EDITOR'S CHOICE
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His concern for accuracy and for recording even the most minor detail of the past may appear to be obsessional. Certainly, he refuses in his publications to appeal to lazy readers. Yet it turns out to be a magnificent obsession. In his writings on the Holocaust, it is the expression of awe and respect. It also proves to be far more satisfying than the run-of-the-mill general histories which have been flooding the market for Holocaust literature.

It was a chance remark from an uncle which sparked Rudolf’s search over many subsequent years to discover the details of the fate of a cousin, Jerzyk Urman, who had impulsively and, as his father later saw it, heroically committed suicide on November 13, 1943 when in hiding from the Nazis in Drohobycz. Typically, the matter had not been talked about among his relatives in London but the uncle mentioned it to Rudolf in the 1980s out of the blue. Rudolf travelled to Tel Aviv to speak with Jerzyk’s parents and to Ukraine to see the scene of the tragedy.

Rudolf discovered that Jerzyk’s father, a doctor, had managed to go into hiding in Drohobycz with his family, and his mother secured employment there. It was easier for a woman to maintain a gentile disguise because she did not risk identification as a Jew through circumcision, and in any case Sophia Urman looked Aryan. At the age of ten, when still immured in the Stanislawow ghetto, Jerzyk had been traumatised by the sight of a German gouging out the eye of a Jewish boy with red-hot wire as punishment for smuggling food: “The eye was dangling on the wire.” Jerzyk was determined to avoid a similar fate in the event that the family’s hiding place in Drohobycz, to which they had escaped from the Stanislawow ghetto, was betrayed. His parents — which one of them did it was later to become a point of lasting disagreement — therefore supplied him with a cyanide pill. When Polish-speaking police who had been alerted by neighbours knocked at the door, he swallowed the pill. Using “our hands, spoons and forks”, his parents buried him secretly in a small stable next to the house and hurried to another hiding place. They were fortunate enough to have a former family servant who helped them do this. Jerzyk’s mother, father, grandmother and one of his two uncles were among the small minority of Jews in occupied Ukraine who survived the war. His parents emigrated to Israel with their memories, their guilt and a daughter born in 1945.

Had they been mistaken in supplying their son with a death pill? And which of them had done this? Had Jerzyk’s suicide been the reason why they had then been left undisturbed by the Kripo on that fateful night? In other words, did they owe their own lives to Jerzyk’s death, as his father later stated to an interviewer from the Israel Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem? “My heroic son saved us all. The Kripo-men — and this can be regarded as a miracle — were shocked by the sight of the child’s suicide, and went away. And very oddly, they didn’t come back that night.”

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