Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reading Hannah Krall

Just recently, I read a book that had a very deep effect on me: Shielding the Flame, by Hannah Krall. Krall is a Jewish Polish journalist born in Warsaw in 1937 who survived the war in Poland as a hidden child, then remained in Poland and devoted her life to journalism. She is an interesting personality in her own right, but her book, the one I've just read, is not about her own life, but about a series of conversations she had with Marek Edelman, the sole surviving leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Edelman's story too is unusual, and very interesting. Born in Homel (now in Belarus, then in Poland) in 1922, he ended up as one of the three leaders of the Jewish Fighting Organization headed by Mordechai Anielewicz. Somehow, he survived the uprising and managed to escape, joining a group of Polish partisans and participating in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (not to confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, which took place a year earlier.) He too never left Poland, went to medical school in Lodz and became, of all things, a cardiologist. At 86, he's retired from the practice of medicine, but still alive, still living in Lodz. He eventually wrote his own book, Resisting the Holocaust: Fighting Back in the Warsaw Ghetto, which was published in 2004. But it's Hanna Krall's book that I specifically want to recommend to you today.

First published in Polish in 1977 and then in English in 1986, it's not a new book. But it contains details I hadn't known previously, and lots of them. Some are small things--unimportant, maybe, in terms of the larger picture--but, just as in great art, it is often the tiny details that provide the kind of shading, and of nuance, that distinguishes the works of great artists (or authors) from the work of hacks. For example, Edelman describes the Emergency Room that ghetto residents opened adjacent to the Umschlagplatz, the gathering point from which over 400,000 Jewish people were sent to trains that brought them to their deaths at Treblinka. Students from the nurses' college in the ghetto worked there--the nurses' college was the only functioning school in the ghetto--and Edelman describes how they took clever advantage of the Germans' policy of insisting that the people put on the trains were being sent to work: they would have their own selection, taking people deemed essential to the ghetto and, as nurses who would know how, breaking their legs with wooden blocks so that they would be declared unfit for work, thus not put on the trains said to be destined for work sites. I don't even know why that detail, among so many others, stays with me. But stay with me it does. And will.

The Jewish Fighting Organization itself was founded when there were only 60,000 people left in the ghetto, down from half a million only a few months earlier. Edelman describes people like Anielewicz who are famous, but also others like Jurek Wilner and Lutek Rotblat, whose names are less well known, and still others who would otherwise be completely forgotten. Edelman isn't a historian, not precisely, nor is he a journalist like Krall. Instead, he appears in the book simply as an eye witness. In the course of the talks, he speaks with Krall openly, meandering a bit, repeating some details over and over, but always adding something of interest. The sense the reader gets is of actually sitting with the man, of listening to him think through these stories, these details, these unbelievable events...again and again, each time challenging himself to recall some detail that would otherwise disappear, that would otherwise vanish from the annals of recorded history since he alone remains among the living to remember it.

Of special interest is Edelman's explanation of what led him to medicine, and specifically to cardiology. This is not a text for Hebrew School boy and girls: the man has serious issues with religion and grave doubts about the reality of a God bound by sacred covenant to protect the Jewish people always. But I can't recommend this book highly enough nonetheless: it is the riveting account of a man who personally lived through events that most of us can only visualize vaguely, if at all, and which inspire in almost all of us an almost irresistible compulsion to turn away and look elsewhere. This man, though, is the real thing: an intelligent, thoughtful, and insightful observer of events of the greatest importance, and a true hero. The book was a great success in Poland. The first printing of 10,000 books sold out in a few days. The second printing, this one of 30,000 copies, sold out soon after that. In the wake of the publication of the book, Edelman became a kind of personality in Poland. He was eventually elected to the Polish parliament, the Sejm, and served there from 1989 to 1993. In 1998, he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest decoration.

I have read many, many books about the Shoah. Some were fiction and some were non-fiction. Some were great books; others were tedious retellings of the same data I knew from a dozen different sources. Some were long, weighty tomes that could double as doorstops, and others, like Hanna Krall's book, were short works. (Her whole book is all of 120 pages.) But few have affected me the way this one did, at least few I have read in recent years. Did it really happen? Could human beings have done to the Jews of Warsaw, not to mention the rest of the Jews of Poland, not to mention the rest of the Jews of the rest of the countries the Nazis conquered, could human beings really have done those things? Could the world tolerate that kind of depravity and continue to spin? Could the human race descend to the level of barbarism and continue to flourish? Can the sun that shone down on Treblinka as the Jews of Warsaw were being murdered be the same golden globe hovering overhead at this very moment as I write these words? I have been wondering about those questions for my entire adult life. I continue to wonder about them. I read less about the Shoah now than I once did, but it's still my constant companion, my daily interlocutor, the dark angel always hovering somewhere overhead and reminding me who I am and why I chose this path in life. I know many of you have the same feelings. On some level, I suppose we all do. Reading Hanna Krall's book is both elevating and almost unutterably depressing. But I still recommend it--not only because of what you'll learn about the fate of the Jews of Warsaw, but because of what you will learn from a cardiologist who knew all he could ever need to know about the human heart even before he began medical school. (May 2, 2008)

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