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Review: Journeys through the Holocaust
(CNN) -- It's tempting to look back on the Holocaust as a single, albeit colossal, monstrosity. Occasionally, we need to be reminded that the Holocaust was not a discrete event. It was a systematic process of ongoing atrocities, committed over the course of many years in many countries. We also need to be reminded that the oft-repeated statistics of the Holocaust -- the millions of Europeans forced into labor and concentration camps, the millions of Jews murdered -- are computations of individual human miseries. Two new books help translate those numbers into compellingly human terms.
Photojournalist Ruth Gruber was working for the Department of the Interior in the summer of 1944 when she was assigned to escort nearly a thousand European refugees -- most of them Jews -- to the United States. In "Haven," she recounts their journey, and what happened to them once they reached their goal. Architect Benjamin Hirsch was a 6-year-old boy when the Nazis stormed into the Jewish neighborhood of his hometown of Frankfurt, Germany. He witnessed the horror of Kristallnacht and watched Hitler's SS drag his father away. In "Hearing a Different Drummer," he recounts his journey from frightened child fleeing the Holocaust to soldier in the victorious U.S. Army, occupying postwar Germany.
The books, and the stories they tell, are very different. But they share a common purpose. They present the stories of people whose humanity can get lost in the overwhelming magnitude of the Holocaust.
The tenacity of refugees
Gruber reminds us that World War II caused a refugee crisis of staggering proportions in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of "displaced persons" fled Nazi regimes and poured into regions liberated by the Allies. At the time, Congress had imposed very strict limits on the number of people who could enter the United States from any other country in a given year. As a result, very few of Europe's refugees could hope to find a new life in America. In June of 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt devised a way around the immigration quotas. He invited a thousand refugees to stay in the United States until the war ended.
They boarded the Army troop ship Henry Gibbins in Italy, as did Gruber. She spent more than two weeks with them at sea, collecting their personal histories. She notes that the patterns of their flights match the pattern of Nazi expansion through Europe. When Hitler rose in Germany, they fled to Austria. When the Nazis took over Austria, they fled to Czechoslovakia. Then Poland, and France and Belgium and Hungary, and on and on until, at last, they escaped to U.S.-occupied Italy.
On the decks of that ship, Gruber came to admire the tenacity of those who had survived. Some climbed mountains or drifted for weeks in feeble boats. Some hid in cellars, others in monasteries. "Living with them on the ship," she writes, "made me aware that the most indestructible thing in the world is man. He survives the Gestapo, he survives the Vichy French, the Yugoslav Ustachi, the Poles, and the Ukraines, who all helped in the slaughter. He survives hunger and wanderings and crippling torture. These people lived because they scratched and tore and hid and bought false identity papers and never believed in their own death."
The 'golden cage'
They did believe that, once they boarded the ship for America, their suffering was over. They were wrong. They ended up at Fort Ontario, a decommissioned Army base in upstate New York. These people -- many of whom had survived the Nazi camps -- once again found themselves behind barbed wire.
To its credit, the U.S. government tried to make them comfortable. Barracks were converted into small apartments. They were given small allowances for clothing. Private relief organizations provided some amenities and religious groups helped establish places of worship.
None of that changed the fact that the refugees, these guests of Franklin Roosevelt, had to live behind a fence. One woman wrote a play about the camp. She called it "The Golden Cage."
Gruber became a fairly permanent fixture at Fort Ontario. She served as a go-between for the refugees in their dealings with the government. They called her "Mother Ruth." "Haven" reflects her strong emotional ties to the people at the camp. She tells their stories in simple, yet moving terms.
Plotlines from 'M*A*S*H'
"Hearing a Different Drummer," on the other hand, is the story of Hirsch's search for identity. The core of the book details his not-quite two years of service in the U.S. Army. Some of the stories Hirsch tells could have served as plot lines for "Sgt. Bilko" or "M*A*S*H" episodes. He had just completed his second year studying architecture at Georgia Tech when he decided to enlist. He regretted the decision almost at once and spent the rest of his hitch counting the days until he could hang up his uniform.
The stories about Army life contrast sharply with Hirsch's memories of his childhood, and his commitment to remembering victims of the Holocaust later in his life. "I came to this country," he writes, "a forty-three pound, nine-year-old foreigner and a Jew, without any parental support. These were the three most powerful and formative influences on my life in America. ... But, that is another story for another time, perhaps even another book." One hopes that Hirsch will write that book someday. As entertaining as some of his Army stories are, his personal history -- fleeing the Nazis, making his way to a strange place called Atlanta, his dedication to the memories of Holocaust victims -- would make a much more compelling narrative.
Gruber is a more accomplished writer than Hirsch is. "Haven" was first published in 1983, one of 15 books she has written. The new edition includes additional and updated material on what became of the Fort Ontario refugees when the war ended. "Hearing a Different Drummer" is Hirsch's first book, and is not nearly so polished as "Haven." But it has a sort of rough-hewn charm all its own. Both books offer first-person accounts of surviving the Holocaust. That alone makes them worth reading.
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