- A Disorder of Being: Heroes, Martyrs, and the Holocaust
I am looking at a photograph of a double line of children—girls before, boys behind—waiting patiently for their mikvah or ritual bath. All the boys are dressed in suits and all wear hats, mostly men’s felt hats with brims. One boy in the rear foreground turns toward the photographer, Roman Vishniak, who takes the picture with a hidden camera. (These are orthodox Jews who object to photography on religious grounds.) It is a sunny day in 1937 in Carpathian Ruthenia in an area that was to become a part of Hungary two years later.
By 1945, by the time these boys and girls would have reached their late teens, they were, in all likelihood, dead at the hands of the Hungarian fascists or the Nazis. Their survival was possible, too; Lucy Dawidowicz estimates that thirty percent of the Hungarian Jews survived the war (403). But the point is that the war did not merely disrupt, it dislocated their lives, whatever the event. Even had they happened to survive, they would have had no lives to return to. Jewish life on the European Continent, which had survived fifteen hundred years of anti-Semitism, did not survive five years of Nazi rule. Thus the collection of which the photograph I have described forms a part, is entitled, appropriately, A Vanished World.
The significant distant between disruption and dislocation can be measured by comparing the recent Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List with an incident recounted in Langer’s Holocaust Testimony. In the film, the ending is managed so as to give the impression that the Jews freed by the allies were in fact free, that is, after an extended episode of incarceration, they experienced the pleasure of anticipation that a return to their normal pre-war lives would mean. This would have been especially true of the Schindler Jews, who had been protected during the war by their eccentric industrialist-benefactor. In reasonably good health, and reasonably well-fed, they are poised on the threshold of their new lives. In such a state, naturally, they bestow upon their erstwhile benefactor the gratitude he deserves. At the film’s end, real-life Schindler Jews who have happened to survive enact the Jewish ritual of placing small stones on his tombstone, a gesture of respect, even of homage.
The reality of the Schindler Jews is another matter altogether. In the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale there exists the testimony of the son of two actual Schindler Jews, Menachem S. In 1943, his parents, fearing the worst, smuggled the five-year-old out of a Polish labor camp in the hope that he would survive the war under the protection of some Polish Christian family. His parents promised to retrieve him after the war, a promise that they managed to keep, since they survived under Schindler’s protection. Nevertheless their reunion defeats all of our expectations of a happy ending. Both parents are emaciated; the six-foot tall father weights only eighty-eight pounds; his rotted teeth hang loosely from his gums.
Menachim S. sees little resemblance between these people and his memory of his parents and, not surprisingly, he does not recognize them. In a scene ironically and accidentally reminiscent of Odysseus’s recognition by his old servant at his return, Menachim S. holds up the picture of his mother given to him at their parting. Recognition, however, does not ensue. “I just couldn’t believe,” he says, “that they were my parents.” For some time he calls them Mr.and Mrs. S, rather than father and mother.
Lawrence Langer, whose account of the incident I have so far been paraphrasing, gets the meaning of this episode exactly right, one more insightful analysis in a masterpiece of analysis:
The bizarre spectacle...