A Holocaust Memoir Unlike Any Other

Upon his arrival in Auschwitz in 1942, the Nazis assigned Zalmen Gradowski to the Sonderkommando (special force), whose task was to direct fellow prisoners to the gas chambers and then to remove and dispose of their corpses. Gradowski kept a Yiddish-language diary, which he carefully hid and which has recently been published in English translation. In her review, Dara Horn compares Gradowski to Shimon bar Kokhba, who led a failed revolt against the Roman occupation of Judea in 135 CE:

Gradowski was both a talented writer and a heroic warrior, whose name should be as well known in Jewish history as Bar Kokhba’s—not least because he and Bar Kokhba were equally doomed. Gradowski was born around 1909 to a religious family in the town of Suwalki in the region known to Jews as Lita or Lithuania; as a young adult, he was politically active in the Revisionist wing of the Zionist movement named for Bar Kokhba’s last stand, Betar. By 1942, he and his wife, Sonja, and most of their large extended families were deported to Auschwitz, where all but Gradowski were gassed and burned on arrival.

This living nightmare ended for him on October 7, 1944, in a revolt he helped organize that lasted one day. Using gunpowder smuggled in tiny amounts over many months by Jewish female prisoners working in the camp’s munitions factory, he and his fellow rebels blew up Crematorium 4, killed three guards, and facilitated the escape of several hundred people. Within hours, Nazi officers recaptured most of the escapees and murdered more than four hundred Sonderkommandos and other prisoners. Gradowski was murdered in the revolt, as he fully anticipated.

Like much of Yiddish literature, Gradowski’s long incantatory introduction is laced with deliberate ironic echoes of biblical and other traditional texts, because that is the discourse in which the overwhelming majority of murdered Jews thought, spoke, and wrote. The fact that many non-Jewish readers will likely find this style alienating is itself revealing, because its off-putting nature for English readers isn’t just about references that might go over a reader’s head. This style is a literary enactment of the deepest element of Jewish life, one that anti-Semites cannot bear: responsibility for both past and future.

Like the classical Jewish texts upon which he drew, Gradowski’s writing openly demands his readers’ participation. He does not allow his readers to be passive observers; he fully implicates them in whatever happens next. This prophetic call to responsibility is precisely the call that the anti-Semitic world has rejected—then and, in endless unspoken ways, now.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Auschwitz, Holocaust, Holocaust resistance, Yiddish literature

What Israel Can Achieve in Gaza, the Fate of the Hostages, and Planning for the Day After

In a comprehensive analysis, Azar Gat concludes that Israel’s prosecution of the war has so far been successful, and preferable to the alternatives proposed by some knowledgeable critics. (For a different view, see this article by Lazar Berman.) But even if the IDF is coming closer to destroying Hamas, is it any closer to freeing the remaining hostages? Gat writes:

Hamas’s basic demand in return for the release of all the hostages—made clear well before it was declared publicly—is an end to the war and not a ceasefire. This includes the withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip, restoration of Hamas’s control over it (including international guarantees), and a prisoner exchange on the basis of “all for all.”

Some will say that there must be a middle ground between Hamas’s demands and what Israel can accept. However, Hamas’s main interest is to ensure its survival and continued rule, and it will not let go of its key bargaining chip. Some say that without the return of the hostages—“at any price”—no victory is possible. While this sentiment is understandable, the alternative would be a resounding national defeat. The utmost efforts must be made to rescue as many hostages as possible, and Israel should be ready to pay a heavy price for this goal; but Israel’s capitulation is not an option.

Beyond the great cost in human life that Israel will pay over time for such a deal, Hamas will return to rule the Gaza Strip, repairing its infrastructure of tunnels and rockets, filling its ranks with new recruits, and restoring its defensive and offensive arrays. This poses a critical question for those suggesting that it will be possible to restart the war at a later stage: have they fully considered the human toll should the IDF attempt to reoccupy the areas it would have vacated in the Gaza Strip?

Although Gat is sanguine about the prospects of the current campaign, he throws some cold water on those who hope for an absolute victory:

Militarily, it is possible to destroy Hamas’s command, military units, and infrastructure as a semi-regular military organization. . . . After their destruction in high-intensity fighting, the IDF must prevent Hamas from reviving by continuous action on the ground. As in the West Bank, this project will take years. . . . What the IDF is unlikely to achieve is the elimination of Hamas as a guerrilla force.

Lastly, Gat has some wise words about what will happen to Gaza after the war ends, a subject that has been getting renewed attention since Benjamin Netanyahu presented an outline of a plan to the war cabinet on Thursday. Gat argues that, contrary to the view of the American and European foreign-policy elite, there is no political solution for Gaza. After all, Gaza is in the Middle East, where “there are no solutions, . . . only bad options and options that are much worse.”

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza Strip, Gaza War 2023, Israeli Security