Lit­tle Miracles

Abra­ham Bilcher
  • Review
By – June 25, 2014

There were six mil­lion sto­ries that will nev­er be told. There are more mil­lions of sto­ries that have been told, are being told, and will yet be told. The Holo­caust was a unique his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence. As such, it was expe­ri­enced dif­fer­ent­ly by each sur­vivor. We are famil­iar with many of these sto­ries. The first per­son mem­oir is a spe­cif­ic genre of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture. Some sto­ry­tellers are more elo­quent than oth­ers, and some just need to have their sto­ry told. For some the Holo­caust inspires inef­fa­bil­i­ty. Oth­ers can­not stop their nar­ra­tions. Still oth­ers require the pas­sage of many decades before they can com­mit their sto­ries to pos­ter­i­ty. In any case, in a few years this genre will disappear.

Lit­tle Mir­a­cles and Pil­grim­age From Dark­ness .are two very dif­fer­ent books. What they share is a glimpse into two dimen­sions of the Shoah that have not received much treat­ment. The for­mer describes the Holo­caust as it was expe­ri­enced in Rus­sia and Siberia. The lat­ter traces the spir­i­tu­al search of a mem­ber of Hitler Youth and the Luft­waffe who becomes dis­il­lu­sioned when faced with the mon­strous truth of Nazism.

Abra­ham Bich­ler, the author of Lit­tle Mir­a­cles, was born in Krylov, Poland, a typ­i­cal shtetl near the Ukraine. When Ger­many invad­ed Poland on Sep­tem­ber 1, 1939, the Bich­ler fam­i­ly crossed the Bug Riv­er into the Ukraine. After a while they were trans­port­ed by the Russ­ian army to Siberia. Ulti­mate­ly they were sent to a work camp where those who could worked 18 hours a day mak­ing bricks. Dai­ly life, rela­tions with the Russ­ian sol­diers and author­i­ties are described in minute detail. We are famil­iar with accounts of Ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camps. Here in Siberia, the con­di­tions were harsh but for the most part the Rus­sians weren’t as sadis­tic as their Nazi coun­ter­parts. Child­hood in a Russ­ian work camp makes one grow up very quick­ly, and Bich­ler describes many escapades in this mat­u­ra­tion process. Even­tu­al­ly the fam­i­ly was tak­en to Turkestan in cen­tral Asia where it was warmer. Bich­ler describes dai­ly life and sur­vival liv­ing along­side many dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups dur­ing this peri­od. Whom to trust, what to say, where to find food, what to barter, etc., were often life or death deci­sions. After the Ger­man sur­ren­der on May 7, 1945, the Bich­lers escaped from Rus­sia back to Poland. With much luck they got as far as Lublin, where the truth of the Nazi atroc­i­ties made going home an impos­si­ble dream. There was no home left. Their adven­tures, the risks they took, reli­gious life, edu­ca­tion, fam­i­ly issues, etc. dur­ing their many jour­neys are all chron­i­cled. From Lublin they went to Lodz where Abra­ham lived and stud­ied in a Zion­ist kib­butz much like an orphan­age, even though he wasn’t an orphan. From there young Abra­ham trav­eled some more, even­tu­al­ly liv­ing in a DP camp before wind­ing up in Amer­i­ca as a young teenager. 

This sto­ry of one family’s tri­umphs and tragedies and all the lit­tle mir­a­cles” that just seemed to hap­pen to keep them alive offers the read­er a per­spec­tive on the Holo­caust as expe­ri­enced on Russ­ian soil. It is a very dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive from those describ­ing the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in oth­er parts of East­ern Europe, and one worth reading. 

Oskar Eder, the sub­ject of Pil­grim­age from Dark­ness, grew up in a Chris­t­ian home in the small Ger­man town of Lauf near Nurem­berg. He was always an inquis­i­tive youth, which did not endear him to his reli­gion teach­ers. Ini­tial­ly he did not grav­i­tate toward the rougher boys but even­tu­al­ly this changed, and, swept up with the need for social accep­tance, he joined the Hitler youth. His par­ents were not Nazi sup­port­ers, and Oskar him­self did not ful­ly com­pre­hend what Hitler rep­re­sent­ed. In the ear­ly years he just felt nation­al­is­tic pride in defend­ing Ger­many. Ulti­mate­ly becom­ing a Luft­waffe pilot, Oskar didn’t do any real fly­ing since by the time he grad­u­at­ed there was a fuel short­age and the war was wind­ing down for Germany.

Start­ing with some fel­low sol­diers and lat­er with Resis­tance mem­bers, Oskar came to real­ize what his shel­tered small-town life and Nazi pro­pa­gan­da had hid­den from him. The truth shat­tered him. After the war he became a banker and then a lawyer, but he was ful­ly occu­pied by his search for answers. He tried to under­stand what had hap­pened to his coun­try and to his her­itage. He strug­gled to under­stand Ger­man anti-Semi­tism. Rais­ing Ger­many from the des­ti­tu­tion of World War I required the coun­try to focus on its ene­mies to unite and moti­vate the pop­u­lace. Blam­ing many ene­mies, how­ev­er, would have left the Nazis with­out focus and its peo­ple dis­cour­aged. There­fore the list was dis­tilled to one. This log­ic did not repair his dis­in­te­grat­ing real­i­ty. The bulk of the book is a trav­el­ogue of Oskar’s search for spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and for answers. He stud­ied Ramakr­ish­na, Vivekanan­da, Gand­hi, Sufism, the Bible, the Koran, Hin­duism, Bud­dhism, and lived with Sikhs, monks, and many teach­ers of dif­fer­ent sects. He trav­eled to the Mid­dle East and Asia, and climbed moun­tains to seek the advice of hermits. 

Ulti­mate­ly he made his way to Israel and joined a cir­cle of the elite intel­li­gentsia of Jerusalem, includ­ing Pro­fes­sors Hugo Bergman, Mar­tin Buber, and David Flusser. He read, he trav­eled, he med­i­tat­ed, he stud­ied, he dis­cussed, he con­tem­plat­ed. Tak­ing the name Ash­er, he lived on var­i­ous kib­butz­im, walked the land of Israel, learned Hebrew, and tried his hand at farm­ing a plot of land. Among the amaz­ing aspects relat­ed in this book are the large num­bers of peo­ple from all faith groups who were will­ing to take him in and help him in his search. Even­tu­al­ly he con­vert­ed to Ortho­dox Judaism, mar­ried a Holo­caust sur­vivor, and became a tour guide. This biog­ra­phy reveals yet anoth­er aspect of the Holo­caust. There are prob­a­bly oth­ers who were sim­i­lar­ly dis­en­chant­ed with Nazism, but either they didn’t record their sto­ries, or they weren’t suf­fi­cient­ly both­ered to work out their inner conflict.

Ash­er Eder is a spe­cial per­son. He may not have found all the answers. He may not be ful­ly at peace. But he has found the approach that sat­is­fies him most. His rela­tion­ship with his par­ents is also explored, as is the cul­tur­al milieu in which he was raised. His strug­gle to com­pre­hend has been reward­ed. The read­er will like­wise be reward­ed by read­ing this book.

Relat­ed Content:

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions