To coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day in January of this year, MacLehose Press reaffirmed its commitment to publishing works of literature aimed at keeping the flame of remembrance alive. In an interview, publisher Christopher MacLehose said ‘I think there has to be a real literary response to the tragedy of the Holocaust… The priority I think is to educate the next generation and their children. And the more that the books we publish are real and of irreproachable quality the more you can give them to be read.’
In 2011 the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day was ‘untold stories’. Until very recently Rajchman’s account of his experience of Treblinka, as one of its few survivors, remained untold. He recorded his story in a notebook even before the war was over. This remained in the possession of his family and has been published for the first time in English by MacLehose Press this year.
This is a book that should be read. Indeed I hope it is at least as broadly read as Anatoly Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel.
This is Rajchman’s first hand experience of ten months in the killing ground that was Treblinka, a period of ten months that would have seemed impossible at first. Initially he is put to work sorting clothes but when he claims to be a barber his life is spared for a longer period and he removes the hair of the women before they enter the gas chambers. Even with such a task, life expectancy is acutely short until the Germans realise that their worker-churn is not the most effective strategy and they allow the workers to settle in. But even then, Rajchman’s account identifies the extreme suffering to be endured and the extreme measures to be taken to achieve that extension of life. Some seek refuge in suicide before the early call of the next morning.
Rajchman’s prose is simple and honest and in the present tense conveying a sense of immediacy and raw, open, emotion. He recalls the speed with which he lost his sister, the lack of opportunity to say good bye properly, to kiss her. Later he finds her dress when he is sorting clothes and he cuts a piece that stays with him during his time at Treblinka.
Important historical recollections such as these help to ensure accurate records of fact. They also identify and record the strength of the human spirit. Given all that was suffered, even Rajchman’s liberation came about when he escaped at the time of an uprising.
Rajchman’s record is carefully sandwiched between two other well-chosen and appropriate documents in this volume. The preface from Samuel Moyn introduces the background and the historical context for the main text. Then, having read Rajchman’s first hand experience, the volume finishes with an essay from Vasily Grossman – The Hell of Treblinka – which outlines what was known of the camp and what was found there some thirteen months after the uprising when Grossman entered.
Indeed, there is one sentence from Grossman that sums up the purpose of this volume and why we must read it. ‘It is the writer’s duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is the reader’s civic duty to learn this truth.’
Rajchman’s account was translated by Solon Beinfeld. The book is available here on Amazon.co.uk.