The Holocaust ended 77 years ago, and soon this pinnacle of human monstrosity will be far enough in the past to be beyond living memory, with no-one left alive who actually witnessed or experienced its horrors. Aside from making things easier for the perpetrators of that lazy, modern evil known as Holocaust denial, this steadily increasing gap of years also risks condemning Hitler’s six million victims to being mere statistics. How can anyone put faces to so many murdered people who died almost a lifetime ago?
In Maria Chamberlain’s poignant book, Never Tell Anyone You’re Jewish (Vallentine Mitchell, London/Chicago), she has done just that. Through years of painstaking research, using skills honed by her own training as a scientist, Maria has pieced together the stories of two Jewish families that were decimated by Hitler’s atrocities. Hitler’s goals were to dehumanise the Jews and wipe them from history, but this book sticks two fingers up at him by doing the exact opposite. One by one, she recounts the tales of those who perished, and those who survived. Her perspective and insight into these two families is unique, because two of the survivors were her own parents. This allows her to examine the aftermath of the Holocaust from an unusually intimate perspective, having grown up in the care of two people who each escaped death by the narrowest of margins, while many of their relatives did not. The trauma of what had passed before Maria was born lived with them like an extra, silent family member, replacing all those who were lost.
The anatomy of a hate campaign
For anyone wishing to understand the Holocaust, this book makes essential reading. As well as the aftermath, which is discussed at a wider level as well, Chamberlain also examined that thorniest of questions, how was it possible? How did so many ordinary people willingly participate in mass murder? Of course, these questions have been asked elsewhere, and are a lot less difficult to answer when one looks at how asylum seekers are treated by both governments and professional hatemongers. Nonetheless, the questions are given a lot of extra weight here because of the way the book has described so clearly the gradual degradation of how Jews were seen, and treated, during the late 1930s and into the 1940s. Subtle messaging at all levels was used to indoctrinate people from early school onwards – children were even taught to count using a board game where the goal was to expel Jews from a city. Perhaps the biggest difference from today’s hate campaigns is that there was apparently no co-ordinated fight back, and so prejudice was embedded in the minds of many, unchallenged. It was not just Germans who were taught to see Jews as less than human – the book recalls examples of Poles and Ukrainians doing it too.
For all of that, the main body of this book gives us stories of ordinary people caught up in horrific events. The two central figures in the book are the author’s parents, Artur and Jadwiga. They gaze at us from the haunting cover photo, which takes on additional poignancy when you learn when the photo was taken. These are two people who made it through the Holocaust alive, through a combination of bravery, strength, chance, daring, uneasy compromise, the kindness of strangers, and sheer bloody-minded refusal to lie down and die. They are both ordinary and utterly extraordinary.
Survival through sheer force of will
Artur survived much of the war by making himself useful with his skills as a chemist, but nonetheless he was sent to the Plaszów work camp in 1943, under the supervision of the sadistic Amon Göth. Both he and the camp will be familiar from Schindler’s List, but Artur was not among those whom Schindler had managed to save; instead he had to survive by his own wits. Chamberlain recounts how Artur, her father, was savagely whipped by Göth and would have been shot but for a directive that had arrived from Berlin not long before. Much later, Artur would testify against Göth and then watch him being hanged, much to the disgust of his new wife.
If the accounts of the misery of life in Plaszów merely give a new perspective to what has been written elsewhere, what comes later breaks newer ground. Artur had a period of vital respite when recruited for the mysterious German “Chemists’ Commando”, a group of scientists who were given work to do that was often completely pointless, for reasons no-one is completely sure about. Yet eventually he was sent to Auschwitz, and then had to endure the Death Marches that followed when the camp was abandoned. The Nazis, lacking a coherent plan, simply walked their captives from place to place, as if hoping that they would die from exhaustion along the way. Many of them did. Chamberlain recounts how, one night, everyone on her father’s march were locked in an old mining tunnel that was sealed by a huge metal door at the only entrance. Many of them suffocated, and he survived because he was near the door, where limited air seeped through. Those who did not were among the very last victims to die during the Holocaust, and the story of that terrible tunnel is one that has rarely, if ever, been recounted elsewhere.
For me, one of the most understatedly remarkable passages in the book is the account of what happened when the death march finally ended. There were no celebrations, little outward emotion was apparently shown by any of those still standing. Instead, Artur calmly made his way home, though he had no family left alive to go home to. But on the way to the station, he purchased a curious little keepsake, a cheap plaster dog. Was it a token of survival, or a companion of sorts for a man who had seen so much death? He never explained, but he kept that little dog until he died.
A remarkable escape
Jadwiga, the woman who would become Artur’s wife, managed to avoid the concentration camps, but her story was no less harrowing for that. Her mother was sent to the extermination camp at Belzec, along with a 4-year old orphan who the family had taken in after the Nazis killed both of his parents. Belzec was a worse place than Auschwitz; the name of the latter is arguably well known because it was possible to survive in its concentration camp, whereas Belzec was nothing but gas chambers. No-one but the guards and officials ever left that place alive. Jadwiga herself was arrested and put on a train to Belzec not long after her mother. Yet she managed to escape before they arrived, in a remarkable scene that would sit well in any movie. She and her father, the only one of the author’s four grandparents who made it through the Holocaust alive, then managed to survive until 1945 by hiding in plain sight.
Artur and Jadwiga married soon after the war, and their daughter speculates that they were drawn together not by love but by their shared status as survivors, and the fact that with a fellow holocaust survivor there could be no risk of marrying a closet antisemite. When Jadwiga became pregnant, they quickly changed their names from the Jewish sounding Bieberstein to the very un-Jewish sounding Jurand, hoping to protect their child from antisemitism. Yet one can feel the author’s regret at never having borne the true family name. The family moved to Edinburgh about ten years later, when antisemitism began to rear its ugly head in Poland once more, and Artur built a long and internationally respected career as a chemist.
The author’s great uncle, Aleksander Bieberstein, saved lives during the war through his expertise in infectious diseases – both directly by advising about disease protection, and indirectly by using the Germans’ fear of disease to discourage searches of hospitals where Jewish civilians were hiding. He knew Oscar Schindler, and was a major source for Thomas Keneally.
Bringing the dead back to life
The book tells stories of other family members who did not survive. There was Lula, a teenager who fell in love and tried to survive by living amongst non-Jews and pretending to be one of them, until someone betrayed her and she was shot. Perhaps most poignant of all is the short life of Kuba, a musical prodigy of extraordinary talent, who in another era could have become a musical superstar and a household name across Europe. Sensitive and gay, he could so easily have been a lead character in a beautiful novel, too. A Nazi thug forced him to dig his own grave, and then shot him. But thanks to this book, he lives on in my mind.
What this book does so well is remind us that every one of those 6 million murdered Jews was a unique human being, ordinary and extraordinary, with a life and story every bit as rich and complex as yours, mine, or anyone else’s. The book brings all these people and more to life, as well as building up a convincing account of the steady deterioration of how Jews were viewed, treated and had to live, as the 1930s ended and the 1940s began.
Never Tell Anyone You’re Jewish is a book that everyone should read. Compelling, tragic and ultimately hopeful, it examines the best and worst of humanity, and gives a voice to those whose lives were stolen by evil.
The author of the book will be speaking about it at a special event organised by Golden Hare Books, at 6.30pm on 15 September at St Vincent’s Chapel, St Vincent Street, Edinburgh.