by Tosia Szechter Schneider
“Tosia Schneider has written a powerful memoir which should take its rightful place alongside the other great memoirs of this horrific period. She is not hesitant to share with us her fears, tears, and even, inexplicable given the topic of the story, joys. Those who have read many memoirs of the Holocaust will immediately grasp what makes this one unique. Those who have rarely, if ever, read a memoir will find this a powerful place to begin.”
— Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust and History on Trial
From the Foreword by Melvin Konner
“For many years I have known Tosia Szechter Schneider as an elegant, cultivated, charming woman, a mother and grandmother who takes pride in her family, in her long career as a teacher, in her role as the loving wife of a distinguished nuclear chemist, and in her six decades as an American. Only a slight, almost musical accent hints at the life she lived until age eighteen, before coming to America; that, and a far-off look that comes over her at times, along with a polite distaste for most things German.
“I knew she had a story—or rather, a thousand stories—connected with her lost life in a beautiful East European village where she had spent an idyllic childhood. I knew that this sweet, good life and all the structures and institutions and people that made it so were smashed and ground into dust or burned into smoky air by German “warriors” obsessed with the murder of Jews, aided by Ukrainian and Polish anti-Semites of a more vulgar but equally vicious stamp. And I knew—from the evidence of her present life and the infectious smile that so often lit up her face–that the story had, in some ways, against all probability, a very happy ending.
“I also knew that she was planning to write about her life in that apocalyptic time, and that those far-off looks probably meant that her peace—at a Sabbath dinner in her home, at a beloved son’s wedding, or at a pleasant French restaurant in Atlanta–was being invaded by dreadful memories. I certainly hoped that she would set them down, that she would grapple with the challenge of her beloved mother–dying because she had given too much of her own food to her children–“Someone must survive to tell the world.”
“I was born in 1946 to American parents who told me my conception had been postponed until the closing of the gas chambers. I learned to talk during the Nuremberg trials, when the air, even in faraway Brooklyn, was dense with dreadful revelations. My Orthodox synagogue was full of new Americans who alluded, in Yiddish and other, to-me-strange, tongues, to what I dimly understood was their season in Hell. Their stories seemed fantastic and hard to believe, and as the years passed they fell silent.
“But I became obsessed with what, for excellent reasons, they only wanted to forget. I am not a Holocaust historian, but I have read a good deal of the literature on this greatest lapse in the moral advance of our species. I have seen most of the films, taught and written about it, talked about it to anyone who would listen, and listened to anyone with real knowledge willing to talk to me. For someone who started life as a naïve and protected American, I am quite familiar with the facts, and with just about every way that survivors and historians have found to describe them.
“Yet Tosia Schneider’s memoir has been a revelation to me, and I have tried to understand why. The marvelous diaries of Anne Frank, Hannah Senesh, and Elly Hellesum are also touching and personal. But they are in the moment, and none of these young women lived to reflect back on the lives so starkly cut short; their pens fell from their hands before they could grasp the extent of the crimes against their people. Primo Levi and Paul Celan turned their nightmares and their pain into exquisite literature, but each of these men succumbed to his interminable despair, ending by his own hand the life Hitler’s minions had failed to extinguish.
Tosia Schneider’s memoir combines simplicity, immediacy, emotional depth, reflection, and, above all perhaps, a triumph of the spirit that makes it something different and wonderful. There is no detachment here, and no lack of awareness of the magnitude of the horror. There is anger, to be sure, and a perfectly healthy desire for revenge. But most of all there is love—this book is a tender, loving account of a family, a wide web of grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends, a story of an attachment to a place, a home, a panorama of memories. And every person, every affection, every event, small or large, comes vividly alive.
“Like her life today, her childhood was filled with happiness, and even the difficulties of a relatively poor family in pre-war Eastern Europe give rise to sweet memories. This part of the memoir reads almost like an idyll. A little girl finds her family’s apartment building “a marvelous place to explore,” and delights in the tiny springs a watchmaker gives her to play with. The bread lady’s basket brims over with rich aromas and the girl is allowed her favorite pastry, an almond bear-claw. She glows with pride when given her own little wine-cup at Passover. She and her brother weed and water the family garden, which yields all manner of fruits and vegetable for their table. She becomes Queen of the Snowflakes in a Chanukah pageant. Despite the socks and gloves her grandmother lovingly knits for her, she gets a little frostbite because she loves to play in the snow. She and her friends also play at war—they are still in the long shadow of World War I–but it’s only a game.
“There are some bad signs. Polish children sometimes yell anti-Semitic epithets. A new municipal swimming pool bars Jews, and she and her friends stroll by it longingly. Her father must wash “Out with the Jews!” from the wall of their home. Quotas are imposed on Jewish school and college attendance. New laws prohibit Jewish ritual slaughter, very hard on Orthodox Jews. This is mere home-grown Polish anti-Semitism, years before the German invasion, but it is intensifying. The Poles and the Germans are enemies, but they agree about the Jews.
“Still, the invasion changes everything. Events we are all now familiar with, even numb to, stab the heart again because of Schneider’s way of personalizing them as particular instances of love and loss. The opening bombing raid of the war kills a Jewish child, the first of thousands in Horodenka alone; his father carries him to the cemetery and buries him, refusing all help. When Jews must don the Star of David, young women embroider exquisite ones for the young men they love, a silent discourse of romance and defiance. A friend of the family stumbles sobbing into their hiding place, having just recognized in a pile of seized clothing the dress his wife had worn when she was taken away, and they do their best to comfort him.
“These are acts of resistance, of spiritual victory, of utter, decisive refusal to be dehumanized. But they are only the first salvos in the unrelenting war against the Jews. Brutality deepens, choices narrow. Tosia’s brother, a slave laborer, must pave the German commandant’s courtyard with gravestones from the Jewish cemetery. German strictures promote the spread of typhus while withholding all medicines and prohibiting Jewish doctors like her Uncle Nathan from helping. When they are forced into a savagely cramped and disease-ridden ghetto, Tosia must leave her kitten behind; there will be no food for it. On pain of death they deliver all they own of value to the Germans, except for her grandmother’s beloved Sabbath candlesticks, which they help her bury in the garden. Tosia’s blond hair and “Aryan” beauty attract German men who offer help but who are interested in something quite different. The same good looks lead to several real chances for escape; repeatedly, she rejects them to stand by what is left of her family.
“These are the personal touches by which Tosia Schneider makes well-known horrors regain their meaning and, after all the incomprehensible statistics we have seen again and again, reawakens our shock and sympathy. This is no generic litany of crimes, but instead the story of one girl, the brave young woman she became, and her inspiring resilience and courage. It is a story of unimaginable tragedy and yet of transcendent human dignity and final personal triumph.
“Yes, it is a horror story, and a true one, in which the monsters are neither giant goblins nor ravenous space aliens but something much worse: these monsters are dressed in German uniforms and in the ordinary clothing of Polish and Ukrainian men and women; they are real. But the horror story is bracketed by an account of a beautiful childhood, a celebration of love and tenderness and loss, a living memorial to gifted and generous human beings who were destined to be murdered for one reason only; and by the story of a survivor who not only lived to tell the world, but who created a loving family of her own, a family that is a mirror image of the love and gifts and decency of the family she lost.
“This new family, which Tosia Szechter Schneider created out of her own body and heart and soul, is the final decisive answer to the vicious but failed attempt to destroy her and her people, root and branch. True, she still has occasional nightmares; how could she not? Yet through sheer courage and will, she became a new root for a new large branch of her own family tree—the re-founder of her family–and a new branch of the tree of the Jewish people. And through this horrifying yet touching and beautiful book, she creates countless emotional links between her lost world and each of us, her readers. This is her final victory. May her readers and her offspring be, like Abraham’s, as numerous as the stars.”