Bringing a forgotten book about a murdered community to life

Bringing a forgotten book about a murdered community to life

Henry Lew, an Australian opthalmologist, made it his mission to spearhead a translation of a Yiddish book about a community destroyed by the Holocaust. He’s pictured here with another of his books, “The Five Walking Sticks: The Story of Maurice Brodzky, Investigative Journalist Extraordinaire.” He will speak in Whippany next week. Photos courtesy Henry Lew

Rafael Rajzner’s memoir “The Annihilation of Bialystoker Jewry,” first published in Yiddish by The Bialystoker Centre of Melbourne, in Australia, in 1948, occupies a unique place in Holocaust history. It is one of very few Holocaust memoirs written and published immediately after the war, a time when survivor-victims still suffered severe mental anguish when reminiscing their terrible ordeals. Sufficient time for a degree of healing to occur had not yet passed. These people were also troubled by other pressing demands. They had new families and they often had to learn new languages, in strange foreign countries, in order to work and support their families. They had to think to their children’s futures and try, as best as possible, to put their own past to a side. They couldn’t even tell their children exactly what had happened. It was too painful to do so. These were the stories our parents found too painful to tell.

The reason that Rajzner’s book, unlike others, was largely forgotten, probably relates to his premature death, aged 56 years, in 1953. This was well before the capture of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major architects of Nazi Jewish genocide, in Buenos Aires on May 11, 1960 and the commencement of his subsequent trial in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961. These events generated such enormous worldwide publicity, as a result of the “new television age,” that horrors of the Holocaust were now presented to vast audiences in ways never seen or heard of before. More victims were encouraged to tell their stories, but it often took decades for them to eventually face their ghosts and do so. Rajzner was simply not available to retell his.

In 2001, my father, in his 95th year, told me about this extremely valuable book. “The real importance of his book,” my father said, “lies in the fact that he was a survivor of the ghetto; he was there; he was an eyewitness…. It was Rajzner who told me how most of the members of my own family perished. If it were not for him I probably would never have found out. This book needs to be published in an English edition to allow it to be brought to a new and wider audience. There are many details mentioned in this book that should not be allowed to disappear, particularly in this new era of Holocaust deniers. This could well happen if such books are never translated into English.”

“You would have been the ideal man to translate this book,” I told him. “Your Yiddish is excellent, as is your English, and you have been retired for nearly 30 years.” But as I looked into his eyes I was suddenly aware of a profound sadness entering them. The language would never have been an issue. It was the contents that was the problem, a nightmare for him, and simply too painful to dwell on. It dealt with the destruction of the center of his universe.

I am sure that my father would never have expected me to have been involved in the production of an English edition of Rajzner’s book. It simply would never have occurred to him. He knew that my Yiddish was limited, and that in my wildest dreams I could never have translated a Yiddish book. Indeed during the few remaining months left to him, we never again broached the subject of Rajzner’s book. It was not until after [my father’s] death that I began to ponder the feasability of re-editing Rajzner’s book in English. I was in my father’s house sorting through his library, when I suddenly came across it.

At first I looked for a suitable Yiddish translator. I made inquiries and even went as far as getting a reasonable quote of $12,000 for the job. I also thought about how to finance it. I could either pay for it myself, or I could try to raise the money in pledges, of $500 each, from 24 surviving Bialystokers. I gave some thought to both these options, but in the end neither seemed suitable. So like my father, I pushed all thoughts of Rajzner’s book to one side, and simply got on with the rest of my life.

And then, in a bookshop, I picked up a volume entitled “Outwitting History” by Aaron Lansky. It was subtitled “How a Young Man Rescued a Million Books and Saved a Vanishing Civilization.” This book grabbed me from its very first page. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wishes to experience an incredible read.

It told the story of Aaron Lansky, an 18-year-old first-year student at Hampshire College in Massachusetts who, in 1973, enrolled in a course of “Holocaust Studies.” He came from a secular Jewish family and had never heard Yiddish spoken at home.

Within a short time, Lansky was becoming less interested in the Holocaust as an event, and progressively more interested in the people whom the Holocaust had sought to destroy. He transferred his interest to what he calls “a sociological viewpoint of Jewish history,” a fascination not with Judaism but with Jews. And it soon became obvious to him that if he wished to continue to pursue his journey, he needed to seek out source material. And to do this he needed to learn the language in which this source material was written. He needed to enroll in a course to study Yiddish.

One thing led to another, culminating in the creation of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., a storage point for the collection of unwanted Yiddish books. Today the National Yiddish Book Center is one of the foremost and best known Jewish institutions in the United States. And all this is due to the whim of a dedicated penniless persistent young idealist, truly an example of a miracle in our own times.

I bought “Outwitting History,” took it home, and devoured it in 48 hours. It was inspirational. I immediately e-mailed Aaron Lansky and asked him if he could supply me with a list of names of Yiddish translators. He sent me 59 names. I wrote this letter to each and every one of them:

Dear Sir/Madam, My name is Harry Lew and I am writing to you with a most unusual request. There is a book published in Yiddish, in Melbourne in 1948, by a Holocaust survivor Rafael Rajzner titled “The Annihilation of Bialystoker Jewry.” I want to get this book translated into English, to make it available to a wider audience. I am therefore writing to everyone on the National Yiddish Book Center’s register of prominent Yiddish translators asking for a mitzvah (good deed). If I send you 10 pages of this book would you be kind enough to translate it into English for me? When the whole book is translated I will edit and publish it, mention each contributor, and send each contributor a personal copy to donate to the Holocaust Museum or Library of his or her choice. Please reply to this letter and tell me if you can help me.

Yours sincerely,

Harry Lew

I also approached some local people. Rajzner’s book contained 324 pages. I needed 33 translators.

I got less than the 33 required takers, but at least we had a start. This book would be translated gratis by 22 “righteous human beings” who gave of their hearts. The English translations varied considerably. My job was to try to give them a single voice, to try to create the feeling that the translations had been done by a single person.

To give this book a single voice was not an easy task. Rajzner, himself, is quite variable. Some parts of his book read like a best-selling thriller, other parts are quite parochial. He mentions many people by name who would not normally be considered to be historically significant, the sort of people who might not be mentioned anywhere else. Rajzner might be the only surviving record of their existence. I therefore decided against deleting any of the names. I wanted everyone mentioned in the Yiddish text to appear in the English one. I even added a few more, my grandparents Hersz and Raya Leah Lew; my uncles Fishel Lew and Hillek Basz; and my cousin David Lew, about whose fate Rajzner had informed both my parents way back in 1947.

I made no attempt to upgrade Rajzner’s language, to transform it into high literature. My aim has been simply to recreate this book in English as Rajzner originally intended it to be, a frank eyewitness account of a terrible human tragedy.

This piece was excerpted from the foreword to “The Stories Our Parents Found Too Painful to Tell.”

Dr. Henry Lew will discuss how he brought Rafael Rajzner’s book, “The Annihilation of Bialystoker Jewry,” to life in English as “The Stories Our Parents Found too Painful to Tell” at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 23, at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus, 901 Route 10, Whippany. His talk is being sponsored by the Holocaust Council of MetroWest. Lew will be introduced by Columbia University Prof. Rebecca Kobrin, the author of “Jewish Bialystok And Its Diaspora.”
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