The title of Manny Drukier's Holocaust memoir refers to the indelible knot of memories that are lodged permanently in his survivor's soul, and which demand a kind of faithful attention that precludes full engagement in life. It is taken from Primo Levi: "The survivors are divided into two well-defined groups: those who repress their past en bloc, and those whose memory of the offence persists, as though carved in stone." As Levi's words suggest, even those who suppress the memories entirely still must live with a stone-a "bloc"-but one that is lugged around internally.
Drukier is from the second category, and this book is his attempt to carve his experience into a stone for the world to see. The author is in effect a sculptor, struggling to release the story imprisoned inside the rock of memory. In this way, he is trying to tell two stories: the story of the persecution that imprisoned him and the story of the struggle to be released from the memories that preoccupy him. Intermittently through his gripping recounting of his ordeal, he switches to the second tale-usually in the setting of a trip to Poland in 1991, his first time back in his native country since the war.
After visiting the Majdanek concentration camp, where there are still storerooms of human hair, cages filled with children's shoes, and containers of blood-stained clothes, Drukier is overwhelmed by long-dormant feelings, including the shame that had haunted him every time he survived a death selection. Struggling with this recurrence, he expresses the contradiction that has governed his psychic life since the end of the war. "One could either live resolutely in the present, or drive oneself mad," he says, suggesting that the former is the only viable response to torture-by-memory. But living without memories is like living without blood. He comes to understand that having painful memories is not the only problem. The lack of pleasant memories is a complementary trouble:
"I realized that I had lost my teenage years, that I had never experienced all the games and recreations of youth that had come so easily to my children.
"I never encounter old school friends, neighbours, pals from summer camp, or old flames.. There are no reunions to go to, no old textbooks to unearth; forgotten class photos don't turn up among dusty souvenirs. There are no funny hats on the top shelf, no favourite toys in a bottom drawer. No thrilling memories of a first kiss in adolescence.. There is just a blank where all this was meant to fit.
"I and others like me made up for the deficiency with bravado and hard work. But the feeling that it was all a waste of time persisted, that the only thing worth our attention was the memory of the war. So we plodded on."
Living in the present impoverishes, dwelling on the past torments. The result is a kind of psychic desperation, keeping Drukier on the run. The attempt to bring his past into the present, by taking the trip and recounting both this and his boyhood journeys, appears to serve its purpose when it yields a moment of understanding. But as a narrative strategy, it hampers his style. Switching from past to present is jarring, and dissipates the momentum that he creates when telling the story of the war years.
Drukier retells the story of his childhood before and during the war with intelligence, energy, and well-selected details. Perhaps because he was a child, with a fresh and retentive sensibility and almost nothing to do, he remembers many fascinating aspects of everyday life under the dangling sword.
"The Germans made periodic searches and confiscated illegal material, which meant practically anything. .A curious ploy to find hidden geese was used by the German soldiers then billeted in town. They would enter a courtyard, one of them holding a goose under his arm, and stick a pin into the bird's flesh to make it honk. This would cause any geese in the area-ours included-to reply. Germans would then follow the trail and confiscate all found-ins. During one of these tame-goose chases, our entire family held our geese by their throats."
He describes the struggle to keep lice at bay, find scarce footwear for his growing feet, satisfy his voracious appetite for reading material, contain rats by trapping cats ("the expression `fled like a rat' does not give rats the credit they deserve for courage and determination"), and assist in the family cottage industry of milling flour, along with countless other scenes of daily life before deportation. What we see is a resourceful, capable, and shrewd child with unsurpassed street smarts, some of which were learned from the family elders who had honed them in the First World War. One can easily understand how the fourteen-year-old who was assigned the job of designing and building a subterranean hiding-place for several families went on to build one of the largest furniture manufacturing companies in Canada. And despite his burdens, Drukier's livelier self occasionally comes through in his memories, as it does when he rhapsodizes over the virtues of the spud:
"Our diet consisted primarily of potatoes.. The potato, I discovered, is an adaptable vegetable. It will bake nicely in hot ashes if you have the time to wait; cut up into small pieces, it will boil in a pot of water quickly; it can be cooked peeled or unpeeled; it tastes good with or without salt, nice with a dab of margarine, heavenly cut up and fried. . Probably no physician has ever recommended a 100 percent potato experience. That's a pity: a spud has all the nutrients one needs to survive. Prepared any which way, potatoes will keep you awake, alert, and lean."
Drukier is sustained by the memory of sustenance, and his ability to feel it so intensely is charming. In fact, the intelligent and restrained way in which he shares his tale gives us a portrait of the survivor as a truly admirable person. He is frank about his suffering without being maudlin, intelligent in his analysis of the social forces at play in Europe, generous with the details that bring his world to life. The superior abilities that enabled him to survive are now put to the task of testimony, and serve him and the reader well.
But in the final analysis, his goal of synthesizing past with present does not succeed in this text. His ruminations intrude on his memoir, and are often marred by non-sequiturs. He is writing while still in the process of recovering from his traumatic visit, and though the writing is intense and intelligent, at times it has a disjointed, hectic quality of a mind in turmoil. With more time for restoring his equilibrium, and more guidance from his editors, Drukier could have turned out a superbly integrated memoir. Even so, it is well worth reading.
Robin Roger is editor of the alumni magazine for University College, Toronto.