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Sometimes It's Best to Let Ghosts Lie Still

January 22, 2009 By:
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Publishers can be shameless when it comes to trying to capitalize on a trend or a fad; and they can be particularly shameless promoters when it comes to taking advantage of the Jewish world's deep and abiding interest in the Holocaust. In the case of two recent books -- The Diary of Petr Ginz 1941-1942, just reissued in paper by Grove/Atlantic, and Harvest of Blossoms, out from Northwestern University Press -- everyone involved before the manuscripts went searching for a publisher seems to have had only the best of intentions.

And it's not that both projects haven't been executed in book form with immeasurable taste and appropriate reverence. The problem, in the end, is that far too much has been made of both works, in matters of packaging and promotion, so that the poor, unfortunate children at the center of these endeavors -- long ago, having fallen victim to the Nazis -- seem to have been taken advantage of yet again.

It's not that the stories that are told in these brief books aren't without interest and a measure of fascination, even -- the tale of the short life of Petr Ginz particularly so. The precocious young man was just 13 years old when the Nazis began tightening their hold on his hometown of Prague -- and he began to keep a diary (the finalized book actually draws from two different volumes that Petr kept in the early 1940s before he was taken to Theresienstadt, the infamous Czech camp north of Prague).

The diary is what fills the central portion of this book, though also included are poems, drawings and paintings that Petr continued to do even when he was in Theresienstadt (since it was the Nazi "show camp," it became known for the artistic productivity of its inmates). In fact, Petr was the mastermind behind the famous, secret weekly magazine in the camp known as Vedem ("We Lead").

As for Petr's diary entries -- though he reacts, here and there, often almost as an aside, to certain distressing things occurring around him in Prague -- they are little more than jottings, the observations and reflections of a child. Here are a few representative ones:

30. IX. 1941 (Tuesday)
Quite cold all day.
Morning at home, afternoon in school.

30. XII. 1941 (Tuesday)
In the morning at Grandma's and in town.
Grandma received a goose and is therefore very happy.
In the afternoon I went for a walk.

5. III. 1942 (Thursday)
In the afternoon I was in town and at the dental ambulatory clinic ... , because of the abscess that has been forming on my gums for a long time now.
In the afternoon at home.

There are longer and more pointed entries, telling about official decrees and ordinances that begin to pinch and cramp the life of the Ginz family, constricting it day by day, until the final blow falls. But, for the most part, the quoted passages are what we find throughout this very brief document.

And yet the publisher felt compelled to make comparisons. We've found the new Anne Frank, they trumpeted, when this work is nothing remotely like it.

In fact, everything else in this book -- the story of how it was found, related by Petr's sister, Chava Pressburger, who survived the war; his drawings in particular; his obvious and remarkable intelligence; and all this child's shining promise so clearly on display throughout -- is what is remarkable. The diary is an interesting subset to it all, but the minute you start making comparisons -- and especially to Anne Frank -- you do Petr and his sister and the memory of their family a disservice.

As for Harvest of Blossoms, it contains the poetry by Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, who was born in Czernowitz, Romania (now part of Ukraine and the home of the great Holocaust poet Paul Celan, who was a cousin of this young woman). She began seriously writing when she was 15 years old, but died of typhus three years later (on Dec. 16, 1942) in the labor camp known as Michailowka, also in Ukraine.

Grand claims are also made for the poetry, though, in reality, it is juvenilia at best -- and not all that promising. Yet we are told that this collection of verse "will join Anne Frank's diary as a poignant reminder of what the world lost in the wake of the Holocaust."

Again, the story of how these poems were discovered is far more interesting than any single piece of verse. Before she was sent to Michailowka, Selma gathered her poems together and gave them to her boyfriend, Leiser Fichman. Somehow, he kept them safe, even in a Romanian labor camp. They were passed from hand to hand in war-torn Europe and then on into Palestine, until a selection of them was published by a German publishing house, the poems having been originally composed in German (like Celan's, remarkably). This is the work's first appearance in English.

Yet for all the praise the publisher has lavished on these verses, they are less accomplished than anything Petr did in his younger, briefer life. They have in common with his diary, though, that they are the thoughts and perceptions of a young woman -- young in age and artistic maturity -- simply laid out as verse.

Here is a typical example, written in April 1940:

Late Afternoon
Lengthy shadows fall upon the well-lit path
and the sun sends out its final parting warmth
and the frail twitter of a bird sounds noisily
and as if stealing something from the silence.
People at ten paces' distance
seem to come from other worlds
and you almost want to chide the wilted leaves
since they rustle and disturb the final sunrays.
And you only want to hear the violets grow.

Though I don't see any flashes of genius here, that does not mean that, if permitted to live, Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger might not have matured into a splendid poet. The fact that she was murdered -- solely because she was Jewish -- is what's both tragic and notable here.

That these works were allowed to see the light of day is unfortunate; if only the publishers had used more discretion. Worse still, having accepted them, they then attempted to make them into something they're not.

Editors and publishing people don't always demonstrate appropriate judgment, especially in these days of the bottom line; and the appearance of such works only seem to me to give fuel to those who argue that a "Holocaust industry" is at work in the Jewish world.

This is not Pressburger's fault, nor the fault of the editors of the Meerbaum-Eisinger volume, Irene and Helene Silverblatt, who are relatives of the poet. They set forth only out of love. The businessmen, however, appear to have been driven by the desperate need to uncover the new Anne Frank, and perhaps capitalize on it. They should have found a way to restrain themselves and let these ghosts lie still.

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