Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review
Bondage To The Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust by Michael Steinlauf
Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1997
189 pp. $ 16.95
It is a tradition at Passover Seders I attend to sing “Zog nisht keynmol” (“Don’t Ever Say,”), the Yiddish anthem of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis, when the poorly armed, starving remnant of Warsaw’s Jewry held off German troops for a month before the Ghetto was razed entirely. We were singing this, as is the custom, several years ago, when the rendition was transformed, made unforgettable for me, by the presence among us of someone who had seen the Ghetto burn.
As a boy, Jurek joined onlookers on the Aryan side, watching in pain, knowing, without knowing why, that a part of him was burning behind the wall. Jurek was a Jew — though he did not know it at the time — whose mother, in an act of what he called “shamanistic foresight,” deposited him in a monastery several years before the war broke out. By the time of this seder, he had long since been aware of his origins, which is not to say the process of reconciling Jew and Pole was — if it ever would be — complete. I found myself caught in the machinery of reconciliation when I made a careless, accusatory remark about the role of Poles in the Holocaust to which Jurek, moved as he had been by hearing the song of the Warsaw Ghetto sung in Massachusetts, nevertheless took immediate exception.