After the Holo­caust the Bells Still Ring

Joseph Polak; Elie Wiesel, fwd.

  • Review
By – March 30, 2015

Anoth­er book on the Holo­caust? Yes and no; this book is about a dif­fer­ent Holo­caust — the one that sur­vivors of con­cen­tra­tion camps endured after April 1945. That is when sur­vivors began to expe­ri­ence the hor­rif­ic and per­sis­tent mem­o­ries of what they had lived through, accord­ing to Joseph Polak, who entered the camps when he was just a toddler.

In the camps, the goal was sim­ply to sur­vive day to day. At night, the con­stant nois­es of peo­ple cry­ing and climb­ing up and down the bunks to go to the bath­room, and the smells when they didn’t make it in time, did not give any­one time to med­i­tate. So it was only after lib­er­a­tion that sur­vivors who had phys­i­cal­ly recov­ered ful­ly real­ized and reliv­ed the subhu­man lives they had been living.

That is when the night­mares began, most­ly because of guilt; many knew they had behaved bad­ly under duress. How many Dutch Jews, giv­en a lit­tle author­i­ty, sent oth­er people’s chil­dren off to Auschwitz to save their own, and how many inmates stole life-sav­ing slices of bread from sleep­ing inmates? Who cre­at­ed those lists of peo­ple the Nazis used to round up the Jews in Hol­land? Why is it that 90% of the Jews in the Nether­lands were slaugh­tered? These ques­tions have obvi­ous and dis­turb­ing answers.

Since this book is told from three dif­fer­ent time peri­ods, Polak asks many ques­tions relat­ed to each of the peri­ods, and not all of them have answers. At the begin­ning of the book, Polak is revis­it­ing Troeb­itz (where his father is buried) in 1995 with a group of sur­vivors; his mem­o­ries of what hap­pened fifty years ear­li­er sur­face and he recounts some of them. He won­ders why he, a boy of three when he entered the camp, found a Nazi guardian who watched over him but asks why his father was so soon strick­en with typhus and died. He inter­spers­es these peri­ods with a time­less, sur­re­al­is­tic philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sion with an angel. And he asks the eter­nal ques­tions of the Angel of God: How did He allow the slaugh­ter, espe­cial­ly of so many chil­dren? Why hasn’t He avenged this slaughter?

As an exam­ple of one atroc­i­ty, Joseph Polak’s beloved Uncle Anton, a wid­ow­er, had the job of sooth­ing peo­ple select­ed for depor­ta­tion. And what hap­pened to him? He, togeth­er with his four chil­dren, Isaac, age 11, Judith Hadas­sah, age 10, Shu­lamith Ruth, age 8, and Ben Zion Baruch, age 6 — all were forced to run nude down the chute in Sobi­bor, where on July 9, 1943, they were gath­ered into the gas cham­bers. The pow­er­less­ness of it all — a father in his thir­ties, hud­dled naked with his four chil­dren, wait­ing for the gas.” Why?

This wrench­ing vision is only one of the sto­ries Polak tells of the humil­i­a­tion and de­struction of body and soul that went on dai­ly and toward which Polak peri­od­i­cal­ly ques­tions God’s attitude.

And yet, there is some­thing to be learned from the way in which two types of peo­ple sur­vived in larg­er num­bers than oth­ers. One group was com­posed of Zion­ist teenagers who kept plan­ning to get to Pales­tine and sang their pio­neer songs togeth­er. About 80% of them sur­vived. The oth­er group was com­posed of Ortho­dox Jews who spent over an hour a day in deep Torah study and met three times a day to pray togeth­er. These groups had one thing in com­mon — they did not suc­cumb to despair.

Anoth­er major point seems to be reflect­ed most in a pho­to­graph most peo­ple have nev­er seen before, of a sev­en-year-old boy on a sun­ny day, walk­ing down a path in Bergen Belsen lined with dead, unburied bod­ies. He doesn’t look at them and seems uncon­cerned. Is this denial or is he fol­low­ing the dic­tates of Jew­ish law, which for­bids one to look at a dead body? Per­haps the boy rep­re­sents the world’s atti­tude toward what hap­pened dur­ing the Holocaust.This is one of the many unan­swered ques­tions we are left with after read­ing this pro­found book.

Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

Discussion Questions