Howard Reich interviewing Elie Wiesel

We were perusing the collection of newly released books in Costco the other day, with some of the newest releases selling for as little as $10. I was drawn to several titles but then stopped to think of the books on my desk and one on my night table that I am trying to get through in order to present a few words about them in this space.

With such a plethora of things to read online, it is just plain difficult to find sufficient quiet time to open a book and read at my leisure — without dozing off, I have to add. Though I have to say there is some added pleasure to waking up after a brief nap with a book covering your face or lying on your chest.

By Larry Gordon

So there are three books here. They are all different, but on another level they’re similar to one another. The three all revolve around the events of the Holocaust and its aftermath. It is startling and even amazing that all these decades after the Holocaust, and with all the stories told and retold, there are still new and fresh angles from which we can both remember and analyze the aftershocks of those six years and the national trauma that the Holocaust will always be.

The first book, The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel is by Chicago Tribune reporter and writer Howard Reich. Mr. Reich poignantly tells the story of meetings and sessions that he had with probably the most noted scholar and author on the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel, during the last four years of Mr. Wiesel’s life.

The central purpose of the original meeting between Reich and Wiesel was when the Chicago Tribune was presenting the author with the Chicago Tribune Literary Award back in 2012. It was Mr. Reich’s job to interview Mr. Wiesel on stage as part of the program, and extra meaning was infused into these meetings because Robert Reich, the reporter’s father, was imprisoned during the Holocaust in Buchenwald, the same concentration camp where Elie Wiesel and his father were held during those years.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how during these pre-program sessions in preparation for the awards ceremony, Mr. Reich learned things about his father’s experience as a survivor of Buchenwald that he had not been privy to previously.

I am only about halfway through the book, but I find the author’s observations insightful. A good deal of the subject matter hit home in a personal way. While my mom was born here in the U.S., and my father and his family arrived here from Belarus in 1934, my in-laws’ families were obliterated during the war. Both of them were sole survivors of large families with no sign of anyone remaining.

And like Howard Reich’s parents, they never talked about what happened. Yes, Reich observes, they talked among themselves and their fellow survivors, but in a language that the children did not understand.

Howard Reich writes: “If you are a child of Holocaust survivors the story is always there with you, whether you recognize it or not, acknowledge it or not, discuss it or not. It hovers over you, it follows you. It is up to us, however, whether to try to confront it or not.”

For Mr. Reich, it was kind of too late to deal with this conundrum, as his father passed away in 1991 at the age of 69. It seems that dealing with the silence that accompanies this experience does not require that the parent be living; it is something you can always grapple with.

One of the points made by Mr. Wiesel is that whether one experienced the Holocaust directly or not, we are all, on some level, witnesses to those atrocities. If we were brought up by or lived with survivors who witnessed these horrors, then we, too, are, in effect, witnesses. It is not really news but all these years later we are still discovering what it means to be the second and third generations of Holocaust survivors. Though the distance in time increases, it never really goes away.

Faith Amid The Flames

Yossel Friedenson was a name commonly heard in my home when I was growing up, mostly in telling my father, “Yossel Friedenson is on the phone for you.” Rabbi Friedenson was present at both my bar mitzvah and wedding.

The book cover calls him Reb Yosef Friedenson, but in my mind and memory he will always be Yossel — at least that is how my dad referred to him.

The book, written by his son-in-law, my not-so-old, good friend Yosef Chaim Golding, is written from the perspective of Rabbi Friedenson based on articles and notes written by the rabbi in the course of his lifetime.

The thrust of this book, and indeed the mission of Rabbi Friedenson after the war, was to focus on how Jews during those dark years spiritually resisted their Nazi oppressors, as opposed to the emphasis on the physical resistance of both victims and survivors of the Nazi murderous onslaught. “The secular world lauds the Jews who physically resisted,” he wrote in 2009, “but much greater was the spiritual resistance of those whose faith in Hashem never wavered, even under the most torturous condition.”

Through his accumulated writings, Rabbi Friedenson recounts the determination and perseverance to observe mitzvos like lulav and esrog and even the baking of matzah for Pesach in the Warsaw Ghetto. At a time when we would have thought that dealing exclusively with issues of physical survival would come at the cost of abandoning all of faith and observance, Friedenson reminds and indeed lectures us on the reality that this was not the case during that tragic and devastating period. He writes that there were weddings in the Warsaw Ghetto, even as death hovered over them daily. One of those weddings was his very own.

Rabbi Yossel Friedenson was a survivor who experienced the worst of humanity. But in the aftermath of it all, he did not just survive but managed to thrive. There is so much to unpack about his experiences that are detailed in this volume, so it will all have to be studied over time. More than anything else the book exudes an implicit faith that in a sense is strengthened by our inability to grasp the ways of Hashem, Who, despite the obstacles and difficulties in our paths, is the One we know we can count on.

Citizen 865

This is yet another angle of Holocaust journalism. This is the story of vicious and murderous Nazi executioners who managed to evade U.S. authorities and make their way into this country where they lived for decades undetected. Citizen 865 by Washington, D.C. journalist Debbie Cenziper is subtitled and is about “the hunt for Hitler’s hidden soldiers in America.”

The search for these devils and miscreants was focused on the members of an obscure SS training camp in Trawniki, Poland, who helped the SS murder 1.7 million Jews. The U.S. Office of Special Investigations would eventually identify a dozen men who were hiding in plain sight in cities and suburbs across America, including Miami, Chicago, and New York. One of those people was Jakob Reimer — Citizen 865 — found living in Mount Carmel, New York.

The Trawniki men were expertly trained in mass murder, armed and empowered by the Third Reich. The author also interviewed two Jews from Lublin, Poland, which was one of the areas where they perpetrated most of their treacherous acts of murder. As it turns out, these two Jewish survivors lived nearby to those who once hunted them and wanted very much to kill them. Fascinatingly, they lived near one another in peace and harmony for nearly five decades before the Nazis were discovered.

This is an important dimension of the aftermath of the Holocaust and the obligation we all have to see to it that we support the effort to bring these men to justice. This is one book I will make certain to read carefully.

As I was finishing this piece on Wednesday morning, a box arrived in the mail that looked like it had a box inside. And it did. It contained The Jews Should Keep Quiet, by Rafael Medoff. As you can tell by the title — and I did not even read the comments on the jacket cover yet — this is another of what seems like endless ways to view the cataclysmic event known forever as the Holocaust.

This is about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s odd policy and behavior when it came to the possibility of saving Jews during the Holocaust. President Roosevelt could have done more — much more. The point is that he didn’t. But the question is: Why?

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