Today, I played mental hooky and finished Survival Artist: A Memoir of the Holocaust, written by Eugene Bergman (2009, McFarland). A Jew born in Poznan, he was nine years old when the war started in 1939. About surviving three ghettos—Łódź, Warsaw, and Częstochowa—and two years on the “Aryan side” he says, “I am not such a hotshot survival artist. If I have survived those sinister wartime years it was owing more to luck than to pluck” (p. 183). Still, to have survived at all, even after a German officer beat him with the butt of his rifle causing him to go deaf, required pluck as well as luck.
Every memoir helps reveal more facets of Jewish life (and death) in Poland. What stands out to me about this one is the way it shows the diversity of prewar Jewish culture, and the continued effects of those differences during the war. Poznan Jews generally had resources that helped them survive, particularly the fact that they were more integrated into Polish society; they were more secular, wore contemporary clothes and hairstyles, and spoke good Polish (or German). Bergman emphasizes his father’s business acumen, as well—a prewar fabric store owner, he supported the family by buying and selling whatever he could throughout the war. Further, he describes the family’s ability to “pass” through less tangible attitudes and behaviors. Instead of displaying fear in front of Germans (or Poles) they were bold, looking them in the eyes or ignoring them as the situation demanded.
This is interesting to me as a cultural anthropologist because they were able to embody the unmarked characteristics that tended to set non-Jews apart from Jews, and to shed the characteristics that made Jews targets. In many cases, these subtle cues were the only things that distinguished Jews and Catholic Poles. Bergman’s ability to embody that other identity is where I see his pluck. It reminds me of another fascinating memoir, Robert Melson’s False Papers: Deception and Survival in the Holocaust (2005, University of Illinois Press), also written by a child survivor on the Aryan side. Melson’s parents demonstrated “chutzpah and bravado” not only by taking on Catholic Polish identities, but also by claiming to belong to the noble Zamoyski family.
I was fortunate enough to meet Bob Melson when I was first embarking on this journey to uncover my own Jewish heritage. As a person, he stuck me as instantly familiar, as if he could have been my uncle. I think I was reading in him some of those same embodied ways of being I associate with my mom’s family–intellectual, refined, and Polish. But a particular kind of Polish. My family masked their Jewishness in a way that Melson hasn’t since the war ended, but I think what I recognized was a shared heritage, a particular version comprising both Jewish and Polish accents.