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Gallows Humor

December 3, 2009 By:
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 Why is it that the name Rachmil Bryks is not better known? Granted, he began writing his Holocaust fiction shortly after he left the camps -- that is, a decade or two before the world seemed willing or able to face such matters. And based on the four stories included in A Cat in the Ghetto, published by Persea Books, I can understand why he was not warmly embraced by the public, though he was admired by many of his fellow writers. When he is in his realistic mode, as he is in "Kiddush Hashem," he is unrelenting, forcing readers to face head-on the horrors being perpetrated upon his characters. His detail is thorough and much like what a good historian would employ. And when Bryks is in his so-called "comic" mode, as in "A Cat in the Ghetto," he is more caustic than jolly.

These two stories are actually long enough to be novellas, while the other two tales in this new sampling -- "A Cupboard in the Ghetto" and "Berele in the Ghetto" -- are very different, almost like mere fragments in comparison, but containing much the same vivid writing.

It is clear from the titles of these tales that the author's experiences in the Lodz ghetto during World War II were the most formative of his life. Born in Poland in 1912, Bryks had published a book at age 27, just before the Nazis marched in and imprisoned him in the ghetto.

Despite hunger, disease and the ever-present pall of death that marked life in confinement, Bryks managed to write -- right up until he was deported to Auschwitz and from there to a work camp. Four years after liberation, he moved to New York, where he wrote his novels, stories and poems (in Yiddish) till his death in 1974.

Professor Adam Rovner, who provides an introductory essay to the collection, argues that Bryks' obscurity these days is regrettable because, in his fiction, "he recognized and articulated the aesthetic and spiritual challenges posed by writing Holocaust literature." The author's intent, according to Bryks himself, in the brief essay "My Credo," published here as a preface to these four stories, was "to show to what Nazism can reduce man, yet also to reveal the spark of humanity in him."

Rovner's estimation is that Bryks may rightly be considered "a folklorist of the Khurbn [the Yiddish word for the Holocaust] whose narratives are grounded in everyday details of speech, dress and mannerism. As a number of critics have noted, including Irving Howe and Israeli scholar Dov Sadan, his work is primarily important as testimonial literature. The value of the stories ... resides in the author's unflinching portrayal of the Khurbn, and his unexpected use of humor to depict the Jewish struggle for survival. Much of Bryks's writing reveals this amalgam of social observation, folkloric simplicity and bitter irony. His wry documentary narratives thus serve as important links between the Jewish literature of dislocation produced prior to World War II, the later songs of ghetto performers and feuilletons of ghetto journalists, and the more stylized Yiddish fiction of the Khurbn by such authors as Chava Rosenfarb, Isaiah Spiegel and Ka-Tzetnik (Yehiel [Feiner] De-Nur)."

The title story is a prime example of the author's "comic" style, which begins almost lightheartedly, if such a word can be used in this context; in time, the tale becomes more bitter and biting, its use of irony almost like a weapon. The work begins with the most straightforward announcement of its plot:

"The warehouses of the ghetto of Lodz were overrun by mice wreaking havoc with the food supplies stored there. To plant poison in the warehouses was out of the question because once the mice got hold of it, it could turn up anyplace -- consequently there arose an urgent need for cats. But, alas, there were no cats in the ghetto. The Germans decreed that Jews were forbidden, on pain of death, to own any variety of domestic beast. Simultaneous with the sealing off of the ghetto, Jews had to deliver up all their animals to the Kripo (Kriminal Police), even dogs and cats. And because of the appalling hunger the cats ran away from the ghetto of their own accord. Besides, people ate cats. All of a sudden, a rumor spread through the ghetto: 'Whoever turns in a cat -- gets a two-kilo loaf of bread!'

"No sooner did Jews get wind of this report than everyone's dream turned to catching a cat.

"That's no trifle -- a whole loaf of bread!"

Shloime Zabludovich, the 24-year-old watchman at the dye factory in the ghetto, is told by Mrs. Hershkovitz that she's caught a cat, and they're sticking to their deal. Partners in this cat business, they plan to split the bread down the middle. As the author points out, "That's no small change -- half a loaf!"

Zabludovich sticks the cat in a sack, tells his partner that he'll watch over it all night, and tomorrow morning go and claim their bread. But through a series of mishaps, the duo's "precious" catch decreases in worth until by the end of the next day, the dream of bread and a full belly has evaporated. A story that began almost in farce ends as a terribly bitter "tragedy."

Not for nothing did Isaac Bashevis Singer say of "A Cat in the Ghetto" that it "has a tragic humor unparalleled in world literature." Bryks himself added in "His Credo" that while he was composing the story, he was under the influence of the Bible and Sholom Aleichem in terms of his use of humor and satire. "But my humor and satire is more tragic, more bitter, more full of gall and wormwood, rending the heart, bringing tears."

As Rovner notes in his introductory remarks, Bryks insisted that "his morbid ironies did not misrepresent the Khurbn. ... [E]ven 'in the ghettos and the concentration camps there was humor and ridicule.' He maintains that the existence of such gallows humor, and his duty as an eyewitness, actually require him to write with 'humor and satire.' "

Hoped for the Best

Very different in style and tone is "Kiddush Hashem." For the most part, it is starkly realistic, with almost historical veracity in the details the author draws on about what happened to ghetto inhabitants upon arrival at Auschwitz, especially concerning the fairly immediate fate that awaited so many of them.

The year is 1944, and the author tells us that by that time all the ghettos everywhere else in Europe had been liquidated, but in Lodz, 70,000 Jews still resided, "worn out by slavery and hunger." The majority of these Jews, Bryks notes, were convinced that they were going to survive the war, and so when the Red Army drew near, many were easily persuaded not to wait for the unknown, but to go with their German masters to Vienna, to transport the factories in Lodz one by one. So they entered the cattle cars and hoped for the best.

But, of course, they arrived instead in the madness of Auschwitz. "Outside stretched a double fence of barbed wire upon iron posts. Inside the fence were numerous barracks. On the square, queer people who gave the impression of being mad, moved about. Guardhouses fortified with machine guns stood out prominently. ...

" 'Raus! Raus! Out! Out!' They were being beaten by 'Canadians' -- Jews, old prisoners at Auschwitz who lived through many hells and now (a short spell before being cremated) found themselves in somewhat better circumstances. They wore concentration-camp clothes with blue-white stripes and yellow-red triangular patches (red for political 'transgressions'; yellow for Jewish 'transgressions'). They wore special numbers on their jackets and trousers. Their left arms were also branded with numbers. These people were now unloading the cars. They were called 'Canadians' because they had plenty to eat. The Germans dulled their minds by feeding them opium. They were chasing everyone out of the cars, beating them so that they would leave their things in the cars."

"Kiddush Hashem" may be the opposite of "A Cat in the Ghetto" in tone and manner of presentation, but the bitterness at its core is, sadly, no different.

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