It is the little things that make Holocaust memoirs so painful, says SILVIA RODGERS after reading three very different accounts

The devil is in the details

Sunday Times, April 25 1999 BOOKS: MEMOIRS


My uncle Michel, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, sent my parents a letter full of unbearable details of his life there: "Forgive me. But I have to write all this to you." That same need to tell it as it was infuses Livia Bitton-Jackson's I Have Lived for a Thousand Years: Growing up in the Holocaust (Simon & Schuster £17) and Wladyslaw Szpilman's The Pianist (Gollancz £12.99). Like my uncle, Bitton-Jackson and Szpilman are Holocaust survivors, and they give the unbearable details movingly.

Lisa Appignanesi's reflective, intelligent and readable Losing the Dead: A Family Memoir (Chatto £15.99), does rather more. She was born in 1946 to survivors of the Warsaw ghetto. The family emigrated to Canada in 1951, and later to England.

Her description of her parents' experiences is based on stories heard throughout her childhood, conversations with her mother and brother, and her own recent and sad visit to Poland where she was uneasily aware of her "otherness", her Jewishness and the pervasive anti-semitism. Appignanesi's background is similar to that of Eva Hoffman, whose praise of this book on the cover seems rather odd, considering that it contradicts her own defence of Poland's pre-war record in Schtetl, published last year.

The most flamboyant character, and the heroine of the story, is Hena, Appignanesi's mother. Charming, blonde, beautiful and utterly exasperating, she could pass for Polish, even Anglo-Saxon, and so her family survived. Being naturally flirtatious helped, too. She fooled a German and a Russian officer, and at least three Poles: the chief of the Warsaw town hall, a priest and her landlord. Aron, Appignanesi's father, stayed out of sight and depended totally on his wife.

Gentlemen and others still prefer blondes. In Hitler's Europe, it was the symbol of superiority and it was her blonde hair that saved Livia Bitton-Jackson. In 1944, when she was 13, her childhood in a Carpathian village was shattered by the German occupation. The familiar events came to pass: the family was herded into a ghetto, her father deported, and the rest stuffed into a cattle train where most bodies turned into corpses. It was when the train arrived at Auschwitz and children were being separated from their mothers, that something out of the ordinary happened. The officer who with his whip directed all children under 16 to the gas chamber, lovingly stroked Livia's blonde braids and insisted she was no longer 13 but 16. He was Dr Mengele.

Instead of the gas chambers, she was pushed into a building with about 1,000 women. As SS officers fired pistols, the women stripped naked, all hair was shaved off, cold showers beat down and each donned a shapeless grey garment. All this is documented, but Bitton-Jackson tells us exactly what it felt like. With the loss of hair, all individuality, identity, femininity vanished; the women stopped weeping but began to shriek, laugh wildly, some rolling on the ground. An SS officer cracked a whip and the band of faceless, sexless inmates marched off.

Szpilman's The Pianist is subtitled The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw 1939-45. He is the man who, as the Nazis invaded Poland, played a Chopin nocturne on Warsaw Radio, and played it again at the liberation. His memoir, written immediately after the war, is rich in diverse details. A woman goes crazy and starts to wear green velvet curtains and a purple feather, an old man is tossed over a balcony and his body glides out of his wheelchair to tumble slowly to the pavement, a mother smothers her crying baby, but then his death rattle betrays their hiding place; and a tiny lilac blossoms from a crack in the wall. Cliffhangers alternate with periods of utter loneliness. Szpilman eases them by rehearsing every piece of music he has ever composed. Music is a recurring theme, and most heartrending is a column of children walking to their deaths singing, while the boy in front plays his violin. When Szpilman encounters a Wehrmacht officer, he plays Chopin and is spared. But Wilm Hosenfeld would have spared him anyway; he had saved other, non-musical Jews. He was a good German, but only his diary survived.

Throughout these distressing books, I had to remember that Szpilman lives in Warsaw, Bitton-Jackson in New York and that Appignanesi's parents, too, survived. Happy endings are good for us, claimed Bruno Bettelheim, another survivor - but Appignanesi reminds us of the surviving pain.