Over the years I’ve read quite a few books set during the Jewish Holocaust years; I was ten years old when the first awful pictures taken of those Jews in the camps starting being released. I can still, after all this time, close my eyes and see all those hollowed eyes staring out at the rescuers. It’s a horrible remembrance, but a very necessary one, I think.
What I didn’t see, and mostly didn’t know much about, were the “other” Jews, the ones who weren’t sent off to the camps but somehow managed to live, if you want to call it that, and survive under the noses of the enemy. The literature was probably there; I just didn’t hear about it.
Just this week, quite by accident I pulled a book off the shelf at our little library titled “Wartime Lies” by Louis Begley. This story dealt with those very Jews, the ones in wartime Poland who did not go into the camps and at the end of the war came out alive. I didn’t need to get very far into the book to see that it put faces on what little I knew of a less-written-about group of Polish Jews. To say I was stunned is an understatement.
The book is a novel. The narrator is a male adult who tells the story of his young life (he was born in 1933) and how he learned to stay alive by lies, deceit, cheating and creating fantasy backgrounds. The author, Louis Begley, says to the extent that he himself was a Polish Jew, lived through those times in Poland and survived, the book is biographical. But he says the story is not. It is fiction. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. He simply means he told of the era and of the way people had to live in made-up story form.
This fictitious family were “assimilated Jews” – the father a doctor trained in Vienna; the grandparents were landholders, well-off and well-to-do. Professional, educated people. People who couldn’t believe that they needed to flee their own county. This is the story I didn’t know much about.
Not having heard anything previously about this book, I could have stumbled upon something that told the story but in such a fashion that it just read poorly or was gratuitously violent or should have been written by more capable hands. I feel blessed, if that is an appropriate word, to have stumbled upon Begley’s book; his terse prose leads one to feel whole picture, from first to last page. I am lucky to have picked it up after it had languished on the library's shelf for so many years. I am glad that I have another bit of the ghastly truth of that time.
And I do hope that you are not among those who think they have read enough about the holocaust. I suggest you track this one down.