Roman Ferber, like so many Holocaust survivors, eluded death by luck and guts, and often by shrewdness that belied his age. One of his last wishes has been to make his story known.
He is 82 now and living in a nursing facility near Monroe Township, with the memory of those horrors dimmed by dementia. But before the mist robbed him of his clarity, he began telling his story to Anna Ray-Jones. The Irish-born, New York-based writer, who is not Jewish, interviewed him at length, struggling to keep the facts straight as it became harder for Roman to do so.
The result, published this fall, is Journey of Ashes: A Boyhood in the Holocaust.
The self-published book, now in the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, tells the story of one of the youngest people to land on Oskar Schindler’s famous list, but who wasn’t spared from incarceration in concentration camps.
Born in Poland in 1933, Ferber was a boy when his family was forced into the Cracow ghetto. He and his father were shuttled from the Plaszow forced labor camp to Schindler’s factory at Brinnlitz and the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Despite the brief reprieve that came with their names being part of the famous list, both father and son ended up in Nazi camps. Roman survived four, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. He helped save a young cousin but his father and brother were killed. His older sister found him after the war, sheltering among the gravestones in a cemetery in Cracow, and helped him reunite with his mother.
He and his mother came to the United States in 1949, when he was 16. He went on to have a successful career as an urban planner, working with successive mayors in New York City. He and his American-born wife, Maxine, who have three children and six grandchildren, moved from Rockland County, NY, to Middlesex in 1999.
Wanted story told
Ray-Jones is a senior vice president with a PR agency, Donley Communications, and the author of a book on architecture and a number of screenplays, including The Haunting of Rachel Gottlieb, a ghost story centered on a Jewish character.
She describes herself as “a miserable failed Catholic” who hadn’t met any Holocaust survivors before she answered Ferber’s Craigslist advertisement looking for someone to help him tell his tale. “He had been working with another writer but that didn’t work out,” she recalled. “We met, and he was very charming. He had a good story to tell. It wasn’t just another hokey tale; it had a deep, serious core.”
There were times, she acknowledged, when she found the process harrowing and the conflicts with the feisty and increasingly combative Ferber very draining, but she had become fond of him and too committed to recording this triumphant story of survival to give up. She also had deep respect for his courage.
“Having to go deep inside yourself like that is scary for many survivors,” she said. “It is a road of pain. I felt that way beyond me and Roman; this story needed to see the light of day.”
Maxine said, “It was so rare for a child to survive, but Roman did it by reasoning, by blocking out his emotional side.” That made it tough on Ray-Jones. “Getting him to discuss his feelings was like pulling teeth for Anna,” she said, “but she never pushed him for answers.”
With some facts no longer possible to clarify, in the end Ray-Jones evolved a literary solution: She filled in the gaps with imagined details, keeping as close as possible to the truth but supplying the context and emotional flavor Ferber couldn’t articulate.
“It also meant feeling my way through what a child would feel,” she said. “A kid that age would want to have fun. I wanted to show the kids’ sense of humor, and how cunning they had to be…to get by.” To see things for herself, she went to Poland, to Cracow and Auschwitz. She also did exhaustive research. And when it proved tough to find a publisher, she worked out how to get the book self-published.
Maxine said, “It breaks my heart that Roman can’t appreciate the book now. He wanted this story told so badly.” But she is grateful, for him and their family, that at last it has been done, and in a way that is totally true to his spirit, she said.
“No matter how badly he suffered,” she said, “Roman had no bitterness, and he never showed any hatred toward the German people.”