It’s rare that one author calls another author’s work unique, but this is exactly the level of praise that Isaac Bashevis Singer chose to bestow upon the stories in this slim volume. Rachmil Bryks, who was born in 1912 and survived incarceration in both the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, wrote these small gems in Yiddish, and they have achieved worldwide acclaim since being translated into Hebrew, German, Polish, and Swedish, in addition to English. Bryks’ unflinching ability to capture the harsh realities of ghetto and camp life plunge the reader into a world of hardship, complex moral dilemmas, and drama. But behind the darkness, one can’t help but sense the unremitting presence of hope and light.
Bryks takes his readers into a vivid but delicately nuanced world of horrors, and we go willingly, following along after someone whose keen instincts to tell the truth cut away any reluctance we may feel at first to go where he leads. Life may be one cruel reality after the next, but in these stories, replete with enough absurdities to make us laugh when we thought all laughter must have died long ago, the characters soon become friends in whom we willingly see ourselves. A dinner of cabbage leaves is called roast meat, for example, and as we sit down at the table with Bryks’ people, we somehow find ourselves part of the conversation.
Writing in a spare, dark style, Bryks lets us know we are not to forget what happened during the Nazi years. In this way, and with the two novellas, two stories, one essay, and one poem in this book, he has propelled the genre of Holocaust literature forward since these vivid writings were first published in English in 1959. Bryks, who came to New York to live in 1949 and died here in 1974, spent his life writing. He first put pen to paper in a Swedish hospital in 1945, shortly after being liberated from a Nazi work camp. Like many other survivors, he believed his life had been spared to enable him to write his own personal testimony of horrors.
The essay included in this collection stands out in particular from the other writings in the way Bryks makes use of memory and style, defending his use of black humor in commenting on unspeakable tragedy. Bookending the essay, poetry, and fiction is the clear and colorful afterword of the author’s Israeli daughter, who provides a unique perspective to the way in which Bryks weaves his narratives, and the illuminating insights of the university scholar who introduces the material to the reader.
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.