Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Boy's Journey Through The Holocaust

Bread, Butter, and Sugar:
A Boy's Journey Through the Holocaust
Martin Schiller

Hamilton Books
94 pages. $25


Does the world need another memoir of the Holocaust?

No doubt Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mullahs in Cairo, and various haters around the world would insist that Fairfield electrical engineer Martin Schiller made this one up, and of course they wouldn't read it anyway.

But Schiller's memoir is too calm and prosaic to be considered as anything but the best recollection of someone whose boyhood at age 6 suddenly turned into a desperate and years-long struggle for mere survival, a struggle that came to include a few miracles.

When World War II began in Europe in 1939, Schiller, who is now in his 70s, lived simply with his family in the small and mostly Jewish town of Tarnobrzeg in southeastern Poland, where, before the world exploded, a slice of bread with butter and sugar was his beloved bedtime snack.

Three years later the occupying Germans deported Schiller and his family and other nearby Jews to the Skarzysko labor camp in central Poland, where Schiller was separated from his mother and father. Before long his father was shot, and his mother and brother were only moments away from being shot as well when Schiller improbably rescued them.

Despite his young age and small size, Schiller had acquired extraordinary skill in operating metal-working machinery that made explosive shells. His skill came to be grudgingly admired by his SS guards, so when, one day, Schiller learned that his mother and brother had just been taken away with a group of other prisoners to be murdered, he summoned the last of his great courage, dropped his work, rushed to his SS overseer, and demanded help in saving his mother and brother. Ordinarily the overseer might have shot on the spot any prisoner so impertinent.

But instead the overseer drove Schiller to the firing line and allowed him to pick his mother and brother out just a moment before they would have been shot with the others.

As Germany's eastern front collapsed under the Soviet Union's assault in 1944, Schiller, his mother and brother, and the other prisoners of Skarzysko were shipped west by boxcar into Germany. Schiller and his brother ended up at the Buchenwald labor and murder camp, their mother being sent to a camp for women. The journey was horrific and yet the boys somehow survived even as many of the adults around them died of exhaustion, thirst, starvation, and disease. Among those who died on the train was an educated man nicknamed Jacob the Learned, whose last words enjoined his compatriots as the last words of so many other victims of the Nazi horror did:

"Whoever survives must make it his duty to tell the world what happened here."

Schiller survived Buchenwald because a German political prisoner who helped supervise the barracks assigned him to one for Russian prisoners of war where conditions were a little better than conditions for Jews. But there were always summary executions at Buchenwald; any prisoner could be picked out for murder just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So Schiller learned how to make himself even smaller.

He also quickly picked up the Russian language, which served him well when the U.S. Army liberated Buchenwald in April 1945 and he and his brother undertook to cross into the Russian zone of Germany to look for their mother, who, they learned, had survived at that other camp.

Their journey seems like madness -- two boys in tattered clothing walking, hitching rides, hopping freight trains, and begging food across a ruined and bitter nation that had just tried to destroy them. But through happy coincidence they found their mother as soon as they got to the town where they had been told she was staying. Then they all found enough sanctuary in displaced persons camps until relatives in the United States located them and arranged their immigration.

This is a short and matter-of-fact book and yet it tells a gripping story -- among the last such stories that will be told from direct experience, since the last of the survivors of the Holocaust are dying off. Even readers familiar with these stories may thank Schiller for telling this one in time, and Jacob the Learned for compelling him to.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.

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