There were 50,000 Jews in Bialystok when the Nazis began occupying the city in June 1941.
In an infamous action known as “Red Friday,” German troops burned down the Jewish quarter, killing at least 2,000 Jews. Within two weeks, the Nazis murdered 3,000 more. Another 50,000 were confined to a ghetto and forced into slave labor until the ghetto’s liquidation in August 1943, and 40,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka and Majdanek.
By the end of the war, slightly more than 1,000 Jews remained in Bialystok — a drastic decline from the city’s peak Jewish population of 61,500 in 1913.
There to record the glory — and destruction — of one of the most prominent Jewish communities in Europe was a printer named Rafael Rajzner.
In one of the earliest Holocaust memoirs ever written, Rajzner records the casual cruelties and shocking violence of life in the ghetto, the betrayals by and impossible choices placed on his fellow Jews, and the acts of bravery and resistance that offered some hope despite — what ultimately took place — as the memoir would originally be titled, The Annihilation of Bialystoker Jewry.
Rajzner’s memoir, written in Yiddish and published in 1948, five years before his death, might well have become an obscure artifact of the Holocaust, relegated to the archives or scholarly footnotes.
But thanks to an Australian ophthalmologist, the book, retitled The Stories Our Parents Found Too Painful to Tell, has been translated into English and made available to a wider audience.
“Events described in it were fresh in his mind and can’t be open to any speculative criticism that perhaps they were tainted by the passage of time,” wrote Harry Lew, himself the son of Holocaust survivors from Bialystok, in an e-mail to NJ Jewish News.
Because Rajzner was not a professional writer or a historian “he does not analyze, discuss, or offer opinions and explanations. The real importance of his book lies in the fact that he was a survivor of the ghetto — he was there; he was an eyewitness,” added Lew, who lives in Melbourne. “That is why his book is so important and deserves to be preserved. No academic or historian can ever hope to compete with him, no matter who they are.”
Lew will discuss Rajzner’s memoir and its history when he speaks at a program sponsored by the Holocaust Council of MetroWest at the Aidekman Family Campus on Tuesday, Nov. 23. He will be introduced by Columbia University Professor Rebecca Kobrin, author of Rewriting the Diaspora: Images of Eastern Europe in the Bialystok Landsmanshaft Press, 1921-45.
Lew spent the past eight years arranging for an English translation of the memoirs that appeared last year.
After he learned about its existence from his dying father, Lew said, he recognized the key to its preservation was to have it translated into English.
Lew wrote that his father “felt that Yiddish could well be a dying language and that the book may die with it. He thought this should not be allowed to happen in this new era of Holocaust denial.”
Although Lew had no fluency in Yiddish and not enough money to pay for translators, he found 22 writers willing to work pro bono. Once they had completed English-language versions of different sections, Lew spent a year combining them into what he called “seamless prose.”
“It is one of the better memoirs I’ve ever read,” said council director Barbara Wind. “It is very detailed. It names names. It is a fascinating story and a fascinating story about the story.”
“Rajzner wanted Jews all over the world to share in this,” she added.
Rajzner managed to stay alive despite imprisonment in a Gestapo jail, as well in the Stutthof, Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, and Mauthausen concentration camps. He began recording his bitter memories in children’s notebooks just after he was liberated in 1945.
His chronicle tells about the annihilation of a remarkable city in eastern Poland that for much of its history had a predominantly Jewish population and an infrastructure that included schools, hospitals, libraries, trade unions, and many secular and sectarian organizations.
“For me the whole undertaking has been very personal,” Lew wrote.
“It has helped me understand exactly what befell 90 percent of my immediate family.”