At first German- speaking Jews fared better

I Only Wanted to Live; the Struggle of a Boy to Survive the Holocaust by Arie Tamir;  published by Arie Tamir, 2015; translated from the Hebrew by Batya Jerenberg

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel — Some kind of morbid fascination, possibly even masochism, seems to impel me to download and read yet another Holocaust memoir, and this one is a faithful member of its genre – not always well-written but a genuine and authentic account of what it was like to live through that period and emerge more or less intact.

The author was a boy of seven, living a comfortable life in Krakow, one of Poland’s major towns, when the Germans invaded and conquered that country. He and his parents and two sisters, as well as grandparents and various uncles, aunts and cousins, were part of a warm family, living in a cosmopolitan city with a rich social and cultural life. Arie’s parents met at university in Vienna in the 1920s and were perfectly at home in the German language and culture. His father was part owner of a wholesale textile business, supplying fabrics to many stores and factories in and around Krakow. The author points out that the Jews of Krakow did not speak Yiddish, as their co-religionists in the Polish villages did.

Initially the Jews of Krakow were not opressed by the German invaders, and not only was Arie’s father able to continue to manage his business, but even to supply the Germans with fabrics. With the introduction of anti-Semitic laws and restrictions the business was nominally in the hands of his non-Jewish partner, but the family did not suffer privation, even when obliged to leave their large apartment and move into housing designated for Jews. In fact, for some time their neighbours in the apartment block were German military personnel, and a German woman even rented a room in their apartment. The family’s ability to speak German doubtless helped to protect them from the worst excesses of Nazi brutality, at least initially. Arieh writes about his friendship with a German boy of his age, the son of a neighbour who was an officer in the Wehrmacht.

Eventually, however, all the Jews of Krakow were obliged to move to the crowded conditions of the ghetto. Arieh’s family seems to have been able to live in relative comfort, and his description of the way the Jewish children went to improvised schools and played together makes it sound almost idyllic. But little by little the property and possessions of the Jews were appropriated by the Germans, food supplies were restricted, and the deportations to concentration camps began.

Arieh describes how he and other Jewish children would manage to sneak out of the ghetto in order to steal and scrounge food outside, then smuggle it into the ghetto to help their families and earn money. Because of the German occupation and the loss of many lives all over Poland, gangs of street urchins came to be a common sight on the streets of the cities, so that the Jewish children did not arouse undue suspicion. Arie’s father managed to stave off the family’s deportation for some considerable time, during which young Arieh witnessed many ‘actions’ in which Jews were rounded up and deported, often accompanied by displays of sadistic brutality by the German soldiers and their henchmen from various eastern European countries.

Eventually, Arieh managed to escape from the ghetto and was taken in by a non-Jewish Polish family, who treated him well. His father had provided him with money and this enabled him to remain with the family for some time. Eventually, however, he was either discovered or betrayed and was sent to the Plaszow forced labour camp, where he was reunited with his parents and older sister. His three-year-old younger sister had previously been handed over to relatives who had documents enabling them to leave for South America, but instead they were deported to an extermination camp and murdered.

It is amazing to read the details of Arieh’s experiences in the camp, the way he was able, though little more than nine or ten years old, to evade execution and even to find work for which he was paid in extra food rations and sometimes even in money. Luck was obviously part of the explanation, but it seems that he was an intelligent child who developed a heightened awareness of danger as well as the ability to arouse the interest, even affection, of the people around him, also including the occasional German soldier. In this way he managed to survive Plaszow as well as several concentration camps, including Gozen and Mauthausen. His accounts of the way the camps were run and how life was lived there is both harrowing and instructive, and the descriptions he gives constitute important evidence for the record.

Arieh was the only member of his family to survive the camps, despite doing his utmost to enable his father, with whom he endured the camps, to survive. He gives an entertaining account of what happened when he was liberated by American troops and the way he and other Jewish youngsters roamed the Austrian countryside, demanding compensation from the local population, who readily gave them money and valuables. When Arieh was recuperating in an American-run hospital he encountered emissaries from pre-state Israel and was convinced to go there. He landed at Haifa, aged sixteen, just in time to participate in Israel’s War of Independence. He subsequently joined a kibbutz, married and established a family of his own in Israel. It was the trip with his wife, children and grandchildren to Krakow, and the interest they displayed in his family’s history there that moved him to write this memoir.

The book concludes with a chapter of factual notes about the Jews of Krakow, aspects of Jewish community life under Nazi rule and various historic events concerning deportations, ‘actions,’ and resistance. All in all, it constitutes another important plank in the structure that is the history of the Holocaust as experienced by someone who was there in person and whose eye-witness testimony is invaluable for dismissing the lies of those who seek to deny what happened.

*

Shefer-Vanson is an author and freelance writer based in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion.  She may be contacted via [email protected].

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