A Son's Memoir

By Michael Skakun

St. Martin's. 237 pp. $23.95

Quoted in this book is a line from Paul Valery: "If each man were not able to live a number of lives beside his own, he would not be able to live his own life." "On Burning Ground" is the extraordinary story of one man for whom this statement was literally true, whose very life depended on living a number of lives not his own. Recounted by his son, this Holocaust survivor's tale--about the will to live and its barely tolerable costs--is surely one of the stranger examples of subterfuge undertaken in the service of saving one's own skin.

To assume a fake identity is not so strange; spies and lesser impostors do it all the time. But for a devout young yeshiva student to invent a combination of false selves through which he not only escapes the Nazi death camps but actually ends up as a recruit for the Waffen SS--now there's a definition of chutzpah.

Joseph Skakun is a shy rabbinical student in Novogrudek, a town in northeastern Poland known as a center of Jewish piety and asceticism, when he gets his first break. On the day that Pearl Harbor is bombed, on the same day that 700 Jews are gassed in the Polish village of Chelmno, Skakun survives the massacre of 5,000 of his townspeople, including his mother and most of his kin.

So begins a harrowing story of escape following escape, from the deserted but ever-threatened Novogrudek ghetto, through the forests, to Lida in the north; on to Vilnius, "the Jerusalem of Lithuania," where previous actions have already wiped out tens of thousands in mass murders; and finally to Sorok Tatar, a satellite work camp near the Vilnius ghetto. In this Muslim Tatar village, it occurs to Skakun for the first time that because of his blond hair and blue eyes, he might escape identification as a Jew. It also occurs to him that since Muslims, like Jews, are circumcised, he could pose as a Muslim and enlist in the Lithuanian Auxiliary Army. Joining this army, which was created to fight against the Soviets alongside the Germans, might mean escape across battle lines to the Soviet front.

The Lithuanian Army scheme never comes to pass (perhaps just as well for Skakun, considering such mission statements from Berlin as "On the day of reckoning the only Lithuanian traitors who can hope for forgiveness are the ones who can prove that they killed at least one Jew"). But a new plan takes shape: a plan to steal into Berlin as a Lithuanian laborer, into the belly of the beast itself.

The progression of ruses and disguises leading from this bold vision to the accomplishment of getting drafted into the Waffen SS (the "gladiators" of the Reich and Hitler's zealous guardians of "racial purity") is chilling for reasons beyond the obvious suspense. While admiring Skakun's thoroughness in appropriating Islam and Catholicism for protective cover, one shudders at the violence to the soul of such maneuvers, especially for a son of Novogrudek, trained for the religious life from early childhood and raised on ideals of spiritual and ethical integrity. To live in constant terror, with the heart-stopping scares and false alarms; on top of that, to live in spiritual isolation, alone with the monsters of one's survival-drive--this feat, too, leaves the reader marveling and cringing at the same time.

Nor can one help marveling at this chronicle of endurance while cringing at times at the author's style. It's bad enough that rumors spread like wildfire, faces darken like a cloud, and the Blitzkrieg descends like a cloud of iron. A girl of "imperious dark beauty" is "in full use of her eyebrows," another wears a smile that hangs in the air "like a scar," and guards appear "red-faced to the verge of congestion." Could this be a translation? I wondered, seeing so many odd turns of phrase, along with so many misspellings in both English and German (in Yiddish, too, for all I know). But from what language?

Such a shame, this undermining of subject matter by awkward language. The poets of Holocaust survival--Primo Levi, Jorge Semprun, Ida Fink--have understood that words themselves can be the enemy, the curse within the salvation, when it comes to certain orders of testimony, and that ways must be found around their insidious power to deaden. Otherwise, as this book so often demonstrates, the banality of evil will simply persist in the banality of the language it necessitates.

Wendy Law-Yone, whose most recent novel is "Irrawaddy Tango."