The Art of Survival
Country of Ash: A Jewish Doctor in Poland, 1939–1945. Edward Reicher. Translated by Magda Bogin. Bellevue Literary Press 2013, $16.95, pp. 25
I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness! —Victor Klemperer, 1942
In 1997, the Israeli Prime Minister’s office issued a report on living Holocaust survivors that put the figure somewhere between 834,000 and 960,000 world-wide. At the time it often seemed as though half of them were writing memoirs, most of which were made valuable simply by virtue of the information they supplied of what had happened when, where, and to how many. Very few, however, were marked by the gift for literary composition that makes a work of nonfiction emotionally memorable. Among those that were made memorable were the distinguished books written by Primo Levi and Victor Klemperer, one giving us a visionary account of human behavior in the most infamous of the Nazi death camps, the other a quotidian recital in the form of a diary kept by a low-level Jewish academic who survived the war in Dresden because he had a gentile wife.
Country of Ash most resembles the memoir written by Victor Klemperer. Committed to paper sometime in the 1960s, the memoir is the almost daily account of a Jewish doctor named Edward Reicher who, together with his wife and infant daughter, lived through the Second World War in Poland, dodging bullets, uprisings and deportations—not to mention betrayal, starvation and airless hideouts—in a manner more reminiscent of a talented outlaw than a mild-mannered dermatologist who’d never known an illegal moment in all his 39 years when, on September 1, 1939, “our calvary began.” It is the impressive simplicity of the good doctor’s writing that makes his book resemble Klemperer’s, and the detailed observations of its report that makes it emotionally memorable.
At five o’clock on that September morning in 1939, the Luftwaffe attacked the airfield in the suburb of Lodz where the Reichers lived. Edward walked into town to help his aged father, and within hours all the Jewish men in Lodz, a prosperous center of textile manufacturing, were ordered to walk to Warsaw, about 85 miles away. There, they were ordered to build the fence that would ultimately pen them in. Reicher was soon retrieved from this camp by a gentile medical colleague and reunited with his wife in Lodz, where every day their situation became more dire. “[T]hey were killing Jews like rabbits on a hunt,” he recalled.
Six months later the Lodz ghetto was formed, and the Reichers crammed into two small rooms. Aside from daily humiliation and torment, meager rations and constant anxiety, soon one epidemic after another was raging through the district, typhus proving the most lethal. Edward determined to escape to the Warsaw ghetto, thinking it had to be better there. What he found seemed hard to believe.
“It was a world that could only have taken root in the mind of a medieval inquisitor: filthy, dark streets, swarms of children, huge tattered crowds. Leszno Street led straight to hell,” with thousands of beggars on it crying out—many could only moan—for a piece of bread. (“Fellow Jews! Have pity!”) In short: Half a million people were wandering about, as though in a vast 19th-century asylum.
The Reichers were assigned a tiny room in an apartment already filled to bursting, and Edward went to work in a Jewish Council-run hospital where again typhus was raging. Outside the hospital, however, hunger trumped sickness. People were being shot daily for smuggling bread. And now we see Edward Reicher’s talent for survival beginning to operate.
The deportations to the East began in late July of 1942. Thousands actually volunteered for them, thinking the Germans meant it when they promised work and bread at the end of the line. Reicher immediately understood that deportation was a death sentence, and went into hiding with his family in the attic of the house they were living in; but here they were soon discovered and forced to join those being marched to the trains. On the way, Reicher pulled himself and his wife and daughter out of the march as they were passing the hospital where he had worked, and they fled to the uppermost floor of the building. Again, they were soon discovered and forced back into the marching crowd. Now, Reicher spotted an ambulance with a doctor he knew in charge. He managed to make contact; the doctor threw him a white coat and ordered him to dress the wounds of “this woman and this child” (that is, Reicher’s own wife and child), and they were all bundled into the ambulance. Saved!
After that, it was one hiding place after another for the next three years. The doctor became expert at devising hideouts—on a roof, behind a wall, beneath floorboards—where he and his family endured one desperate moment after another, with melodramatic last-minute rescues occurring repeatedly.
In time, Reicher managed to get himself and his family out of the ghetto and onto the Polish side of Warsaw, masquerading as Aryans (his young wife bleached her hair blond and looked absolutely Polish), forced to listen to ferocious anti-Semitism everywhere they wandered. After the defeat of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Edward stood on a street outside the burned-out Jewish district, with a farmer standing beside him, his hand laid upon the head of his young son. “I told him my son,” the farmer said to Reicher, “about the Jews who were rightfully destroyed here. Like parasites, like leeches, they sucked the blood of the noble Polish people. The Jews owned all the buildings and streets, and all we had were the paving stones, even though it was our country. Hitler was right to exterminate them. We should be grateful to him for freeing us from the Jewish plague.”
But if that farmer had been the only kind of Pole the Reichers encountered they would surely not have survived. Country of Ash gives us a landscape of pedestrian horror on which stands a multitude of people, both Poles and Jews, often equally brave or cowardly, mean or compassionate. A Polish pastor denies Edward the letter of medical accreditation he needs, saying, “The Jews are to blame for everything. I can do nothing for you”—but then a Polish prostitute risks her life to save his. The head of the Jewish Council in the Lodz ghetto is a scoundrel and a despot; other Jews in the ghetto are almost saintly in their courageousness.
What makes this memoir remarkable is the detailed description of the days, weeks and months of the seemingly endless war; it made this reader feel as though she were living through it with the Reichers—and in real time, at that. It’s not just the extraordinary nature of Reicher’s recall that does it, it’s the strength of feeling with which he remembers it all. Later, years after the war was over, Reicher told his grown daughter that he could no longer recognize himself in the narrator of his book—a man of mad cunning and resourcefulness, not to mention endurance—whom the doctor now sees as “other.”
William Carlos Williams once said that people who prize information are perishing daily for want of the information that can be found only in poetry. By the same token, there will never be a time when we will not need the information that an important, evocative book like Country of Ash provides.
Vivian Gornick is an essayist and critic. She has written nine books, among them the memoir Fierce Attachments and the essay collection The End of the Novel of Love.