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.