Tag Archives: Jewish history

Book Diva Review: The Gates of November

the gates Chaim Potok’s “The Gates of November” is an extremely intense non-fiction book, written about a Jewish family. The book delves into the father/son relationship that Potok is well known for in his books. Taken from interviews with family members and friends, the book is an extremely detailed account of the social stratum, survival as Jews in antisemitic Russia, and family bonds.

Solomon Slepak is an old-school Russian Jew, a diehard Bolshevik. He became a Marxist when he emigrated to the America, and then returned to the Soviet Union. He was a stubborn and difficult man, and became a staunch and renowned Communist Party member, despite the fact that he was Jewish. Solomon Slepak resists the ideals of his son, Volodya, who is a “refusenik”, and basically disowns him.

Volodya sees what is occurring in the Soviet Union and wants no part of it. He wants to take his wife and two sons and emigrate to Israel. Thus he begins the process of paperwork and documentation. His bid to emigrate is refused, and he and his wife, Masha, become activists, working to try to help other Jews who are refused permission to emigrate, under Josef Stalin’s relentless rule.

Due to his activities, he is sent to a remote part of Siberia, where the conditions take their toll on his health. Masha asks for permission to be with him, and is granted such. He is exiled for over five years, under the harshest of conditions, not only weather, but food and daily sustenance and necessities (this articulation is putting it mildly).

Once he returns home, he tries to seek work, and finds menial jobs here and there, that don’t last for any length of time. He applies for permission to emigrate, once again. The process drags on for years, and we are given an overview of the social, political and diplomatic events and results during the years that go by, while he waits for a positive outcome.

I could articulate more on “The Gates of November“, but I suggest you read it yourself in order to grasp the depth of the story. “The Gates of November” is quite extreme in detail Potok has shown us the degrees people will go to in order to manipulate others by leaving out none of the horrible events or descriptive word images.

Potok
infuses the intensity of the time period under Josef Stalin’s rule, he details the depth of life under the most adverse and harshest of circumstances within the confines of the brutal Stalin reign. His book is based on personal accounts, taped and written interviews, videos, etc., in order to bring exactness to “The Gates of November“. It is not an easy book to read, due to the brutally detailed circumstances and events. But it is a book most definitely worth reading, not only in comprehending the historical aspect regarding Jews under Soviet rule, but for the ongoing father/son relationship and family dynamics that Chaim Potok always manages to write so brilliantly about.

The Gates of November” is a masterful telling of Jewish familial life and dynamics under extreme social circumstances. It is both horrific and inspirational, and brings to the forefront the degrees of determination people have in order to obtain their goals. I highly recommend this compelling book to everyone.

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Book Diva Review: Rutka’s Notebook

Rutka’s Notebook, A Voice From the Holocaust“, is a personal accounting, taken from the diary of Rutka Laskier, a Polish teenager. She wrote her diary beginning at the age of 14, and it spans approximately three months of her life, beginning January 19, 1943.

Rutka describes, in depth, her fluctuating emotions during the time period, and her diary reflects the ups and downs, the roller coaster of emotions, that most teenagers feel. From typical feelings of love and jealousy, to familial discontent, to the German occupation, Rutka defines life during the Holocaust through her eyes and voice. Yet, those emotions and her thoughts are coupled with the fact that she is astutely aware of the Holocaust and its ramifications to humanity. Rutka’s writing gives voice and witness to the realities of the Holocaust.

Rutka wrote her thoughts and emotions in her diary, and told her non-Jewish friend, Stanislawa Sapinska, to find it and save it, if and when, Rutka and her family were moved from their apartment in Bedzin to the Ghetto, or if they were deported. There was a predetermined hiding spot.

After the war ended, Sapinska returned to the apartment, and located the diary. She held on to it for sixty years. Sapinska’s family convinced her to show its existence.

Rutka articulates her thoughts and emotions like that of a more mature person, and not that of a young teenager. She is aware of the consequences that could occur, and is aware of the brutality of war, having witnessed some horrors within the confines of daily living.

I recommend this historical book to everyone, young or old, alike. “Rutka’s Notebook: A Voice From the Holocaust” is an amazing accounting of daily life, of the struggles and fears lived every hour of each day, and of the knowledge that one may not live to see the end of war. It is a testament to her strength and willpower, that Rutka Laskier had the foresight to want her diary preserved for the world to see. She wanted the truth to be told. It should be on a bookshelf in every school classroom, not only for its extreme historical value, but also so that Rutka Laskier’s life will not be forgotten in the time continuum.

The introduction was written by Rutka Laskier’s half-sister, Zahava (Laskier) Scherz. A family biography at the end of the diary, itself, was also written by Scherz.

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Book Diva Review – Somewhere a Master

Somewhere a Master: Hasidic Portraits and Legends is one of Elie Wiesel’s wonderfu and intensel books filled with stories of legendary Hasidic Masters.

   Each individual, was a sage in their own right, and each one brought a depth of illumination into the ideals, practices, and the joy received within spiritual practice. The Talmud was an integral force in Hasidic Judaism. There came a point when some felt it was important to expand spirituality’s horizons and the tales, fables and stories brought comfort to followers of the sages. In Somewhere a Master, Elie Wiesel details, in vivid paintings, the compelling stories of these individuals, and their contribution in bringing happiness and song into the lives of Russian, Lithuanian, Polish and Ukrainian Jews during the dark and desperate times.

Times were harsh, filled with depression and despair, and persecution of Jews. Lives and families were uprooted, throughout the landscape of Eastern Europe. There seemed to be no escape from the devastation and cruelty.

The sages, legendary teachers, saw the necessity for escapism, and the need for happiness to be a primary facet in the lives of their followers. They chose to tell their tales, spread their teachings through joyous stories and participation. They wanted to uplift the poor, down-trodden, the despairing, and the poverty-stricken within their realm.

Rebbe Pinhas of Koretz chose to stand on the sidelines of Hasidism, yet his message was a strong one within his peers. He believed that “A good story in Hasidism is not about miracles, but about friendship and hope – the greatest miracles of all“.

Rebbe Ahron of Karlin was a legend in his own time, fighting until the end to escape through the melancholy into a state of joy. He, too, believed in deep friendship, and “he would like every Hasid to spend one hour a day with a friend – and confide in him“.

From the self-sacrificing Wolfe of Zbarazh, to the beautiful stories of Barukh of Medzibozh and his love of the Song of Songs, each master is compelling, and their stories can apply in today’s world. Their words are life lessons, lessons on joy, love, caring, selflessness, and finding happiness in a world overcome with darkness. Each individual illuminates and sparkles throughout the landscape, and within confines of isolation. Their auras flow over geographical boundaries and constraints, spreading warmth in the hearts and souls of those who needed caring and comfort.

Reb Moshe-Leib of Sassov was possessed with ecstasy and warmth, and it radiated through to everyone around him. The Holy Seer of Lublin (Rebbe Yaakov-Yitzhak Horowitz) was influential, charismatic, and nobody seemed to have the will to resist his stare. While Rebbe Meir of Premishlam despised poverty, and he prayed for monetary fullfilment. “Why shouldn’t I pray for money for my Jews?” he once asked.” On and on, the statements and the stories go.

Many of these sages understood melancholy, as they were affected by it, themselves. Silence was a big part of their lives. Prayer was a major force in what determined their standing in the Jewish community with their peers and followers. Each one thought about not only life, but death, and what it would mean to die. They worried about where they would be in the scheme of death. Yet they overcame their own depressions and melancholy and brought joy and light to those in need of an escape from the harsh realities of life during tumultuous times, including the Holocaust.

Elie Wiesel has brought us another masterful book of portraits of Jewish masters, sages, and teachers, each with their own stories, each with their own perceptions of what it is to be in a joyous state. Each one speaks about the spiritual aspect of life, not only depicting words of the Talmud, but verbal stories and tales that those before them could believe in, and bring home and retell in moments of despair, loss and sadness. When injustice and cruelty reigned, the sages brought a sense of peace to those filled with anguish. Somewhere a Master:  Hasidic Portraits and Legends is an incredible book, filled with compassion, love and kindness, and infused with lessons we can carry with us within the context of modern times and current events. It is as compelling as it is filled with loveliness.  Written masterfully, as only Elie Wiesel can write.

In the Afterword Elie Wiesel writes: “Such is the power their legends; their intensity, their beauty stay with you and involve you – almost against your will, almost against your better judgment.” I find this statement to be extremely profound in its truth.
I highly recommend Somewhere a Master:  Hasidic Portraits and Legends to everyone.

Copyright 2012, L.M. No permission is given to reproduce, copy or use my writings or photographs in any manner.

 

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The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman is an amazing book on so many levels. From incredible word-images, to profound scenarios, Ackerman takes us on a journey through Warsaw, Poland, through the eyes of two zookeepers, Jan and Antonina Zabrinski. Jan was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina was his wife.

It is an incredible story of fortitude and strength, love of animals (large and tiny) and love of humanity. The Zabinskis felt that every organism, no matter how minute, was a part of the scheme of the earth and universe. This attitude prompted them to take the course of action that they did. The force involved in Jan and Antonina’s acts of human kindness are not only conceived out of circumstance, but out of their almost innate necessity to save Jewish individuals in WWII Warsaw. They were not Jewish, in fact Jan declared himself an atheist, and Antonina was a Catholic. They knew the risks they were taking, but chose to help others at the expense of not only their lives, but their young son’s life, and their newborn daughter’s life. Jan and Antonina had a deep respect and devotion to caring for life, in all of its forms, from the most minute insect, bit of algae or moss, to the largest of animals, including their favorite lynxes.

It was this devotion, their ideals and values for what constitutes life and its worth, and their moral code, which consumed their every thought and emotion during World War II. This innate passion for saving life, turned their villa and the zoo into a refuge, for animals that you wouldn’t expect to find in a zoo setting. This is true account is one of many unusual stories to come out of World War II.  Antonina played a large role while Jan was off at war, and when he was imprisoned, in continuing to keep the Jews and partisans hidden. Through journals, articles, and historical documentation, the author has written the Zabrinksi’s unique Holocaust story, from their extremely unusual perspective.

The author had access to Antonina’s diary, and has infused the pages with direct quotes from it. It was a barbarous time period, and the brutality and harshness is reflected quite well within the book. The word imagery is strong, and it is sometimes difficult to discern where Antonina began, and where Ackerman evokes her own telling. Nonetheless, the book is factual, within its poetic aspects. Some details are sweetened, mainly pertaining to the people, animals and their lives within the confines of the villa. The author infuses some of her own thoughts, blending them with Antonina’s (she, herself states this) The Holocaust itself, and atrocious events and occurrences are not sugared in any aspect. The entire family is portrayed in the book.

The zoo and the villa become a human menagerie, no let me say they become a menagerie for both humans and other life forms, tiny to huge. It was like a Noah’s Ark. Each with their own respective and unique personality, each with their own needs and strengths, adapting within unique surroundings and under difficult circumstances. All life forms in the villa live together in a carnival and tour de farce environment, yet live in harmony. The Zookeeper’s Wife chronicles human and animals, and their lives within the confines of the Holocaust and war-torn Poland like it has never been documented before.

The heroine’s actions are vividly demonstrated throughout the book, Antonina’s almost innate sense of not only caring for the animals in the zoo, but getting into their minds, and reading their thoughts, sparked her passion for the value of life, the worth of all animals, small to great, that encouraged her in her endeavors to shelter almost 300 Jews in the zoo, within the confines of barred cages, underground passages, huts, secret hiding places in her villa, etc. Any place she could conceive of as a dwelling for hiding Jews, became one. Any disguise thought of was utilized for the Jews, whether it be aunt, uncle, or other visiting relatives and friends, ruses were created.

Antonina’s story, taken from her journal is captivating, poignant, intriguing, humorous, tear-jerker material, and compelling as no other story you have read. Ackerman’s story, which surrounds Antonina’s, is poetic prose, a weaving of lives. She is often seems long-winded in her descriptions and word images, but once you get past them, you realize there is a purpose behind the prose. Ackerman wrote this way for a reason, and it isn’t necessarily apparent in the beginning.

The Zookeeper’s Wife often reads like a beautiful prose-poem, of breathtaking writing and astounding imagery seeping through the pages. Ackerman is brilliant in not only her prose, but also in the scientific aspect of the animal kingdom. She sometimes rambles on regarding various species (much like I have rambled in this review), but in the end, it is for a reason, and coincides with the humans and their own stories of survival. She compares and contrasts humans and their evolution with animals.

He was intrigued with being able to control the fate of producing animals with excellent traits, and animals of purity, through mating, reproducing, etc., until he produced the perfect example. He used eugenics in his experiments (breeding animals with specific traits). The love of magical and mythical animals enthralled the Nazis. Those animals were elevated in status.

Animals are almost humanized in the Nazi world, and of course the humans, the Jews, are thought of and treated as less than impure animals by the Nazis. Experiments performed on Jews were abundant. From brain surgery to agonizing and tortuous experiments, the Jews were tools utilized. One has to read carefully in order to perceive what Ackerman is trying to accomplish.

Jews, the Polish resistance, the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, and then the Warsaw uprising of 1944, we are given a look at Warsaw daily life during the Nazi occupation, both the willing “prisoner’s and caged humans, and the unwilling Jews in prison camps. Life in the ghetto is depicted frankly and truthfully. The horrid and unsanitary conditions are explored and painted.

The perspective is almost incomparable, and the historical facts and documentations are gleaned from newspapers, witness accounts, Survivor stories, scientific research, and from Antonina’s diary, her incredible diary.  Within the pages humor is reflected within living arrangements and lives inhabited within the confines. Man and animal live together, eat together, sleep together. Lives are saved by courageous and empathetic individuals.  At times the book can be difficult to follow, and I found myself rereading excerpts due to the fluidity.  Overall, Diane Ackerman weaves the tapestries together with excellence. Both the scientific and historic aspects work well together, and The Zookeeper’s Wife is brilliant in its illumination of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, their moral code, and their courage to save lives despite risking their own lives. The story binds the threads of an unusual perspective in this amazing Holocaust telling. What an accomplishment! Bravo!

Jan and Antonina Zabinski are honored by Yad Vashem’s The Righteous Among the Nations.

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