Hazel McHaffie

persecution

Survivlng the War

The current situation in Ukraine, with the graphic images we’re seeing on our screens, is reminding us so much of the horrors perpetrated during the Second World War, isn’t it? And the thought of so many families running from, or hiding from the Russian onslaught, taking refuge in neighbouring countries like Poland, takes me to a book I read some months ago – events in the 1940s resonating strongly with what’s happening in 2022.

Though I’ve read many many accounts of the persecution of the Jews, Surviving the War is the first about that faction in Poland who sought refuge in the vast forests and swamplands where the organised army would have trouble reaching them. It may not be as familiar as stories of the concentration camps, but it makes sobering reading, with its tales of betrayal and persecution by fellow countrymen as well as the Nazis.

WARNING: This post contains spoilers

Basing her material on a composite of real-life stories, Adiva Geffen, paints an idyllic picture of simple rural life in Poland before the war, with Jews and Gentiles living in harmony in a small village, joining in each other’s religious festivals, caring, sharing and supporting each other. As Avraham says in the book: ... we are one people, their language is our language and their culture is our culture … [and] we have God … the Poles are our brothers – we are united in this.

In her youth, Shurka Shidlovsky grows up both fascinated by, and fearful of, the dark and dangerous Parczew Forest, shrouded in myth and legend. But she lives in a happy family, joyfully observing all the Jewish festivals and holidays, completely oblivious to the horrors to come.

By the age of 15, Shurka is already beautiful and ready to leave school. She and her mother hold out for her to train in a profession/trade and she leaves home for one year to study sewing. City life is a revelation, but she keeps an anchor in the familiar by travelling home for the weekends. It’s during her wedding to the son of a prosperous merchant family, Avraham Orlitzky, that the first hint of trouble casts its long shadow: a young refugee couple appear who have escaped from Berlin as Hitler begins his terrible regime. The year is 1937.

But the innocents in Eastern Poland refuse to believe the stories; it’s nothing more than a ‘passing posturing’. Until, that is, the Germans invade Poland. This time the danger is impossible to ignore. Avraham has no choice but to wear the yellow star, but still he’s reluctant to move his pregnant wife, naively confident that their Polish friends will look after them. And even world leaders choose to ignore the signs of terror that have begun to form a crack in the world – the looting, confiscations, expulsions, eliminations. The year is 1939.

It’s only when, in 1941, Avraham is sent to a labour camp, that he begins to lose hope, and the realisation spurs him into action. The family begin a nomadic life, fleeing from one place of refuge to another, with two children in tow: Irena, and a frail little boy, Yitzhak.

As they move from her parents’ house, to an abandoned pavilion, to a vastly overcrowded Jewish ghetto, experience teaches them that, far from all being brothers, nobody is to be trusted. Brutality and lawlessness are rife. It’s the end of all security, all connections with their past. It’s the beginning of 1942.

And then the Final solution swings into action. News of the crematoria and death showers reaches the Orlitzky family: Horrors not even the devil could have imagined, and they realise that the ghettos have become not just ‘natural death’ chambers through starvation, but now also transfer stations to the concentration camps, extermination camps and forced labour camps. The Parczew Forest is the only place of safety left to them, and they must flee while the ghetto gates remain open. It is August 1942 – just one month before all the Jews left in the ghetto are sent to Treblinka and certain death.

Life in the vast forest is precarious in a different way. And indeed, more people perished there than survived. Shurka and her family camp alongside resistance fighters, Jewish partisans. They are forced to dig their own underground bunkers, camouflage them with branches, scavenge for food, be ready to move immediately if the Germans gain intelligence of their whereabouts, leaving no trace of their presence, only to start again from scratch.

Life even inside the bunkers is fraught with peril. The Jews are huddled together, forbidden to utter a sound, not even to cough. The Germans periodically approach with their weapons and dogs. On one occasion, baby Yitzhak starts crying, refusing any comfort, endangering the whole camp. What is Shurka to do? The account is too tragic and poignant to recount; you have to read it through her eyes.

As winter clenches its frozen fists on the forest, they are again on the move, this time to an old granary, courtesy of a sympathetic peasant, where they live in complete silence for nine weeks and five days. Suspicious neighbours eventually drive them back into the forest. Though Avraham is the king of plenty, obtaining basic provisions under cover of darkness, nevertheless disease, death, constant deprivation, unremitting fear, take their toll. It is 1943.

The threat grows ever closer. The Germans set fire to the forest to drive the hidden Jews out. Then with more precise information from informants, they throw grenades directly  into the bunkers. Shurka and her daughter survive because they have crawled onto a high shelf; but almost all her family are killed in that terrible raid. Alone now, they must once again flee, this time to a series of old granaries or barns during the harsh winter months, imperilling the farmers who grant them shelter, using silverware and jewellery to pay for their silence, capitalising on friendships and allegiances from Avraham’s successful business days. But with spring comes a return to the forest. It is March 1943.

By that September, the Third Reich begins to crumble, but the forest families are by no means safe. They spend another frozen winter hidden in a spacious barn belonging to an avaricious couple of Poles, in a remote village surrounded by swamps. Always silent, constantly vigilant. Irena by now is six years old. It’s while they are there, as the war draws to a close, that tragically, Avraham is killed while out on one of his night-time scavenges. Shurka decides she must return to the forest to seek out those she knows, unaware that the Germans have retreated, the battle over.

Just twenty-two days later, on Sunday 23 July 1944, the people of the Parczew Forest are liberated, marched away, leaving behind the graves of their loved ones. They are free to return to look for the Poland they had lost, but carrying a terrible burden of pain for the rest of their days. And it would take time to fully trust these Russian men who had come with the offer of release. Was it all a trap? After all, their compatriots in the concentration camps in the west are still being sent to their deaths.

Sadly, the reception that awaits them in Poland is one of outright hostility, revealing a hidden anti-Semitism that hurts deeply from supposed brothers. New persecutions follow. And once again the Jews are in hiding, as murderous men rampage through the streets and houses. After losing so much, however, the few forest survivors crave connection, love and intimacy. Suddenly men are in hot pursuit of Shurka. She soon finds new love with a man who lost his own wife and children in Treblinka, and together they resolve to set their sights on the future, not to look back. They marry in November and a son Yaakov is born in August 1945. They eventually begin the slow process of leaving Poland behind, to seek a new life with their fellow Jews in the new State of Israel. The year is 1948.

Shurka’s story challenges me as so many levels:
Would I have the courage to endure such hardship?
Would I endanger my family to protect strangers?
Would I sacrifice my son to save the wider community?
Would I retain faith in God in the face of such horror?

Unanswerable. Uncomfortable. Unimaginable.

 

 

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People of the Book

I love discovering a new-to-me author who inspires me. This time it’s Geraldine Brooks. With nearly 400 pages of quite densely printed text, People of the Book needed time and mental space, so I waited for some downtime between assorted deadlines to open it. Once I did, I was hooked!

It’s a work of fiction but inspired by the true story of a Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. This, one of the earliest illustrated medieval Hebrew books, first came to the attention of scholars in Sarajevo in 1894, when it was offered for sale by an indigent Jewish family. All that could be ascertained was that it had been made in Spain, possibly in the mid-fourteenth century. By 1609 the haggadah had found its way to Venice where the signature of a Catholic priest saved it from the  book burnings of the Pope’s Inquisition. Not a lot to go on, you might think! But the clever juxtaposition of known facts and imagined back-stories makes the whole history come alive and feel authentic. Add to that the authority of the author – a foreign correspondent who covered the Bosnian war from Sarajevo for The Wall Street Journal; who witnessed the destruction of museums and libraries holding priceless manuscripts – and you have a winning combination.

At the time of the Bosnian conflict, the fate of the precious Sarajevo Haggadah, the jewel in the collection, was unknown, but the subject of much journalistic speculation. However, reporter Geraldine Brooks was granted permission to actually see the real thing being restored under heavy guard in 2001 at the European Union Bank. In tracing a fictional journey across countries, and centuries, through wars and persecutions, against different cultures and religions, it’s small wonder she became overwhelmed by the task she’d taken on, and needed to take a couple of years out. It would represent a life’s work for most people, I suspect! My precis here will be inadequate, but hopefully it will tempt you to read it for yourself, and be amazed in your turn.

Dr Hanna Heath is an extremely meticulous conservator of medieval manuscripts who lives in Sydney, Australia. She comes with a stream of qualifications: double honours in chemistry and ancient Near Eastern languages, masters in chemistry, PhD in fine art conservation … oh, and she’s passionate about her job.

When she’s invited to Bosnia to work with a very rare and beautiful object, the Sarajevo Haggadah, a lavishly and exquisitely illuminated Hebrew manuscript, she goes to the length of creating vellum herself by scouring the fat off a meter of calf intestine with a pumice stone, and making gold leaf from scratch, in order to understand how books were created 600 years ago, such is her need to be both accurate and true.

The precious manuscript needs some stabilisation work before it’s exhibited. No conservator has touched it for a hundred years, but it has been mishandled by non experts for years, and now the trick is to work so well that there’s no sign anyone has worked on it at all. But as well as conserving the parchment physically, it’s Hanna’s job to learn its history  Every shred of dust, every sliver, every fragment, every stain, offers a clue, tells a story. The veining on a piece of insect wing shows it comes from a particular species of butterfly only found high up in the Alps; a stain of kosher wine proves to be contaminated with someone’s blood; crystals indicate a splash by seawater; a hair from the throat area of a Persian long-haired cat tracks to a special kind of paintbrush … They throw up endless questions:
… why would an illuminator working in Spain, for a Jewish client, in the manner of a European Christian, have used an Iranian paintbrush?

With so much information, structure is vitally important. Dr Hanna Heath is at the centre – working on the manuscript in the 21st century, but uncovering clues to the past as she goes. Interspersed between each new discovery is the story of how these things came about; the lives entwined with the ancient parchment, unravelling backwards in time.

There’s Lola, a young Jewish laundress, who escapes from the round up of Jews in Sarajevo and flees to the mountains where she joins an order of resistance fighters until she’s abandoned, cold, hungry and despairing, and returns to the city. There she’s rescued by a wealthy and learned Muslim, Serif Kamal and his wife, Stela. Serif is the librarian at the museum who’s entrusted to take care of the haggadah to preserve it from the destruction and looting overtaking their city. But once he has this priceless artefact in his possession, none of them are safe. So Serif takes it high into the mountains to a devout Muslim who squirrels it away in the library of his mosque, between volumes of Islamic law – the last place anyone would go looking for an ancient Jewish manuscript!

Before this, a dying bookbinder, Florien Mittl, ravaged by end-stage syphilis, already suffering from paranoid delusions, is commissioned to rebind the haggadah in ‘Vienna, although these days he can hardly recall the sequence of steps in the process. However, he’s desperate for money for a cure for his disease, so he’s prepared to desecrate the priceless book in order to gain generous remuneration: he removes the exquisitely wrought silver clasps in exchange for experimental treatment.

Further back again, in Venice, a trembling alcoholic priest, Father Giovanni Domenico Vistorini, is living a double life in several directions. He’s a lover of books and language, and yet, as censor for the Inquisition, destined to consign beautiful works, ‘blasphemous’ texts, to the flames. His old acquaintance, the Jewish rabbi, Judah Aryeh, is in possession of the Sarajevo haggadah, and because of his addictions, the fate of this beautiful object comes to rest on a gamble. It’s Vistorini’s wine and blood that stains the ancient parchment.

Back we go to the actual formation of the book. A sofer, David Ben Shoushan, sees the potential of a set of glorious gold leaf paintings, and has the stamina to painstakingly inscribe the Hebrew text to go with them – we watch his hand trembling as he moves from ink bottle to parchment, crafting those precise letters, willing him not to blot the parchment. The pages and paintings are placed in the greasy hands of a double-dealing bookbinder, Micha, along with Shoushan’s wife’s silver which will be crafted into beautiful clasps to make the finished product a bridal gift fit for a king.  But before David Ben Shoushan can even see the end result, the Spanish Inquisition close their murderous claws around his family, and the precious haggadah is smuggled out and into new dangers. It’s when a Gentile baby is being ritually baptised in the sea to welcome him into the Jewish faith, that a few drops of saltwater splash on the manuscript leaving a residue of crystals that will last for hundreds of years.

The life of a black Jewess, Zahra bint Ibrahim al-Tarek, is abruptly changed each time she’s moved on … from her home in Infriqiya where she learned to illustrate her father’s medical texts … into captivity … from thence to living in an emir’s palace as a fine painter of his wife’s likeness … and then to work for a Jewish doctor who had admired her medical illustrations for years. One major loss after another deepens her awareness of herself and the dark side of life. Having been entranced by an exquisite Christian Book of Hours filled with luminous illustrations for each prayer which the emira Isabella used for her devotions, Zahra sets about creating a story of the world as the Jews understand it to have come to be, for the doctor’s deaf-mute son, Benjamin. With no higher motive than to make the boy want to look at each picture and understand what it conveys, she concentrates on making the pictures as vibrant and appealing as she can. Indeed, so determined is she to project the right sense that sometimes she’s profoundly disturbed by the representations herself. The fine paint brushes she uses are made of cat fur and it’s one such hair marked with saffron dye that Dr Heath finds hundreds of years later.

The beautiful and intricate story of the creation and preservation and survival of this amazing book, is well matched by the meticulous research of the author. Whether it’s history across the ages, ethnic cleansing, ancient language and literature, the geography of cities around the world, different religions and their customs, diseases and their treatments, gambling in the seventeenth century, music, art, architecture, food, laboratory techniques or the structure of hair, you feel to be in safe hands with Geraldine Brooks.

Rather like the Sarajevo haggadah, a book to savour and treasure indeed.

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Light in the darkness

‘Be the light in the darkness’

That’s the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 (yesterday: 27 January), encouraging everyone to reflect on the depths to which humanity can sink, remembering especially the six million Jews, and thousands of other minority peoples, who were killed under Nazi persecutions, as well as those who’ve lost their lives in subsequent genocides. But importantly, to also consider ways in which we can individually and as a community shine a light in the darkness and resist hatred, persecution, injustice, prejudice and misinformation.

It’s 76 years since the gates of Auschwitz swung open on 27 January 1945, and the remaining prisoners were liberated, the unimaginable slaughter revealed. The world today is much changed in so many ways, but still riven with huge inequalities and cruelty. Even in our own relatively civilised society, what a grim milestone we passed this very week: 100,000 deaths from Covid-19; disproportionately high amongst the poor and disadvantaged. What chance for the refugees huddled in camps, those in war-torn countries, or caught up in brutal and repressive dictatorships? I’m deep in a book about the oppressive regime in Iran which makes me ask some very difficult questions of myself.

There is still much to ponder and to protest. A candle in the window last night is a mere token.

Let’s not forget the lessons of the past; let’s not pass by on the other side today.

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