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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2005
Number 63
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Affirming Life

My War: Memoir of a Young Jewish Poet by Edward Stankiewicz. Syracuse University Press.
A Review Essay by Daniel Grossberg

My War: Memoir of a Young Jewish Poet is a personal account of the experiences of Edward Stankiewicz in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. The remove of almost 60 years allows Stankiewicz, in a period of calm, to recollect and recount in a clear and measured prose, the stormy events of his youthful life. Although, the darkest powers of evil worked to strip him and millions of others — first, of their humanity and secondly, of their life — Stankiewicz did not succumb. We can never know what accounted for his success in withstanding the forces of dehumanization and death. At the end of the memoir, after the Liberation, the author explains a positive turn of events this way: “…in this world of accidents, a lucky break came once more.” Despite this expression of the dispiriting notion of happenstance governing life and death issues, Memoir of A Young Jewish Poet is a life-affirming document that raises lofty ideas.

Stankiewicz was on the run from the Nazis but managed to meet with Yiddish, Polish and Soviet poets and writers. Even as he sought refuge in Soviet-occupied Lwow, he contrived to join the Lwow Literary Club. The cultivation of his intellect under such grim circumstances was all but obsessive on his part. After the German occupation of Lwow, his artistic gifts made it possible for him to produce believable forgeries of German documents and papers to help people escape. Soon it was necessary for him to flee. Clad in a German uniform, he escaped to Eastern Ukraine and evaded capture for several months. In time, however, he was discovered and shipped to Buchenwald. Even in the hell of this concentration camp, he read whatever books he chanced upon, and managed to write poetry, a play and he even painted — all clandestinely and at great danger to his life, if detected. Furthermore, during these tortured times, he sought out others of a like mind and spirit and surreptitiously discussed philosophical ideas and books with them.

The reader is struck by the rich natural endowments of this man. During the Holocaust years, Edward Stankiewicz was an intelligent, artistic man with an irrepressible spirit and, to judge by the style of the memoir, he retains these personal traits and qualities to this day. It is difficult not to consider the role his personal traits played in his success at defying the fate that met so many other Polish Jews during the Nazi years.

During the war years, his pursuit of intellectual interests and the engagement of his creative talents never let up. Stankiewicz writes in the chapter of the memoir entitled “The Library”:  “… I had no earthly possessions. All I carried with me was a book I had borrowed from the Buchenwald library. My discovery of the library was like a new lease on life. ... The books were a reminder of a world that, though violated and bruised, was still one of beauty and wonder, and that, should we survive, we would still try to reclaim and enjoy. In reality, I was not thinking much of the future; the books were there and I wanted to read them, just as one wants to eat and sleep.” [P. 95]

His compulsive reading is no mere escapist attempt to flee the immediate Nazi horrors by taking refuge in an imaginary world of ideas. The ideas of the intellect were for Stankiewicz very real and compelling. Nevertheless, they did not delude him. He remained throughout, fully cognizant of the “violated and bruised” world surrounding him. The intellectual pursuits did not obliterate the grim external reality, but rather fostered in him the notion of “a world of beauty and wonder” that he might one day reclaim and enjoy. The author cultivated matters of the spirit, not in order to better bear the unbearable — although, indeed, his engagement with ideas made life more tolerable — but rather because he could not help but engage his mind this way. As he asserts, “… the books were there and I wanted to read them, just as one wants to eat and sleep.” [P. 95]

Elsewhere in the memoir, Stankiewicz recalls finding a book on the history of art that he read hungrily, remembering the various ideas advanced by the author. Later, upon learning that a fellow Buchenwald inmate was a professor of philosophy, Stankiewicz writes: “I turned to him with all sorts of questions generated by my reading ... .” And: “Under his tutelage I got into a book that stayed with me for some time.” The matter-of-fact recounting of this man’s activities makes Buchenwald seem, albeit for only some fleeting moments, more a literary salon than the infamous Nazi concentration camp we know it to have been.

The author is quoted as saying at a recent celebration of the publication of this memoir: “A friend of mine once credited my ingenuity for my survival. I said, ‘I possessed two abilities — I could write poetry and I could paint — and these certainly helped me at times.’ But so many outstanding writers, poets and painters died. Four million Polish Jews died and about 20 million Russians, maybe more. I am alive because of luck — bloody luck.”  Is his a world of chance and nothing more?  Were just accidents and lucky breaks responsible for his withstanding the forces of dehumanization and death? Alas, we will never know. The memoir can offer no satisfying answer to these questions, but it does teach life-lessons of another sort.

The memoir teaches invaluable lessons not about physical existence, but about human values. The account of this man and the life-affirming qualities of art and reason that his life illumines are inspirational. Even as a victim of the darkest machinations of evildoers, the memoirist did not suspend his intellectual and artistic activities nor his craving for engagement of his intellect and artistic talents. The powers of oppression were mighty, but not enough to still this man’s inquiring mind and creative imagination. The memoir is not, therefore, a harangue against the Nazi monsters, nor a railing at a nihilistic world. My War: Memoir of a Young Jewish Poet is a celebration of the liberating and ennobling power of the mind and spirit.

Daniel Grossberg is Associate Professor in the Judaic Studies Department and Director of the Hebrew Program at the University of Albany, State University of New York.

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