IN A DRAWER at my parents' home in Manhatten is a typescript of about 80 pages that describes their escape from Hitler-occupied Poland, their trek across the Middle East, their safe-haven in India and finally their arrival in the United States in 1944. I asked by mother to write the story several years ago because I wanted my children to know what their grandparents survived -- and how recently. I wanted the record for myself as well. I was an infant when we came here and by the time I was old enough to care, life in this new land was altogether comfortable.
There is nothing of which I am more proud -- nor will there ever be -- than the fact that my mother, father and brother, through daring, determination and brains, outsmarted the Holocaust.
The same impulse to chronicle an account of survival in Hitler's hell-on-earth is what motivated Jack Eisner, a successful businessman in New York, to write this book and to promote it out of his own pocket. This isn't surpassing laterature. It contains no insight to stir the spirit of conscience, no reward of previously unknown facts. The language is plain, and the descriptions uninspired.
The Survivor is an adventure story of intrepid escapes and young love, the tale of a boyish Robin Hood so brave that fear doesn't slow him nor terror break him down. From the flaming ghetto of Warsaw to the worst concentration camps in the closing days of the war, young Jack Eisner conducts himself with dignity, an image so elegant that one can't help wondering -- uncharitably -- whether it has been embellished. In short, The Survivor is closer to Leon Uris' exudus or mila 18 than to the voluminous documentary tracts placed solemnly on file in Israel's Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.
Yet it is essential to preserve works like The Survivor , no matter how popularized, in a form that will last the generations. The incredible brutality of the Nazis, the pitiful submission of their victims and vassals, and the profound bravery of some Jews and Gentiles must be remembered.
Not that books could ever deter a repetition of Hitleresque atrocities. The genocide commited in Pol Pot's Cambodia is the lastest case in point. But history remains the only teacher we have and, as all of us are in some way descendants of wounded peoples, we should share the cry of voices like Eisner's, "lest we forget."
On quality alone, The Survivor would come and go fairly quickly. But if Jack Eisner gets his way, his book will definitely not be just another memoir. "I'm rich," he writes in his introduction. "I built up a fifty-million-dollar import-export business. I own an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York City and an estate in Connecticut. I have a yacht on the Riviera and I ride in a chauffeur-driven limousine. I know I seem persistent. I guess I am. I must seem arrogant. Perhaps I am that too." p
Eisner is undoubtedly persistent. To finance the book he sold his business -- "People thought I was unbalanced, obsessed," he writes. It sounded grotesque" -- and devoted his considerable energies to the project. With the help of free-lance writers and editors, Eisner's recollections were turned into a publishable manuscript, which Morrow picked up. Now he has pledged $100,000 of his own cash to promotion (supplemented by $75,000 from Morrow) and is planning a 25-city tour prepared by a public relations firm and a personal staff that has canvassed booksellers to make sure the book get put up front.
He has, moreover, made arrangements for a Broadway musical of his story, now scheduled for a January debut at a cost of $550,000. Most lavish of all, he is reported to have raised $14 million for a movie version written by Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgement at Nuremberg and involving, among others, the national film company of Poland and Twentieth Century-Fox. Eisner even told one interviewer that there are plans for an opera.
Why do all this? Vanity is a possible factor: this may be a chance at middle age to use money for a more lasting monument. Eisner's own explanation is simple. Aside from his story, he writes, this is "also the story of my friends and family. People who would have been completely forgotten if they didn't live in my memories. If I forget them no one will ever know they lived and smiled and played and cried. I promised them I would tell the story. . . . I am their gravestone because I am a survivor."
Ultimately, I suppose, the real reasons for Eisner's self-promotion are irrelevant. He is, based on the account in his book, entitled to regard his story as extraordinary. As a child of barely teen-age years, he organized a gang of smugglers in the Warsaw ghetto. He met a young girl named Halina, whose path crossed his at many points in the ensuing years. Later he played a role in the suicidal but valiant ghetto uprising. Eventually he was sent to camps where, though subjected to horrible tortures, he managed to hang on.
He came very close to caving in on a death march at war's end. Eisner writes:
"My sense of reality was fading. I was beginning to see rings around the moon . . . The last few weeks of skimpty food rations had radically reduced my weight. . . . [But] I wasn't a Musulman yet, a skeleton with a high shaved head and big bulging eyes. A Muselman is apathetic and pain-free. sHis brain can no longer communicate with his body. It can no longer accept messages of fear or passion. . . .
"Machine-gun fire roused me from my reverie. The SS were shooting again. The column had to keep marching. I would see the SS in action. They were right behind me on their motorcycles. . . .the column continued to shrink. No longer caring, many inmates just sat down or tried to run. None made it. The SS gunned them down."
Grim stuff. So Jack Eisner made it through and wants the rest of us to know how. He wants to turn the greatest achievement of his life into fame, an espect of the American dream that his business success never gave him. Others might not choose the same approach. But who is prepared to tell Eisner that he doesn't deserve to try? Not me.