James Hill is a former senior editor for The Washington Post News Media Services.
The childhood that befell Szmulek Rozental, an 8-year-old boy living in Lodz, Poland, in the fall of 1939, was a hell on Earth. Beatings, starvation, sexual abuse and other cruelties were so much a part of his young life that by World War II’s end in 1945, Rozental did not even know his own age.
Yet in many ways, Rozental was one of the few lucky ones — a survivor. Six million of his fellow Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, including Szmulek’s entire family save for one elder brother. Bearing witness became a sacred obligation.
Before “From Broken Glass” could be written, Rozental, now named Steve Ross, first spent a career as a psychologist working with at-risk youths in his adopted Boston, convincing them that whatever their plight, he could understand. He had seen the unthinkable.
“By fixing the broken lives of others, he in a way, could fix his own,” his son, Michael Ross, writes in an introduction.
Perhaps. But the theme that comes through most in “From Broken Glass” is how utterly impossible it is for those who suffered this greatest of human traumas to ever forget, to fix that which broke them more than 70 years ago.
Ross takes us inside the camps and recounts the many horrors, including the time he had to hide in the muck of a latrine to escape a massacre of boys his age. And the guard who made Ross his sex slave. And the shuddering fact of the apparent normalcy of his captors.
“Feix [a German guard] didn’t look like a monster,” Ross notes. “He looked like every soldier looked to me — sturdy, hair tightly combed beneath his cap, clean-shaven, black boots up to the knee. . . . He wasn’t fat or thin or ugly or sickly looking, wasn’t burned or crooked or stooped or grotesque. The most horrifying thing I saw that day was how plain this soldier was.”
Interspersed with the nightmares of trying to survive in a world of extermination are Ross’s accounts of his work in some of Boston’s toughest neighborhoods and his efforts to establish a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust.
And there is good news, but with irony. The New England Holocaust Memorial stands today along the Freedom Trail in Boston. Sadly, the memorial was twice desecrated in 2017, a sign that intolerance lives on.
By Steve Ross, with Glenn Frank and Brian Wallace
Hachette. 266 pp. $26