One trait common to all Holocaust survivors’ accounts are the beginnings and endings. They all start with the shattering of peaceful lives and conclude with lives saved but hearts scarred upon discovering the loss of family, friends, and home. In Holocaust memoirs, then, the beginnings and the endings are more or less predictable; it is the middle part that is without exception different in every survivor’s wartime narrative. Hence every Holocaust survivor’s autobiography is unique.
Michael Kesler begins his story, Shards of War, in his home town of Dubno, Ukraine, which for 400 years had been one of the most important Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. It was also made famous as the birthplace of the charismatic 18th century preacher Jacob Kranz, better known as the Dubner Maggid.
Almost all of the 12,000 Jews in the city were systematically murdered by the Germans. At the war’s end only 300 were left, including those, like Kesler and his sister, Luba, who returned from places in Asiatic Russia like Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, places of refuge for those lucky Jews who trekked eastward during very difficult times.
As they moved into Russia the Germans had a two-pronged war: to subdue and conquer the Russians and to kill the Jews. As for the latter, the Germans’ mission was made much easier because they were helped by the anti-Russian and anti-Semitic Ukrainians, a good number of whom were Volksdeutch, ethnic Germans living in the Ukraine. In fact, as soon as the Germans entered Dubno the local Ukrainians began murdering Jews and looting their property.
In this riveting tale of remembrance, Michael Kesler traces his flight from his family’s home just after the German surprise attack on Russia in late June 1941. The Germans’ swift advance prompts the parents of the 16-year-old Michael and his 19-year-old sister to urge them to flee eastward. At first the youngsters were understandably reluctant to leave their family but the two finally agreed to depart.
During their wanderings, fortunately they find home hospitality with fellow Jews; they suffer the fear and hunger of the siege of Stalingrad, from which they manage to escape. The brother and sister sneak on trains, learning to jump on just as the train is leaving, embarking on journeys that bring them deeper and deeper into the east, to safety, till they finally reach Uzbekistan. Here Michael works first as a veterinary’s assistant and later as a weaver; both he and Luba even manage to learn the Uzbek language.
Among the tales in this book full of adventures is the following: One winter day in the Soviet Union Michael is arrested for taking some planks to heat his freezing room. As is typical in Soviet interrogation he is accused of conspiring with others. But, luckily, before his trial his sister finds him a Jewish lawyer. Michael testifies that he and his sister, a teacher, were promised wood to heat their room but they never received any; the planks did not belong to any one person but were in an outside pile. The judges are sympathetic and Michael is spared prison time by being given a six-month suspended sentence.
Stories like these, with their dramatic content, fine dialogue, and crisp characterization, are paradigmatic of the belletristic qualities of Shards of War, which had me eagerly turning pages to find out what would happen next.
Although with first person survivors’ stories we know the outcome – it is something like watching a movie for the second time – as we read Michael Kesler’s account we are still in suspense, given the twists and turns in his and Luba’s lives until they get to Uzbekistan, where, far from Moscow, the severity of the rigorous communist system is diluted somewhat.
The closeness of the siblings, their love for each other, as if they were one soul, is one of the glories of Shards of War, and it reflects what we have seen in other accounts of wartime survival: When there is another person to share the burden and offer encouragement, advice and hope – whether in a concentration camp or labor force or in flight – the chances for survival are greater.
Indeed, love shines through the book: the love between parents and children, the closeness of kin. Even after the war, in a displaced persons camp, Michael still writes imaginary letters to his “Dear Tatte,” talking to him and telling him what he plans to do and what he has accomplished.
Given Michael’s love for his sister it is no surprise that he dedicated his memoir “To Luba, the hero of this story.” Now in his eighties, Michael had a successful career in the United States after earning a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Both he and Luba raised families and enjoy what, alas, their parents never had, the chance to see their grandchildren growing up and thriving.