Monday, November 3, 2008

Mercy - A Tribute to Jacob G. Rosenberg

Last week Jacob Rosenberg died. I had never encountered this author before coming to Australia. Rosenberg lost his parents and siblings in the Lodz ghetto, and at Aushwitz. he came to Australia in 1948 and lived in Melbourne until his death.

East of Time - a collection of vignettes of life in Poland before and during the Holocaust, was published in 2005, when Rosenberg was already 83. The book won the national biography award. A lot of it makes for harrowing, depressing and difficult reading, its lyricism often strangely at odds with its bleak and tortuous subject matter. Yet his sketches of people - of lives truncated by the calculated violence of the Nazi killing machine and their willing Polish assisstants - are rich and nuanced and evocative - a telling that has to be told and retold. Here are two extracts. One is called On The Slope, and the second is called Mercy:

On The Slope

Time had embarked on a precipitous, irreversible journey, roller-coasting along the brink of a fathomless abyss. A smoul­dering breeze from the west brought evil tidings. Newspapers, radio and the politicians screamed: War is imminent! Yet the government in the land of my birth was more concerned with devoting all its energies to the Jewish question.

One million Jews must go! — to Madagascar, Palestine, Uganda. Janina Prystorowa, a reactionary member of the Senn (the Polish parliament), in conjunction with her colleague, Father Stanislaw Trzeciak, proposed in 1936 that shechita, the ritual kosher slaughter of cattle, contradicted Christian ethics and should be prohibited on the grounds of cruelty.

If this bill became law, argued our city's Kehila, the Jewish council on which the anti-religious Bund (a Jewish trade union) held a majority at the time, it would not only infringe on the religious beliefs of the Jewish communities, but threaten their very livelihood. Clearly, as in all such cases, the whole thing was just another ploy of the anti-Semites, a smokescreen for their devilish intentions. After some deliberations a national strike was proclaimed, a strike that would bring all industry, commerce and education in our country to a total standstill.

I vividly recall the day of the general strike, 17 September 1937. The Jewish quarters were galvanized, and the foreboding whisper of an unbelievable daring, fraught with great danger, hovered in the air. Groups of Bundist militia waited concealed in nooks and shadows, prepared to respond to any provoca­tion, while the mounted police, their presence visible and their bayonets fixed, patrolled the streets, ready to protect the local hooligans.

But as the day negotiated its last traces of light, and evening dropped like an impatient drape, and the slanting dimness of the forest of puffed-out factory chimneys resumed its cheerless eternal vigil, my heart sank. I watched the Bundist militia leave their stations for home, watched the mounted police disperse, and my disappointment was complete. I, the fifteen-year-old revolutionary, felt cheated. The general strike that I had hoped would lead our people to the barricades had fizzled out like a punctured balloon.

Dejected, I made my way home; but on turning a corner I came face to face with a small procession of people carrying a tall wooden cross and shouting slogans into the air. I stopped to watch, and as the cross passed by, one of the zealous mar­chers ripped off my woollen school cap and screamed: 'We'll do to the Jews what they do to our cattle!' He was joined by the others, and they all chanted in unison. 'We'll do to the Jews what they do to our cattle! We'll do to the Jews what they do to our cattle! So help us God!'

And they did.


There was a kind of unreality about my parents friend, the tailor Fishl Binko. He seemed to be driven by a gregarious solitude, the simultaneous need to be in a crowd and to be alone. Fishl was also a great teller of fables - what a pity he never wrote any of them down. I can still remember a few.

A mountain-climber seeking mercy from the winds enters a little hut. The hut is filled with books, and its sole inhabitant, a philosopher sated with years, welcomes him. 'Who are you stranger?' he asks the climber. 'A wanderer sir' the other replies. 'Have you read any books my young wanderer, have you any schooling?' 'No Sir.' 'Then please' begs the old philosopher 'tarry a little. I am in dire need of an honest teacher.'

Fishl was large and imposing of stature, with an olive complexion, and beneath his pitch-black bushy brows, his brown fathomless eyes and his sagging lips, he wore an expression of disenchantment. He had once been a great believer in justice and human decency, but the war, the ghetto, Europe's betrayal of his people, and awareness of our lives' permanent ephemerality - of which he didn't dare to speak, even to his closest, for fear of the very words - had transformed him into a fierce sceptic.

His wife Frumet, whom he had married in 1928, was a willowy woman from a traditional home, and four years his junior. She had an elongated face and rosy but slightly fallen cheeks. Her shiny dark-blond hair parted in the middle made her resemble, I thought, the image of a suffering Madonna, and not without reason. Like the biblical Hannah, Frumer had been plagued with barreness; like Hannah, she had implored God in her wretchedness yto open her womb. It took eight long and tearful years before the almighty in His mercy finally answered her prayers.

Mirka was a beautiful, chubby child; thanks to her parents, even that starving ghetto of ours could not deprive her cheeks of their sweet dimples. As for Frumet, she was content with a few spoons of watery soup; her berad, to its last crumb, was put aside to nourish her growing Mirka, who by the autumn of 1942 was six years old.

When it was proclaimed early in September that all children under the age of ten were to be 'resettled', the whole family went into hiding. On the morning of the 7th, the Jewish police raided the Binkos' apartment. Satisfied with its deadly emptiness, they were about to leave when Mirka, who had been hiding under several layesr of blankets, gave a little cough. Within seconds she was dragged from under the bedding. Fishl jumped to her rescue from his hiding-place but was swiftly knocked out. Then Frumet emerged, pounding away with both fists at the policeman's faces, screaming 'My baby! My baby!'

Shortly afterwards the distraught, demented mother stood like a black hole in time before the ghetto fence. She had no more tears to cry, no voice left to scream with. Just beyond, on the outside, a little girl with a knapsack, holding on to her mother's han, was walking to school; a boy was riding a bicycle; lovers were strolling, smiling, laughing....Of course, all this was an illusion. The only reality was the barbed wire fence, and the guard. 'Take pity, merciful soldier, please", she implored. 'Pull your trigger. Shoot me. Here, right here - right in my miserable heart!'
The guard duly obliged.
At night Fishl, like a sack emptied of ts contents, sat on a low stool in the darkness, with ash on his had. Over and over, he was reciting a passage from the Bible:

Perish the day on which I was born
And the night it was announced
'A male has been conceived!'
May that day be darkness
May God above pay no heed to it;
May no light shine upon it;
May darkness and deep gloom reclaim it;
May a pall lie over it;
May what blackens the day terrify it.
May obscurity carry off that night;
May it not be counted among the days of the year...

So Fishl cursed the day of his birth, his life, his very being. But ghetto legend has it - and most of our legends are so rooted in reality that sometimes it's hard to tell which is which - that one night an angel paid him a visit. 'Fishl', he sai. 'God admits that he sinned against you. He is about to give you a new wife, and three Mirkas. Remember Job?'
'No, no!' the stricken man answered. 'Go back to G0d and tell Him that Fishl Binko is overburdened with His mercies.'
'What do you intend to do' asked the angel, growing uneasy.
'Hang myself.'
'That would be to defy the Master?
'So be it.'
'But Fishl all those who committed suicide in the ghetto are walking around in Hell.'
'That may be true. But their faces are shining.'

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