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All personal testimonies of the Holocaust rip the heart. They expose how terrifyingly thin are the membranes of civilization, and show the appalling ease with which barbarism can devastate everything that is precious about life itself. Troubled Memory fulfills that mandate of revelation. Lawrence N. Powell's book about what a family--and a people--suffered is so ferociously unsparing in detailing the systematic torment as well as wanton cruelty of the Shoah that this reconstruction of the past is often unbearable. This volume is also a formidable scholarly and narrative achievement, but what also makes it distinctive is its effort to make some connection between German Nazism and American racism. At the center is a "hidden child" who managed to survive the Warsaw ghetto and, half a century later, found a public voice when a neo-Nazi ran for governor of Louisiana. By telling the extraordinary story of an ordinary Jew named Anne Skorecki Levy, and of her intrepid parents and of other relatives, the author has not only traced the traumatic genesis of her 1989 challenge to the candidacy of David Duke. Powell has also preserved the names and struggles of the doomed. He has thus extracted a sliver of meaning from the catastrophe that befell European Jewry.
The protagonist's parents were middle-class Polish Jews; and when the Wehrmacht invaded their country, Mark Skorecki (1900- 1991) and Ruth Tempelhof Skorecki (1905-1973) and their young daughters Anne and Lila were living in Lodz. The bulk of Troubled Memory recounts the descent into hell--how the noose got tighter and tighter, how the torment and depravity which the Nazis inflicted had become so inconceivably awful that conditions could not possibly have gotten worse. And then the evil did get worse, and then worse again and again. Only one Polish Jew in ten survived the Holocaust; and of that tiny remnant, almost no families remained intact. Indeed, when Ruth Skorecki staggered back to Lodz in 1945 and reported at the Jewish communal office that her husband and daughters were also still alive, she was assumed to be mad.
So statistically freakish was such survival that not even a recourse to "miracles" suffices. Indeed, Mark Skorecki's adroitness as a craftsman and repairman, plus the self-discipline of his daughters in spending hours in pitch-black and cramped confinement without betraying themselves through whimpering or crying, plus the fluent Polish which the parents [End Page 139] spoke so that they could pass on the "Aryan" side, were indispensable. Mark and Ruth had to look and laugh and walk and talk like gentiles. Timing mattered as well; the family decided to try to escape from the Warsaw ghetto just before nearly everyone trapped within it was murdered. But without luck (or, as Ruth preferred to believe, divine intercession), even the versatility of a fixer and the resourcefulness of his family would not have saved them. Even readers who are generally familiar with the operations of the Final Solution will learn much from Troubled Memory, which embeds the fate of the Skoreckis within the larger context of extermination.
When they realized that their own past had been obliterated, and that they faced not only a virulent Polish anti-Semitism but also the imposition of Communism in their native land, the Skoreckis fled to Bavaria. In 1949 they came as displaced persons to New Orleans, where these New Americans sank new roots, and were gingerly welcomed into the established Jewish community. How they readjusted--and how Anne S. Levy in particular grew up--makes this book more than a narrative of the Holocaust. There is a sequel. The memories were revived in 1991, when Duke, a legislator from the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, defeated an incumbent governor in the Republican primary and threatened to take power in Baton Rouge. The director of the...