A Cat in the Ghetto

Rach­mil Bryks; S. Mor­ris Engel, trans.; Adam Rovn­er, fwd.
  • Review
By – December 22, 2011

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.

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