On a winter night in 1941, in the ghetto of the city of Bialystok, Poland, 30 Jews hid in terrified silence in a dirt cellar. Above them, a detail of Nazi storm troopers approached the house, guns and dogs at the ready. In the cellar, a sickly infant lay nestled in his father's arms, his body wracked with coughs. The search party burst through the door of the house. The child's coughs could not be hushed. Quickly a man stole across the dirt floor and sealed the infant's mouth with a burly hand. For a minute, then two, all was quite above as the soldiers listened for signs of life. All was quiet in the cellar. The child fell limp, then slipped from his father's arms and fell silently to the dirt. The troops heard nothing, and slowly left that house for the next one. In the cellar, 29 Jews survived for at least a day more.
That was two minutes of the Holocaust, the 20th-century reign of horror that lasted 12 years and brought death to 11 million innocents, 6 million of them Jews. It is a frightening chapter of history and one that is, in the 1980s, inevitably slipping from the realm of personal experience and recollection to that of history books. Twenty years hence, few who survived will still be with us; the Holocaust will be as remote from us then as World War I is today.
Survivors of that experience -- those who emerged alive from the death camps, the underground, the graves in open fields that the victims were forced to dig before they were mowed down with automatic weapons -- are obsessed with the need to keep the story alive lest the experiences be repeated. As unlikely as such a recurrence may seem today, survivors never fail to point out that Hitler did not come to power in a small or primitive society but in one of the oldest and most civilized nations on earth.
Samuel Pisar, one of the 29 Jews who emerged alive from the dirt cellar in Bialystok, was, at 11 years of age, scarcely older than the suffocated child, yet his fight had hardly begun. Separated from his family, he was sent to the death camps of Maidenek and Auschwitz, where, through luck and stealth and sheer will, he managed to stay one step away from death. At 16, he clambered onto an American tank making its way across Germany in 1945. Today, barely 50, he is a successful lawyer, trained in Melbourne, at Harvard and in Paris. "Of Blood and Hope," recently translated from the French, is his memoir.
This is not, however, simply a recounting of the terror and survival of the war years. Pisar goes on to describe at great length his subsequent career as a specialist in international trade, especially trade between the Soviet bloc and the West. From Harvard he went to the United Nations, then into private practice, emerging from time to time to take a post as a government adviser, or to participate in an international trade conference, or to write a book. This makes for rather less interesting reading than the story of survival. Pisar wanders from the gripping details of those years into such empty observations as "Humanity is at a crossroads, and it must make a choice."
Such dead-end generalities are the result of Pisar's attempt to fuse the lessons of the Holocaust with the lessons of the power struggle between East and West that developed after the war and is with us still. It is not at all evident that there is much in common there, however much Pisar's own life may have spanned the two phenomena. The prospect of nuclear confrontation, frightening as it is, stands apart from the stupefying attempt at genocide that enabled ordinary men to slaughter their neighbors' wives and children.
One senses that Pisar himself recognizes the futility in trying to draw together these disparate lessons, for he is never reluctant to interrupt his observations on the need for world trade to recall the walking death that was the experience of his youth. The details of life in the death camps never lose their ability to shock us; every day is a constant attempt to be useful in some small way, to put off being "sucked into the deadly funnel" that led to the gas chambers.
Any tale told by a survivor of the Holocaust must ultimately, it seems, choose as its ending point the hopeless devastation of the human spirit or a rousing reaffirmation of its tenacity. Pisar clearly chooses the latter. oA human being, he concludes, "has a surprising, an infinite, capacity to endure and to invent, even in the most unimaginable conditions, provided he has the will." "Will," indeed, might have been a title more apt for this story than for that of Watergate conspirator.
Pisar's conclusion represents as much the legacy of the Holocaust as the tragic and more familiar counterpart: that man has a surprising, an infinite, capacity for cruelty. The bookshelves and archives of the world are filled with stories of survival of the Holocaust, but there will always be room for more. Eventually, that is all that will remain to remind us of both the cruelty and the endurance of the human spirit in those awful years.