a morally urgent book, an encyclopedia of mourning, remembrance, and compassion, an invitation and a behest to keep memory alive and to resist unwaveringly any form of authoritarian temptation. It is particularly recommended to high school and college students, but also to a general audience. I learned a lot from it and I am convinced that many others will share my superlative endorsement.

Vladimir Tismaneanu, Professor of Politics, University of Maryland (College Park), author of The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century

A well written series  of book reviews that can be used as a solid tool for those who  want to study the Holocaust.

Radu Ioanid, Author of The Holocaust in Romania and The Ransom of the Jews

 

Intended for a wide public and a new generation of readers, this bold and ambitious book forms an overview of the Holocaust from a myriad of sources – historical, philosophical, or literary works and films. More than sixty lucid and concise essays (usually two or three pages long) introduce various circumstances of human cruelty in Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Soviet Russia, but also in Cambodia and Rwanda. These focused readings comprise an invaluable source-book for anyone seeking to understand the horrors of totalitarian regimes, constantly reminding us that moral courage must prevail over politics.

Edward K. Kaplan, Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities Emeritus, Brandeis University, author a two-volume biography of  Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

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Focusing on the positive: Michigan, let’s vote for Governor John Kasich

Governor_John_Kasich

We’re experiencing an election season like no other. The two major political parties in the U.S. find themselves in the unique predicament of elections dominated by party outsiders. Fox News aptly calls it a “voter revolt”: for both the Democratic and the Republican parties, fringe candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders (a Social Democrat) and real estate mogul Donald Trump, have gained momentum and have a real chance of becoming the party nominees in the upcoming general election (Trump more so than Sanders). Although the political establishment in both parties would have preferred that Trump and Sanders not run for president, each party strategically welcomed them into their fold as mainstream candidates rather than encouraging them to run as independents, which would have diverted a non-negligible percentage of voters away from their party in the general election. Thus, both the Democratic and the Republican Parties took a calculated risk that the fringe candidates would ultimately lose in the primaries and not draw votes from their endorsed candidates when it came time for voting for America’s president. It’s not clear that this calculated risk will pay off. Because, currently, it’s the American people—more specifically, voter discontent with the Washington establishment–that are leading the atypical direction of the primaries.

A significant proportion of both Republican and Democratic voters are registering their disappointment with their respective parties by voting in unexpectedly large numbers for Trump and Sanders. Trump is particularly seductive for the angry mob congregating around him, more as an act of vengeance against the establishment than of political support. This is the best explanation I have read for Donald Trump’s dangerous populist appeal, given by one of his supporters, John Moore:

“I think of Donald Trump not as a candidate but as a weapon. A weapon which I intend to use recklessly and carelessly in pursuit of a political Gotterdammerung. I am totally uninterested in criticisms and in the supposed qualities of other candidates. The disgust and anger I feel permits no other choice. With any luck, he might be a good President. The most important thing right now, though, is to wreak vengeance on the establishment.” (John Moore, Facebook)

To complicate the situation on the Republican side further, the second most popular candidate, Ted Cruz, although part of the establishment (a Senator from Texas), has alienated fellow party members. So part of the Republican establishment is now conducting a high-stakes strategy game on how to get its two unendorsed yet most popular candidates—Trump and Cruz—beaten by an endorsed Republican candidate who can also win the general election. Many seemed to have settled on Marco Rubio, a young senator from Florida. Although Rubio did poorly in the New Hampshire debate and primary, several important members of the Republican party have backed him and are pressuring moderate Republican John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio, to follow Jeb Bush’s lead and opt out of the election in order to consolidate Republican votes in the primaries around Rubio. They stipulate that the longer the Republican establishment remains divided among multiple candidates the greater the odds that Trump or Cruz, the two frontrunners, will win the Republican nomination.

Fortunately for American voters, Governor Kasich has decided to continue his campaign for President, focusing on the primaries in the Midwest, particularly Michigan and Ohio. I believe that John Kasich is the most qualified Republican candidate and urge fellow Michigan voters to take note of his positive campaign and vote for him in the upcoming open primaries on March 8. So far the Republican primaries have been dominated by negative considerations: public fears and anxieties (particularly pertaining to the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.); mudslinging and bullying of candidates, and false allegations (made mostly by members of the Cruz campaign staff). When we vote for President of the United States, however, we vote for the issues we care about and for the person we believe can help bring them to fruition, not against someone or something.

I’m glad to see that throughout this negative campaigning, fear mongering, and process of elimination strategizing, Governor John Kasich has stood firm and remains focused on all the positives he has to offer America: namely, his vast political experience; success in economic policies as Governor of Ohio, and a moderate position on many of the social issues that divide our nation. To offer just a few examples: John Kasich, elected as Governor of Ohio in 2010 and reelected in 2014, has eliminated an 8 billion dollar budget deficit (or, if you accept the Cleveland Plain Dealer figures, a 6 billion dollar deficit) and created a 2 billion dollar surplus for Ohio. That is quite an accomplishment.

Kasich has also served in the United States House of Representatives from 1983 to 2001. He has participated for 18 years in the House Armed Services Committee and six years as Chairman of the House Budget Committee. Starting with the 1990’s, he was a main proponent of balancing the federal budget, which remains one of his top priorities.

On most social issues, Kasich is a Republican with a progressive streak. On the issue of abortion, however, he holds a conservative position. Kasich is staunchly pro-life and has passed several measures to de-fund Planned Parenthood. The issue of abortion remains hotly debated and divisive in our country because it’s a deeply personal moral issue. Many of us have friends and relatives on both sides of the debate and we respect them, without necessarily sharing, their views. What I would like to emphasize, however, both as a woman and as a feminist writer, is that being pro-life doesn’t mean that Kasich is anti-women or against women’s rights, as some have charged recently. The Governor has appointed several women while in office, including his campaign manager (Beth Hansen), his Lieutenant Governor (Mary Taylor) and his appointment to the Ohio Supreme Court (Judith French). We should also keep in mind that, on the issue of abortion, Kasich’s personal ethical stance coincides with the majority of his Republican constituency, to whom he’s answerable. I believe that if and when Republican voters’ views will shift in Ohio and throughout the country, probably so will the public policies of Republican Party leaders. As a case in point, on the issue of gay marriage, Kasich maintains a moderate stance. Although the Governor personally believes in traditional marriage, he declared that he will respect the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell V. Hodges which argued that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. Kasich’s political views reflect a change in public opinion. Over the past six or seven years, there has been a significant shift for Republican voters and therefore also for the Republican party leaders on the issue of gay marriage. It is no longer the controversial, hot-button topic that it was in 1994.

On economic issues touching mainstream America, Kasich is what can fairly be called a compassionate conservative, which is part of why his candidacy has great appeal across party boundaries. He has supported Medicaid-expansion funding provided by Obamacare in Ohio, something not favored by many mainstream Republicans. At the same time, he is against Obamacare, which he claims has vastly increased the cost of healthcare in Ohio. Governor Kasich plans to replace it with a more affordable and less costly healthcare plan that will foster greater competition among insurance companies.

For me, as a first-generation legal immigrant coming to the United States during the 1980s from Communist Romania, the problem of immigration is especially relevant. On the issue of illegal immigration, which the Trump campaign has brought to the foreground, Kasich’s stance is both humane and pragmatic. Although the Governor supports tightening the borders to impede further illegal immigration, unlike Trump and Cruz, he is against establishing a Gestapo-style “deportation force” that would round up illegal immigrants, yank them from their homes, and toss them out of the country. As someone currently working on a history book about the Holocaust, I would also caution that if actually implemented, Trump’s policy would set a dangerous precedent reminiscent in some respects of the Fascist era.

By way of contrast, Governor Kasich proposes a viable solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Although he does not suggest a path to citizenship for all illegal immigrants, he supports a path to granting them legal status, so that if they pay taxes and meet the requirements, they can eventually work, drive and raise their children in this country. His view is that most illegal immigrants are not rapists and murderers, as Trump’s incendiary rhetoric might suggest, but rather people who, like generations of previous immigrant American families, are looking for better opportunities for themselves and their children. They pursued those opportunities through illegal means, however, which is why they can’t automatically be granted citizenship status.

Governor John Kasich offers a unique combination of ample political experience and common sense policies that can help our country flourish. Although definitely a mainstream Republican, he negotiates well with the Democrats. We need someone capable of bilateral collaboration if we want to overcome the current stalemate and accomplish anything in this country. Unlike some of the other candidates, who feed voter anxieties and even hatred by focusing on identifying internal and external enemies, Kasich offers “a positive vision for America”. In the upcoming general election, the Governor’s nuanced and reasonable positions can attract a wide range of voters. At the same time, he is the mainstream Republican candidate his party currently needs: the one that, if given the Republican nomination, has the best chance of becoming America’s next President.

My own state, Michigan, will hold open primaries on March 8th. Regardless of your voting history and party affiliation, I urge fellow Michiganders to take a serious look at Governor John Kasich’s sound policies and vast political experience and to vote for him in the primary.

Claudia Moscovici, author of Velvet Totalitarianism: Post-Stalinist Romania

 

 

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Rendering the past immediate: Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness

 

Fatelessnessbooksforkeeps.co.uk

When Luisa Zielinski interviewed the Hungarian writer, Nobel Prize winner (2002) and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz in the Paris Review during the summer of 2013, the author was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease. (See Imre Kertesz. “The Art of Fiction”, Paris Review No. 220, interviewed by Luisa Zielinksi) Despite being seriously ill, Kertesz spoke with characteristic lucidity about his fiction as well as about the Holocaust. Born in 1929 in Budapest, Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 for a short period of time, and then transferred to Buchenwald. His works deal with the Holocaust, yet they are not strictly speaking autobiographical. Fatelessness (Vintage International, 2004) in particular seems to parallel Kertesz’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps, but the author focuses on the subject’s historic-philosophical dimensions. Kertesz views his description of the Holocaust in Fatelessness as a rupture of civilization that the entire world should examine and take seriously rather than an anecdote of his own trying experiences during adolescence. “I was interned in Auschwitz for one year,” he recalls. “I didn’t bring back anything, except for a few jokes, and that filled me with shame. Then again, I didn’t know what to do with this fresh experience. For this experience was no literary awakening, no occasion for professional or artistic introspection.” Writing as a mode of reflection and communication with others rather than in order to come to terms with his painful personal experiences assumed, at some point, primary importance for him.

Yet, as Kertesz recounts during the Paris Review interview, he didn’t feel destined to be a writer. Rather, he became a writer by painstakingly editing his own texts. The process of writing wasn’t easy, both because of the difficult subject matter he chose and because he had to hide his endeavors from the Communist regime. In fact, the experience of totalitarian repression forms a common thread between his experience of Nazism and of the repressive regime that followed it. “I was suspended in a world that was forever foreign to me, one I had to reenter each day with no hope of relief. That was true of Stalinist Hungary, but even more so under National Socialism,” he declares.

Despite the broad socio-political sweep of his themes, Kertesz’s fiction, particularly the novel Fatelessness, reads like an intimate psychological account of a young man’s disconcerting and painful experience of being uprooted from his family, schoolmates and friends to be thrust into the alien and brutal world of the Nazi concentration camps. Gyorgy Koves, the 15-year old protagonist, first loses his father, who is deported to and dies in labor camp. His stepmother and a Hungarian employee continue taking care of the family business, a store, and are fortunate enough to survive the war and eventually marry each other. But Gyorgy (George) lacks such luck. Along with a throng of teenage boys, he’s rounded up by the Hungarian Arrow Cross and sent to forced labor, then deported to Auschwitz. Fatelessness depicts his experiences there.

There are countless books on the Holocaust. The subject has been written about so much that some readers risk being jaded to it. This novel is especially effective in rendering this familiar topic new and touching. One of the most unique aspects of the novel is its present temporality: the adolescent narrator describes his experiences in the present, as if writing in a diary, noting every character’s expression and interspersing realistic dialogues without offering much judgment or analysis. Kertesz considers this observational technique as appropriate for a child narrator. As he explains, “a child has no agency in his own life and is forced to endure it all”. While few Jewish victims had much agency during the Holocaust, adults at least had the emotional maturity to realize what was happening to them and understand some of the socio-political reasons why. Child victims, on the other hand, were swept by the Nazi extermination machine without being able to comprehend the events that destroyed their lives or do anything about it. Given the almost existentialist nature of Kertesz’s writing, how much of Fatelessness is based on the author’s life and how much of it is historical fiction becomes far less relevant than the narrative’s powerful and immediate connection to generations of readers.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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North Korea’s State of Terror: Review of Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

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For those informed about the dire situation of the vast majority of people living in North Korea, it’s tough to laugh along with The Interview (2014), a newly released and controversial American comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen. This mediocre film, in which two journalists travel to Pyongyang and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the dictator Kim Jong Un, has perhaps only one virtue: the publicity it generated brought some much-needed international attention to the plight of the North Korean people.

In reality, however, the situation in North Korea is far from amusing. Most of the country’s 25 million inhabitants live the kinds of lives imagined by George Orwell in his worst fictionalized nightmare, 1984. Divided by castes determined by their “patriotic” ranking; forced into jobs chosen by the government then burdened by indoctrination sessions after work for hours each day; fearing being turned in by friends, colleagues and family members for the slightest negative political remark and being sent to prison or labor camps, North Koreans live in a state of terror reminiscent of Orwell’s communist dystopia.

In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2009), journalist Barbara Demick offers a penetrating look into this nearly impermeable country. Even from hundreds of miles away, she begins her account, North Korea resembles a black hole: “If you look at satellite photographs of the Far East by night, you’ll see a splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Next to this mysterious black hole, South Korea, Japan, and now China fairly gleam with prosperity” (3). Demick follows the lives of six defectors from North Korea over the course of 15 years, offering an overview of the country’s history and a glimpse of its all-pervasive political repression through the optic of beautifully narrated personal interest stories.

Generations of North Koreans have never truly known freedom. In 1910, the Japanese Empire annexed Korea. During WWII, Koreans were subjected to unspeakable cruelty at the hands of their Japanese oppressors. Korean women and girls were forced into sexual slavery in the infamous Japanese “comfort houses,” where they were repeatedly gang raped. Countless Koreans were incarcerated in prison camps, tortured and murdered. When the war ended, Korea was divided into two parts: the North became Communist, falling under the influence of China and the Soviet Union, while the South was controlled by the United States. When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25 1950, it launched the superpowers into the Korean War, a “proxy” military struggle for influence on Korean territory. When the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in July 1953, the country reverted to boundaries very close to the original division between North and South Korea. The 2.5 mile buffer area between the two sides, called the Korean Demilitarized Zone, is, despite its name, the most militarized zone in the world.

Under the totalitarian leader Kim Il Sung, while still accepting Soviet aid, North Korea distanced itself politically from China and the Soviet Union by pursuing “Juche”, an ideology of self-reliance. Most of the country’s resources become channeled into its military, as North Korea observes a “Songun” or militaristic policy. The military absorbs over a third of the population, including nearly 10 million active, reserve and paramilitary personnel. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s sealed North Korea’s economic fate. Deprived of Soviet aid, the country sank into poverty, unemployment and widespread famine. As Demick documents, once Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Un, took over control of the country after his father’s death in 1994, North Korea’s isolation became absolute and the political repression intensified. Nowadays starvation is a commonplace phenomenon. The North Koreans even have a name for the tens of thousands of starving children who resort to begging in the street to survive: “little swallows”.

While the vast majority of the population of North Korea lives in darkness and squalor, their leader enjoys extreme luxury and wealth. In a recent article in The New York Times, “Pyongyang’s Hunger Games”, Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee state that Kim Jung-Un is said to have squandered $645,800,000 on luxury goods in 2012, “including cosmetics, handbags, leather products, watches, electronics, cars and top-shelf alcohol. In that same year Mr. Kim also spent 1.3 billion dollars on his ballistic missile program” (March 7, 2014).

Demick’s account personalizes the politics of North Korea by showing how it affects ordinary citizens. She tells the story of Mi-Ran, a young woman who was a teacher by profession. Mi-Ran fell in love like anyone living in a free country. Well, not like exactly like anyone else since, as Demick explains,
“the country doesn’t have a dating culture. Many marriages are still arranged, either by families or by party secretaries or bosses” (80). Mi-Ran may have felt the same emotions for the young man she cared about as do people living in free societies, but she couldn’t be with him because her political dossier was tainted by the fact that her father was a South Korean POW. The young woman may have experienced empathy like most human beings do in normal circumstances, but her situation was far from ordinary. In a country ravaged by hunger, she watched as her students wasted away from starvation, eventually disappearing without a trace from the classroom, one by one. Barely having enough food to survive herself, Mi-Ran couldn’t help them. Her empathy eventually gave way to indifference, a common survival tactic: “What she didn’t realize is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring” (130). Mi-Ran regained her humanity and put the political situation of her country in proper perspective only once she immigrated to South Korea.

Even Mrs. Song, a model patriotic citizen, eventually overcome the fear and the brainwashing instilled by her government. Each of the defectors interviewed by Demick eventually saw North Korea for what it is: a totalitarian country ruled by a voracious despot, whose personality cult may be so over-the-top as to become an object of satire for those living in freedom, but who transforms the lives of the people of North Korea into a tragic nightmare.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Fury (2014) and America’s involvement in WWII

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Initially, the U.S. didn’t declare war on Germany. In December 1941 America officially entered WWII by declaring war against Japan after the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Subsequently, Germany declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, thus obliging America to officially enter WWII. As far as Germany was concerned, for several years the U.S. had maintained relative neutrality, even though it aided the Allies with supplies. Although President Roosevelt had wanted to get involved in the war earlier on the side of the Allies, he met some initial resistance. While public opinion in the U.S. was, generally speaking, antagonistic to Hilter and the Nazi regime, many Americans nevertheless supported isolationist policies.

By the end of WWII, however, the U.S. was not only fully engaged in the war, but also played a leading role in the Allied victory. While American losses were not as great (proportionately) as those of Russia and European countries involved in the war, about 16 million Americans served in the Armed Forces and nearly 300,000 of them were killed in combat. Even Stalin–no friend of the West or of democracy–admitted, at a dinner at the Tehran Conference in 1943, “Without American production the United Nations could never have won the war.”

The movie Fury (2014), directed by David Ayer and staring Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman, follows the final push of the American forces into the heart of Nazi Germany. It focuses on the activities of the 2nd Armored Division of the 66th Armored Regiment, manning a tank named “Fury”, under the command of Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). By the end of the film, this five man crew fights heroically against an entire SS battalion of three hundred Waffen SS soldiers, inflicting serious damage upon the Germans and fighting against them to the last man.

This plot may seem like a typical military heroism movie. However, the film’s real strength lies in depicting the psychological dynamics among the five men and in offering a more historically realistic portrayal of soldiers’ behavior. The drama hinges upon the transformation of the youngest member of the group—the Army typist Norman “Machine” Ellison—who knows nothing about combat and hesitates to kill fellow human beings (particularly the young German fighters of the Hitler Youth). His battle-hardened, older companions make fun of his scruples and pressure him to kill. Wardaddy goes so far as to thrust a gun into his hand and force the young man to kill a German prisoner who’s begging for his life. Repeatedly, Wardaddy drives home the lesson that war is about killing your enemy or being killed by them.

Although Norman never fully accepts this simple “us” versus “them” mentality, he shows heroism with a heart. In one of the most telling scenes of the movie, Wardaddy pressures him to have sex with a young and beautiful German girl, Emma, whose house they invaded in order to eat. The movie doesn’t glamorize the rape, even though Emma “chooses” to sleep with the relatively sensitive and innocent Norman over his rougher companions. The film clearly illustrates that the young woman had no real choice, since choosing who will rape you isn’t a true choice.

While Norman may abandon some of his moral principles in order to become fully engaged in the war, he develops from a naïve young man into a hero that his tank companions—and the viewers—can admire. One of the fellow soldiers calls him “a good man,” acknowledging that their behavior has been corrupted in the war. Fury showcases a moral complexity that I’ve rarely seen in American war movies. It shows that in war—even a war as necessary as WWII was—heroism can become inseparable from heartlessness, just as saving countries from oppression can become tainted by claiming the “spoils” of victory (looting and rape).

 

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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Privilege and Persecution: Review of The Diary of Mary Berg, Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto

MaryBergphotoDoyleNewYork

The Diary of Mary Berg, a Polish survivor of American origins of the Warsaw Ghetto, has recently been in the news, a feature story in The New York Times. The journal contains entries from October 1939 to March 1944, offering first-hand details about the Nazi occupation of Poland, the establishment and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, where nearly 400,000 Polish Jews lost their lives. Published in 1945 by L. B. Fisher, the diary initially received a lot of media coverage but went out of print in 1950. Thereafter the author declined opportunities to discuss her experiences of the Holocaust and even sometimes denied the diary’s existence. Nonetheless, the book resurfaced in 2006, published by Oneworld Publications under the title The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto and edited by S. L. Shneiderman, with an introduction by Susan Pentlin. Shneiderman had also translated the original diary from Polish into Yiddish and hired Norbert Guterman and Sylvia Glass to translate the Polish edition into English.

The diary took the spotlight again in a New York Times Books article by Jennifer Schuessler entitled “Survivor Who Hated the Spotlight” (published on November 10, 2014), which covered the recent auction of Mary Berg’s private photographs due to be sold at Doyle New York, a Manhattan auction house. How did these photographs resurface? Ms. Berg herself passed away in 2013. A Pennsylvania antique dealer bought her photographs, which had an estimated value of thousands of dollars, at an estate sale for only ten dollars. After relatives heard the news of the planned auction, they contacted Doyle and the auction house cancelled the auction, which had been scheduled for November 24, 2014. Schuessler cites Rachel B. Goldman, Assistant Professor of History at the College of New Jersey and a Judaic Studies expert, who maintains that the auction provoked a sense of outrage. She explains why: “This could set a tragic precedent of less Holocaust material being put in archives and instead ending up in private hands—including the wrong private hands, I might add.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/arts/survivor-who-hated-the-spotlight.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A5%22%7D&_r=0

These photographs, like the diary itself, offer an invaluable glimpse into the horrific lives even of the privileged inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Coming from an affluent family (her father was a successful art dealer and collector of the European masters such as Poussin and Delacroix), Mary Berg was especially fortunate to have a mother who was an American citizen. The Nazis generally treated American citizens differently from Polish captives, in the effort to launch a propaganda campaign that hid from the American press details about the persecution and massacre of European Jews. Mary Berg’s diary was one of the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust in Poland. It describes the tremendous duress of the hundreds of thousands of Jews trapped by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and provides anecdotal accounts of the heroic and tragic Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which Mary received news about from survivor friends.

Originally from Lodz, where the Nazis had already set up a Jewish Ghetto, Mary moved to Warsaw with her family, hoping that life would be better there. In November 1940, however, the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, where Mary was trapped with her family until a few days before the mass deportations to concentration camps, in the summer of 1942. She saw with her own eyes the brutality, the beatings, the random shootings of innocent civilians. She witnessed from her window countless people being forcibly deported to the Treblinka death camp and to Auschwitz. She saw, helplessly, thousands of children reduced to skin and bones. She barely escaped death herself. Due to her mother’s American citizenship, Mary, her parents, and her sister were sent to a camp in Vittel, France, which, as she states in her journal, seemed like “paradise” compared to the hardship and horror of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Mary Berg’s diary offers a unique testimony about privilege and persecution in the Warsaw Ghetto. Originally the wealthier, well-connected members of the community could buy privileges, including jobs, exemptions from forced labor or deportation and, perhaps most importantly, the contraband food needed to ward off starvation. As members of the wealthier class, Mary and her friends helped organize charity talent shows, which not only gathered donations to feed the orphaned children and the starving poor in the ghetto, but also raised the public morale. Eventually, however, as the Nazis began implementing the Final Solution, even the wealthy faced the dangers of starvation, deportation and death.

Although privileged and young, Mary Berg is not only an incredibly astute observer of historical events, but also a highly compassionate person. Even when she and her family has enough to eat, she feels guilty for those who are starving in the Ghetto and does what she can to help them. After her family manages to escape the Ghetto, she is haunted by frequent nightmares about the hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who lost their lives in that living hell. In the one of the most moving scenes of her journal, Mary describes a scene that she will often relive: the day the orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto, led by their beloved teacher Dr. Janusz Korczak, went with dignity to their deaths:

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. … They walked in ranks of two, calm, and even smiling. They had not the slightest foreboding of their fate. At the end of the procession marched Dr. Korczak, who saw to it that the children did not walk on the sidewalk. Now and then, with fatherly solicitude, he stroked a child on the head or arm, and straightened out the ranks” (169).

This sad procession walked to the trains that took them to Treblinka, where they were all killed. If there any episode in history can be said to capture the horror and brutality of the Holocaust, the massacre of the orphaned children of the Warsaw Ghetto would be it. Civilization—or rather the lack thereof—cannot sink any lower than this.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Doyle Auction House, Holocaust Memory, Janusz Korczak, Mary Berg, massacre of the orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto, Nazi occupation of Poland, The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Final Solution, Warsaw Ghetto

The controversial journal of Mihai Sebastian (1935-1944)

JournalMihaiSebastian

The journal of the Romanian Jewish essayist, playwright and novelist Mihai Sebastian is still seeped in historical controversy in his native country. In fact, this journal, which the author kept for nearly ten years (from 1935 to 1944), was such a taboo subject that it wasn’t published until 1998 (in French) by Editions Stock. The Ivan R. Dee English edition appeared in 2000, increasing the diary’s international exposure–as well as the controversy that surrounded it. The Journal of Mihai Sebastian is particularly problematic for the Romanian community, both in the country and abroad. It depicts the regimes that allied themselves with the Nazis as well as some of Romania’s most notable writers and philosophers—Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu–whom the playwright Eugene Ionesco characterized, due to their Fascist political affinities, as part of the “Iron Guard generation”–in a rather negative light. Sebastian’s frank and lucid picture of the Fascist influence in Romania can offend on several levels.

Many Romanians with strong nationalist sentiments still view Ion Antonescu as a national hero that protected the country’s interests in an impossible political context. Furthermore, even Romanians without strong nationalist feelings take great pride in Romania’s leading 20th century intellectuals, particularly Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu. Some of them do not take kindly to a frank discussion of these authors’ pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views in so far as bringing this subject up can cast doubt on their merit as writers and on their character.

I don’t think these are good reasons to shy away from reading this journal, however. The fact that Mihai Sebastian was himself a leading intellectual figure in the country and accepted as a friend by these authors gives us a more personal—and unique–glimpse into the cultural and political atmosphere of the times. This journal is interesting from both a historical and a philosophical perspective. It raises questions about Romania’s alliance with the Nazis and simultaneously explores the relation between morality and intellectuality (in the same way as discussions of Heidegger’s role in anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi discourse does). (See Philip Oltermann’s excellent article on this subject, published in The Guardian on March 12, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/13/martin-heidegger-black-notebooks-reveal-nazi-ideology-antisemitism).

Mihai Sebastian was born Iosif Mendel Hechter in 1907 in a Jewish family in Braila. He managed to survive Fascism, the war years and the Holocaust, only to die, absurdly, in a car accident in 1945. Sebastian studied law in Bucharest and mingled with Romania’s leading intellectual figures. His journal discusses his relatively close relationships with Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade, Camil Petrescu and Eugene Ionesco. Of these authors, only Eugene Ionesco was critical of Fascism. Years later, in 1959, he even published a political drama about totalitarianism, Rhinocéros, in which he described his friends’ strange transformations under the pressure—and lure–of history’s dark forces, Communism, Fascism and Nazism.

Being Jewish in an epoch when Judaism was equivalent to a crime punishable by imprisonment, deportation and even death, Sebastian had ambivalent relations with Cioran, Eliade and Petrescu, all of whom expressed anti-Semitic views and were seduced by a combination of Nazi and nationalist ideology. At one point, Sebastian expresses shock in reading an article by Mircea Eliade in support of the Legionary Movement: “Friday, 17 (December). In yesterday’s Buna Vestire (year I, no. 244, dated Friday, 17 December 1937): “Why I Believe in the Victory of the Legionary Movement,” by Mircea Eliade” 133). Numerous times, Sebastian hopes that personal bonds of friendship can shift his friends’ anti-Semitic views. He tries to persuade Camil Petrescu–to no avail–that his anti-Semitism is irrational:

“Thursday, 25 [June] 1936. When we left Capsa we went a few steps down the street and he repeated what he thought of the latest anti-Semitic attacks… He went on to say: ‘My dear man, the Jews provoke things: they have a dubious attitude and get mixed up in things that don’t concern them. They are too nationalistic.’ ‘You should make up your mind, Camil. Are they nationalists or are they Communists?’ ‘Wow, you’re really something, you know?… What else is communism but the imperialism of Jews?’ (60) Disappointed that Petrescu won’t listen to reason, Sebastian notes, perplexed: “That is Camil Petrescu speaking. Camil Petrescu is one of the finest minds in Romania. Camil Petrescu is one of the most sensitive creatures in Romania” (60).

Facing prejudice from one’s peers is one thing; facing the prospect of imprisonment or even death is quite another. Between 1935 and 1941, the political situation deteriorates significantly for Jews in Romania (and most of Europe as well) . In August of 1941, Sebastian finds himself in grave danger of being sent to labor camp for the simple fact of being Jewish. He’s aware of the probable link between deportation and extermination: “The alarm I felt at first is returning. Are we again facing a mass roundup of Jews? Internment camps? Extermination?” (389) Like most Jews from Old Kingdom Romania, however, Sebastian escapes due to a series of unpredictable shifts in government policies. (See my article on the subject of Ion Antonescu’s regime, http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/review-ion-antonescu).

Despite its trenchant critiques, however, Mihai Sebastian’s journal shouldn’t be judged only as an indictment of the political ideology of some of Romania’s leading intellectuals and of the country at large. Written in a lyrical and contemplative style reminiscent of an author Sebastian greatly admired–Marcel Proust–the journal also captures the author’s great appreciation of classical music, the cultural activities of the times, as well as his intriguing and often tumultuous love affairs, whom he compares to the vicissitudes of passion described by Proust in A la recherché du temps perdu.

As a memoir with political and ethical implications, Mihai Sebastian’s journal reminds us of the fact that political morality and intellectual merit aren’t necessarily linked. Great intellectuals can and do sometimes espouse immoral or chauvinist views. Does it follow that they they be judged only—or even mostly–in terms of those views? Absolutely not. Just like we shouldn’t judge Aristotle’s great contributions to philosophy only in terms of his “sexist” and incomplete views of women or Thomas Jefferson’s notable contributions to government, political theory and even architecture only in terms of having owned slaves and thus supported slavery, we shouldn’t judge Eliade, Cioran and Petrescu only (or mostly) in terms of their anti-Semitism or Fascist tendencies. Those of us who respect these writers need not fear that the truths expressed by Mihai Sebastian’s journal will diminish the intellectual worth of Romania’s leading authors. This book is important because it offers us a deeper understanding of Romania’s controversial, pro-Fascist years, from the perspective of a Jewish writer caught in the middle of cataclysmic events that he had the opportunity, lucidity and talent to describe exceptionally well.

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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Filed under anti-Semitism, Camil Petrescu, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Emil Cioran, Eugene Ionesco, Holocaust Memory, Ion Antonescu, Mihai Sebastian, Mircea Eliade, The controversial journal of Mihai Sebastian (1935-1944), the Holocaust, The Journal of Mihai Sebastian