A TRANSLATOR’S PREFACE TO A HOLOCAUST MEMOIR
by Jonah Sampson Boyarin
from the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
I WAS IN BETWEEN literature classes and field chores at Yiddish Farm in the summer of 2015, sipping tea in the informal little library in upstate New York, when my eyes were drawn to a book with a simple chess board on the cover, black and white on a field of dark green. It was a Holocaust memoir entitled Shakhmat: der nes fun mayn lebn — that is, “Checkmate: The Miracle of My Life” — and it immediately captured me, intellectually and viscerally.
I was in the midst of a period of transformation on several fronts, the foremost being my growing involvement in anti-racist activity. The rallying call of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well my partner at the time (how many of us cis-gender men owe our radical activation to the labor of the women around us!), had first brought me out into the streets and then into more regular commitments. I had volunteered weekly as a white ally, doing database work, at a black- and brown-led, working-class housing rights organization in the Bay Area, where I lived; I was one year into the process of cofounding a diversity and equity program at the Jewish day school where I taught; and I had recently helped start a monthly minyan featuring traditional davening and radical politics.
A week after I first picked up Shakhmat, I packed a copy in my bags and departed from Yiddish Farm to attend a weekend training led by Cherie Brown and Dove Kent on the “Intersections Between Racism and Antisemitism.” The workshop gave me my first opportunity to share personal experiences of antisemitism with other Jews in an emotionally supportive context, and to set our experiences within the framework of a clear and persuasive structural analysis. As Dove put it, many of us Jews today feel trapped in a false choice between fighting only for ourselves or fighting only for others. For the first time, I started to think about what it would mean to commit seriously to Jewish liberation as a vibrant part of feminist, anti-racist organizing. I also began to mourn the conspicuous absence, in my activist spaces, of explicit support for Jewish liberation. I felt drawn to organizations such as Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) that are increasingly embracing the leadership of Jews of color and other marginalized Jews.
So it was a set of pressing political questions that drew me to read and ultimately translate Shakhmat, questions like:
If antisemitism has ended, when did it end, and how?
What would it look like for the left to take antisemitism seriously?
What possibilities might exist for a deep, generative study of the Holocaust that is neither motivated by attempts to scare Jewish youth into staying Jewish (“German Jews thought they were assimilated and safe, you never know . . .”) nor used as justification for American and Israeli militarism?
What would happen to my own politics if I took the Zionism of this Holocaust memoir seriously, particularly its concern for Jewish safety and continuity?
Why is there currently no mass, organized, progressive group of non-Jewish allies for Jews? Do any models exist from Poland, before and during the war?
Why are I and so many of my radical Jewish friends averse to learning about the Holocaust?
What resources for vibrant Jewish life and collective resistance today might lie in a survivor’s story?
SHAKHMAT’s author, Mordkhe Wolfshaut-Dinkes, was a cultural and political makher in the Galician Polish city of Przemsyl in the interwar period. Having grown up in a traditionally religious household, he became secular at the age of 18 but maintained strong, amicable relationships with his family and a broader sense of ahavas yisroel (love of fellow Jews). A metalworker by trade, he became a locally prominent union organizer, rising to the rank of secretary of the city’s sizable Jewish commercial employees’ union. Wolfshaut-Dinkes was also in the leadership of Przemsyl’s chapter of the Linke [leftwing] Poale-Tzion, the sole Zionist movement that celebrated Yiddish and Ashkenazi culture. Ending up in France after the war, he went on to write this memoir, his only published work, in 1975, with the explicit purpose of showing all the different ways that Jews resisted the Nazi genocide.
I felt personally connected to Wolfshaut-Dinkes. He was a highly competitive chess player, as I had been in my youth; he writes in the book’s introduction, “Every surviving Jew is a miracle. A miracle from one accident or another. My miracle was that I was an enthusiastic chess player.” The city in which he was born and raised was a day’s wagon ride from the shtetlakh of my own great-grandparents Zisl and Abe, who were roughly his contemporaries. Finally, in the literary dimension, Wolfshaut-Dinkes’ straightforward but expressive prose was a felicitous match for a first-time translator like myself.
Shakhmat has been a useful resource for engaging with my current political questions and feelings. Only by great good luck and courage did my great-grandparents Zisl and Abe manage to leave Galicia and settle in the States in the early 1930s, well after American nativism, racism, and antisemitism had all but closed our nation’s borders; that was their miracle, I suppose. And Zisl and Abe’s American-born children, including my grandmother, were indeed protected from the Holocaust, but the children of their Japanese-American neighbors were placed in internment camps by the U.S. government, the same government that effectively ignored reports of Nazi atrocities and refused to intervene while millions of innocents, including entire branches of my family, were murdered.
WHITE JEWS have unquestionably been much safer and freer in America than in Europe during the last seventy-five years, and it might be easy to be tempted by a “model-minority, land-of-opportunity” story. But such a facile reading does not hold up against the political analysis and public protests offered by people of color, who have laid bare the abusive machineries of racism and its intersections with classism and sexism. This is the framework that has helped me think about privilege and oppression, and has made the contrast between the suffering of people of color and my own safety and luxury, as a white man with money, more intelligible and morally demanding.
Still, I cannot shake the feeling of my own people’s precarity. Partly because so much has already been lost — the rich web of yidishkayt that might connect my contemporaries to Wolfshaut-Dinkes has been badly frayed by the coercions and incentives of American whiteness and Christian hegemony. Partly because of the ways that I see structural antisemitism continuing to run smoothly (as I’ve argued elsewhere in my essay, “Alt-Right Antisemitism Is Structural — Here’s How It Started” — this has sadly become an easier case to make after two months of Trump’s presidency). And also on a gut level, there’s this relentless, terrible, but understandable voice deep down inside of me that whispers, Get better at chess, because you never know.
What are my options? Assimilating? I know and love Jewishness too fiercely to discard it, I don’t want my safety to come at the cost of black suffering within a racist system, and I’m not going to accept an option that throws Jews of color, working-class Jews, and female Jews under the bus. What then? The Israeli state does not make me feel safer and is an unmitigated disaster for the Palestinian people. Fighting as a white ally, as important as that work is in resisting racism, doesn’t make me feel safer. It’s only moments of effective solidarity that do that: whether marching for Black Lives Matter with JFREJ, led by Jews of color; or when Muslims who work closely with Jewish organizations to fight Islamophobia raise $100,000 to repair a desecrated Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. These are moments and movements worth fighting for, and worth risking my contingent safety for, because the more I learn, and the more I fight, the more certain I am that we only get free together.
WITH ALL THAT said, here’s some context for the selection below, “Even Good Germans.” It takes places about a third of the way through the book and is set in Przemysl in the spring or early summer of 1942. The Nazis have cemented their occupation of the city and have taken a few initial actions to terrorize and control the local population of 20,000 Jews, including assigning them yellow stars for their shirts, revoking their papers, sending some to labor camps to toil and die, and performing everyday murders in the streets. At the moment this account picks up, Wolfshaut-Dinkes has been serving as a metalworker for several months at the military barracks to which the Nazis have assigned him.
This translation project was made possible by the generous financial assistance, mentorship, and peer workshopping of the National Yiddish Book Center’s Emerging Translators’ Fellowship, for which I am wholeheartedly grateful.
EVEN GOOD GERMANS
Excerpted from Checkmate: The Miracle of My Life
by Mordkhe Wolfshaut-Dinkes
Translated from the Yiddish by Jonah Sampson Boyarin
THE JEWISH WORKERS and craftsmen who were ordered to serve in the Nazi barracks believed that only through their labor would they be able to save their lives. (And indeed, all of those who had work papers were for the time being spared from deportation to the Yanaver labor camp. But we were certain that the Jews would soon be locked up in a ghetto — we just didn’t know when that decree might come.) An agent from the Gestapo appeared suddenly one day at the barracks to summon four craftsmen to their quarters, which were located on Zasanye Street. This fate happened to fall on me: I was one of the two metalworkers who were selected, along with two carpenters.
The four of us arrived at the appointed time. The chief of the Gestapo, Benevitz — may his name be erased! — was waiting for us. His deputies and aides were waiting as well. They began to lay out the plans for a rounded veranda in the middle of their garden, with a raised podium for music, a handsome entrance, and beautiful ornamentation; the roof had to be gradually rounded, they told us, with joined panels.
The war with the Soviets, meanwhile, raged on. Every day, thousands fell, barely two hundred kilometers away from us. And now here were the Gestapo men, who instilled terror in the city on a daily basis, treating us calmly, even gently, speaking entirely normally, figuring out the best, most beautiful way to complete their plans. We were given military requisition notes so that we could obtain wood, sheet metal, nails, and any other materials that we needed. None of us could believe that the same men who worked with us on the veranda all week long, giving careful attention to each trifling question, would set out on the streets every day in their shiny uniforms and turn into murderers and gangsters.
Almost every morning they would drive out in their cars with their machine-guns and then return at 11 o’clock or noon, their uniforms splattered with blood. They would calmly lay down their machine-guns, walk into the bathrooms to wash up, then eat their fill and play with their children, as if nothing had happened. We came to understand that the Gestapo men — if you can call them “men” — possessed absolutely no conscience. Each day they carried out the same kind of slaughter; the only thing that varied was where it might take place.
In the afternoon, after washing up, they would go back out in the garden – exactly as if nothing had happened! The Gestapo officers watched our work on the arbor with amiable interest and gave us tips on how to make the veranda look even nicer. It was as if two different men lived inside each of them: They spoke to us with genuine courtesy, even though they knew we were Jews, and yet when they went back out on the street in their uniforms, they transformed into beasts, into murderers.
There were ten or so Jewish men and women who worked in the Gestapo’s facilities — in the workshop, in the kitchen, in the garden, or on their cars. These Jews were confident that no harm would befall them. The Gestapo men assured them that when an action occurred against the Jewish population, these Jews would be safe. But it was a lie.
WHEN THE FIRST action came, on July 27, 1942, the ten Jews sent a delegation to the Gestapo chief, Benevitz, requesting that he rescue them from deportation. Their “good friend” literally turned his back on them without a word. They just remained standing there. He whirled around to brutally inform them that they would get no special protection — that all Jews were the same. That day, five thousand Jews were deported to Belzec and were eventually murdered there, among them, the ten Jews from the Gestapo house.
But my father and my two brothers and I, along with three hundred other Jews, succeeded in getting out of the deportation yard, where many had simply been slaughtered on the spot. How did we do it? Well, the Germans had realized that able-bodied men like us could be of use to them. And through a coincidence — or a miracle! — all four of us Jews who worked on the arbor in the Gestapo house survived.
Upon returning to the Gestapo facilities, after the tragic action and the creation of the ghetto, we were told that we had only three days to complete our work. There were no other Jewish workers or servants there.
In the afternoons, the Gestapo officers would continue to come out in the garden, smiling at us and remarking on our excellent work, as if nothing had happened. When surrounded by their families, they appeared like normal good fathers and men. They lived with their wives, mothers, and children, who played peacefully all day long in the garden and around the veranda that we had built for them. But they didn’t show one bit of sympathy for us, and they never inquired after the ten men and women who had served them for so many months until the officers sent them to the death camps.
Not all Germans were so heartless, vile, and hypocritical. I remember two situations in which Germans acted humanely, with decency. The first was in 1943, by which time the Jews of Przemysl had already been consigned to a ghetto. A group of about thirty of us were taken out of the “Ghetto A” work camp and ordered to walk on the street — as Jews were forbidden to use the sidewalks — all the way to the military hospital on Słowacki Street. We went to work there — the women cleaned the rooms and buildings and the men were employed as skilled craftsmen. I was assigned to a workshop and shared it with a locksmith. We repaired equipment that had been damaged by the war.
One day, after some time had passed and we had become accustomed to our situation there, a German soldier wandered in. He looked on for a while as we worked, and then, to our surprise, he stepped in to join us, as if he were a metalworker, too. Apparently, he had nothing better to do.
At that time the two of us in the workshop had been fashioning large cans with tops. We’d use the cans to smuggle leftover lunches from the hospital into the ghetto, providing nourishment to dozens of families. The German soldier helped us collect the food and fill up the cans. At every opportunity he demonstrated compassion and understanding. In time we came to trust him, speak freely to him, without any fear, about all sorts of political and military issues, about the latest news. The soldier told us: You know, I was a Social Democrat before the war; but after seeing Hitler lead Germany to such impressive economic and military achievements, I decided to go over to the side of Hitler and the Nazis.
I responded to him: You know nothing about the true character of Hitlerism. You see only the benefits of his military victories, because Hitler has seized all of Europe for Germany — but at what cost? Millions of victims, from all peoples, including your own. Hitler has destroyed thousands of cities and is bringing hunger and misfortune to all the nations of Europe. He is murdering innocent Jews, weak and strong. Where is the German people’s conscience, to acquiesce to such barbarity? You were once a Social Democrat, a fine, upstanding German citizen — why do you not resist? Do you understand, they’re killing even children, who have done no harm in the world, and here you are, glorifying Hitlerism!
The soldier gave no reply. He spun on his heel, walked out from the workshop and did not return again that day. I was surprised at myself. Where had I found such courage to tell the truth to him? To tell this German to his face everything that until now had gone unspoken in my heart? I regretted having spoken to him so openly, placing blame on him as well as the entire German nation.
I DIDN’T SLEEP a wink the entire night, afraid that the next day I’d return to the shop and find the Gestapo waiting for me. How could anyone trust a German enough to tell him the harsh truth straight to his face? Heart hammering in my chest, I set off that next morning to my job in the hospital. I went into the shop and didn’t see the soldier. Finally at around 10:00 he came in. We greeted each other coldly, not as usual. It felt like the friendly atmosphere that had prevailed until that moment had entirely vanished.
Suddenly, the German walked up to me. He told me, in a kind voice, that there was something he wanted to talk about. I sensed that his conscience was gnawing at him a little, that he, too, had spent the entire night reflecting on what that I had told him. The feeling of fear, though, was entirely on my side — who knew what went on in the heart of a German, when a Jew had the audacity to speak to him about German crimes! We sat down to talk.
I went first. I told him, I regret so much what I told you yesterday. One cannot judge the moral outlook and attitudes of another. Even less so, living in these dangerous times, when no one knows what tomorrow may bring. Not to mention that you belong to a people who is occupying and ruling over all of Europe, while I belong to a people whose very right to exist is being taken away.
He replied, If I were to tell the administration even one word of what you said yesterday, you know as well as I do that you wouldn’t be able to work in this hospital any longer. Who knows if you’d even still be breathing. But, he continued, with pleading sincerity, you can trust me 100% percent. Our relationship will continue to be as it was. I hate the barbarity and inhumanity of Hitlerism, I just appreciate Hitler’s great achievements for the German people.
Our interactions after that continued to be good. He continued to help me collect the German soldiers’ leftover food so that I could take it into the ghetto. Yes, he was a nationalist, but he was also a very noble and decent person.
A short time later, he was sent off to the Russian front.
THE SECOND GERMAN who treated me like a human being I encountered later, in 1944, in Eintrachthütte Work-Camp (a subcamp of Auschwitz in Polish Silesia), where I worked as a lathe operator. At that time I was terribly weak, dropping down to a weight of 75 pounds, and I stood 5’8” tall. I worked the night shift, from 6:00 in the evening until 6:00 in the morning. A German soldier stood guard and would patrol from one door to another with his gun ready, warning the prisoners not to run off. His rounds took him every time by the lathe machine where I worked.
With someone passing like that ten times, one hundred times, you get to know and trust a person, even if just a little bit. One time, I spoke up and asked him as he was walking by — he was forbidden to speak to prisoners at any length — if he might not need me to repair a shirt, or wash up a pair of socks. He said yes. This was in and of itself a major accomplishment, that he had accepted my offer instead of beating me up in response.
The next evening, he showed me a hiding place where he had left a shirt, a pair of socks, and a little bit of food as well. You can’t imagine how much strength and energy this gave me. I practically inhaled the food. The next day I returned his shirt and socks to the hiding place, clean and nicely mended.
It went on like that for weeks and months, but only during the night shift. Maybe that little bit of nourishment was what gave me the strength to remain on my feet as I worked and not collapse as others did.
Every day that we survived was in itself a great miracle and an act of heroism.
Jonah Sampson Boyarin is a Jewish educator and activist. He is a 2016-2017 Translation Fellow at the National Yiddish Book Center, a member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a student of Talmud, and a teacher of yoga. In 2016, he cofounded the country’s first Diversity & Equity program at a Jewish day school, at JCHS of the Bay.