There was a time when I didn’t let a year go by without reading a book on the Holocaust—either a memoir, a history, or some sort of record—that would remind me again of the horrific evil perpetrated against the Jewish people in the 1930s and ’40s.
In the past few years, this habit of mine fell away, and so I was eager to pick up a new title from Yale University Press called In Those Nightmarish Days—a compilation of the journalistic work of two men in Jewish ghettos during the early 1940s. Using the power of their words, Peretz Opoczynski and Josef Zelkowicz sought to paint a dramatic portrait of life in the ghetto.
The Terror in the Jewish Ghetto
Up until this summer, despite having done extensive reading about the Holocaust, I had never given much thought to the ghetto experience that most Jews endured in the months and years before they arrived in concentration camps. I saw the ghettos as a precursor to the real tragedy, the true terror of Auschwitz and Treblinka.
I was wrong.
The ghetto experience was a tragedy in itself. It was much more than preparation for the “final solution,” for it served the purpose of deliberately killing of the Jewish spirit through physical and psychological torture.
What sets apart the ghetto reporting of Opoczynski and Zelkowicz from Holocaust memoirs is that they had no idea of what awaited them in the camps where they perished. They merely sought to document the atrocities, injustices, and eerie sense of “normalcy” that marked life in the ghetto. With these writers, we feel the sense of dread mixed with surprise as the situation gradually worsens.
Portraits of the Victims
We aren’t introduced to the Jewish people through the statistics of how many lived there or how many died (which is sometimes the case in the histories of concentration camps). Instead, we see these people in their everyday life—as parents and children, neighbors and friends. We see the physical toll of starvation. We see the psychological toll of constant encounters with death and dehumanization, a toll that pressured the people to abandon their dignity in order to survive.
Opoczynski introduces us to the Jewish mailman, for example—a postal worker who you’d expect to have a common job, but who, because of the dynamics of the ghetto, can be simultaneously beloved and despised. He has news from afar, but also needs money to pay for his route (and keep enough for his family).
Throughout Opoczynski’s narrative, we see glimmers of hope, with questions like this:
“Will we someday be able to return to our old homes and rebuild them as bright and as neat as they were before the storm?”
Right next to the unflinching look at reality:
“The war knows nothing about kindness, the war doesn’t bother itself with morality. The war teaches you to look after your own skin.” (70)
As the situation worsens and the food supply diminishes, Opoczynski wonders about the future of Jewish children and the collective shame on the populace for not being able to protect the future generation.
“How can Jews, fathers of children themselves, walk into the streets every morning and see dead children on the sidewalks covered with sheets of packing paper—the tiny, frozen feet of the children sticking out from underneath?” (89)
If Apartment Walls Could Talk
Zelkowicz spent time in a different ghetto. For several chapters, we walk from one apartment to the next, learning about the people inside, each family’s stories, trials, and griefs. Zelcowicz’s character portraits communicate a pervasive sense of resignation, with little will left for life in light of the never-ending hunger:
“There are human beings here with mouths that can speak and cry and which nonetheless have chosen to remain silent, choosing resignation just like the flies lazily clinging to the wall until the moment arrives, one morning, when their wings give a final flutter and they fall lifelessly onto the dirty floor.” (138)
A devout Jew tries to place the current tribulation of the ghetto within the overall story of God’s covenant with his people. He wonders if the discipline is from God, in order to prepare for the ingathering of exiles. “I’m someone who’s been happy to be a Jew his entire life, to extend the golden chain begun by our fathers’ fathers another link, to serve the Almighty and await the coming of the Messiah,” he writes. But even his own hope fails:
“What’s the use of waiting for [the Messiah]? He almost never comes, and even then, isn’t he always very, very late?” (172)
When the Terror Explodes
It is difficult to describe the last 120 pages of this book, an extended essay called “In Those Nightmarish Days.” The horror here is worse than any movie I’ve seen, worse than any reality I can imagine. It is as haunting as anything that took place in the concentration camps, perhaps more so due to to the infliction of psychological torture.
First, the hospitals are emptied of people, as the sick are carried away. Zelkowicz refers often to the Old Testament god Moloch, who devoured the innocent and the children. “If they only knew that this Moloch would be satisfied with these victims alone,” he writes (192).
Within days, the situation degenerates, with the news that all children younger than 10 and all the elderly older than 65 will be taken. The overseer of the ghetto, a figurehead who sought to delay this request, stands before the people and says:
“I stretch out my broken, trembling hand to you and I beg you: hand over these sacrifices in order to prevent an even greater sacrifice, to protect a community of over one hundred thousand Jews.” (217)
Of course, those of us reading today know that not even this sacrifice will be enough. Nearly everyone in the ghetto will perish in the concentration camps, as do both of the journalists who give us this inside look. But before those moments take place, we sense the palpable horror as Jewish parents come to grips with the reality that they are about to lose their children.
“And you, Son of Man… feel the noose being tightened around your own throat, and feel your powerlessness as well.” (274)
When the day of reckoning comes, it is as horrifying a scene as you imagine—with random death and carnage everywhere, resisters killed on the spot, a mass of humanity tossed out upon the “altar of Moloch.” Zelkowicz reaches for the worst possible stories and pictures in order to help the reader understand the reality:
“Woe be unto the terrified child who wants to scream out one single word – “Mama!” He’ll only manage to get the “Ma” out of his mouth and will never be able to reach the ‘ma.” A revolver shot will slice the word in two right in his throat. “Ma” will emerge, while ‘ma” will curl up and fall back into his heart, like a bird shot down on the wing.” (251)
Zelcowicz describes the mourning as an immense chorus of shrieking voices, like animals who roar and wail. The grief is as pervasive as the horror. And then the book ends suddenly, with the particular fate of these writers left unknown.
Often in their writings, these two journalists worry future readers won’t believe their tales. They believe the future generations will be incredulous at these unfathomable atrocities. Well, we are here in the future, and we do believe the tales, and we recoil at the evil on display in that dark era.
Here is a book that will make you weep with hope that such an atrocity will never happen again. And as a Christian, it made me long for the return of the Jewish Messiah, the Lion of Judah whose roar will overpower all the wailing in this ravaged world.