A Holocaust Family Tragedy

The story of the only child suicide of the Holocaust

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky

Anthony Rudolf has produced a small jewel of a book. He tells a compelling, tragic story that brings the reader close not only to the realities of the Holocaust but also to its impact on the survivors and their children over many years. He sheds light too on the effects of the Holocaust on Jews whose families, like his, had left Eastern Europe generations before and experienced the Shoah at one remove, from the relative safety of London. Rudolf was born in England during the war, and went to City of London School at a time when pupils still searched for relics amid nearby rubble from the Blitz. He had a long, close relationship with his grandfather, who had immigrated to London around 1903 from the Galician town of Stanislawow, now called Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. Stanislawow was some 60 miles from the scene in 1944 in Drohobycz of the core event recounted in Jerzyk.

Before coming to the work itself, it is worth describing the author’s unusual, distinguished professional background. Rudolf had an undemanding day job at the BBC World Service to top up his freelance income. At the time, it was a polyglot centre for a group of intellectuals to whom the shift work gave exceptional freedom to pursue interests which they would have been less able to follow from a university base. It is said that one continuity announcer used the time between his quarter-hourly contributions to translate a 22,795-verse Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala. Rudolf founded a small press, Menard, edited European Judaism, and forged close contacts and friendships with poets, writers, scientists and artists, especially in Israel, the US and France, as well as the UK. They included the already celebrated, the soon to be famous, and the obscure. To some, his translations offered the first access to English-speaking readers. The Menard Press published the first English translation of the poetry of Primo Levi; it provided a forum for the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, Lord Zuckerman, to express his disquiet about nuclear weapons policy. In the early 2000s, Rudolf published work by Dan Plesch bringing to public notice concerns about the 2003 attack on Saddam Hussein which were only later to become accepted among experts.

In his search for authenticity and his willingness to publish literary and political materials by writers which might not be considered commercially viable, Rudolf has been an important innovator and pioneer. This quest has affected his oeuvre in at least two ways: his abiding interest in the art of translation (he has translated works from French, Hebrew, Russian and other languages) and his literary study of the subject of memory. This topic has been followed more avidly in France by critics such as Philippe Lejeune than in the UK. In a previous autobiographical work on his north-west London childhood, The Arithmetic of Memory, Rudolf carefully recorded his re-collection of events and went on to check whether these memories were accurate only after doing this first.

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.”

During his two final months, Jerzyk had started to write a diary. Rudolf published it in 1991 shortly before Jerzyk’s father, Izydor Urman, died. The story did not stop there. Jerzyk’s sister went on to live in Florida. Her mother spent the final years of her life there. After her death in 2003, Jerzyk’s sister discovered among her mother’s papers a second diary. She had written it while still living clandestinely after Jerzyk’s suicide. Rudolf now publishes the mother’s wartime writings alongside her son’s. In addition, he has discovered further documents written long after the war. They not only provide factual information but give insight into how Jerzyk’s death affected his parents in their later lives.

In the father’s case, the relevant document is the record of the interview he gave to Yad Vashem in 1964. The interviewer added a note to record how Jerzyk’s father could not “control his weeping and despair” and had declared himself “incapable of returning to those memories”. The mother attempted to cope in a wholly different way. Around 1985, she wrote an essay for an English-language class on “A wound that does not heal”, followed in 1993, when widowed, by an interview published in the Jerusalem Post. These documents are among those published in Rudolf’s book together with meticulous notes. He also recounts his complex relationship with Jerzyk’s parents: when the father forbade the mother to speak further to Rudolf, the mother contacted him privately at his hotel asking to meet. To ensure the quality of the English versions of the Polish documents, Rudolf commissioned Antonia Lloyd-Jones as the translator.

Rudolf is silent about himself. His role is to give respect by ensuring the survival of the fullest possible record of his dead cousin and of his bereaved parents. By recording documents relating to the same event written over the subsequent half-century, he gives unusual insight into the afterlife of the Holocaust without attempting to argue any thesis. Rudolf does, however, add an intriguing appendix about another cousin, Mark Rothstein, who was killed in a V-2 rocket attack on London in March 1945. This serves to show that Londoners — and, by implication, Rudolf himself — had not been wholly immune from Nazi terror.

Jerzyk is one of the finest books about the Holocaust this reviewer has read in recent years. It stands alongside books such as Samuel Kassow’s Who will write our history?, a study of the Ringelblum archive of the Warsaw ghetto, Barbara Barnett’s The Hide and Seek Children and Dina Gold’s Stolen Legacy (recently republished in an extended version). By contrast, several over-ambitious writings intended as Holocaust bestsellers have been deeply disappointing — opinionated, frequently politically biased, careless with the facts, and tendentious in their theses.

Nor is the tide of such works diminishing. The attack on Holocaust memory comes from varied sources: the attempt to “explain” rather than record, commercialisation, anti-Zionism, German greywashing, trivialisation by Hitler/Stalin equalisation, pro-Zionism. Serious, genuine writings such as Jerzyk are all too rare.

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