My Three Selves: A Memoir

by Morris Schnitzer
136 pages,
ISBN: 1896266696

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A Journey Across the Periphery of Hell
by Fred A. Reed

My Three Selves is the story of Morris (Moishe) Schnitzer's survival in German-occupied Europe for six years, from 1939 to 1945. Born in 1922 into a prosperous Jewish family in Bochum, in the industrial heartland of Germany, Schnitzer, as an adolescent, witnessed the rapid collapse of the prosperous community that had nurtured and educated him.
1932: Discounted by the young Schnitzer's family¨and by too many others*¨as a "temporary abberation," Hitler within a year of taking office with a plurality of votes had transformed Germany into a one-party state and touched off a phenomenal economic recovery.
For the compact Jewish community of Wattenscheid, a Bochum suburb where the well-to-do Schnitzer family made their home, the signals were ominous but diffuse. First came the isolated beatings, then the reconversion of the public education system into an amplifier for Hitlerian ideology. By 1935, the climate had become so hostile that the young Schnitzer left the state gymnasium (high school) and travelled to Berlin where he enrolled in the Adath Israel Gymnasium, an elite school with exacting standards.
In early November, 1938, after the assassination by a Jewish youth of an official of the German Embassy in Paris, the Nazi state unleashed the events known as Kristallnacht. Schnitzer rushed home from Berlin and was thrown briefly in jail. His father had been arrested a few days earlier and sent to a concentration camp. Meanwhile, his mother, with the energy of desperation, had obtained for her son an exit visa on a kindertransport.
Several countries, including England, Holland and Denmark, had agreed to accept a limited number of children from the Reich, most of them Jewish. Instead of England, which eventually took in some 10,000, the fifteen year-old was assigned to Holland.
On the eve of his departure his father was released. "Whatever you do," he warned his son, "never put your foot in a concentration camp." To the injunctions of a doomed member of a doomed community Schnitzer would, as his powerful, laconically narrated memoir demonstrates, ultimately owe his life.
The kindertransport carried him fewer than one hundred kilometers across the border into neighboring Holland. There would begin a new life as a farm worker, fugitive, resistance fighter and survivor.
Until German troops marched into the neutral Netherlands on May 10, 1940, he had been enrolled in a hachshara, a Zionist-run training program for collective farm life that prepared volunteers for emigration to Palestine. The regimen was tough and unrelenting: pre-dawn to dark agricultural labor alongside the taciturn peasants of Friesland. There, the town-bred budding intellectual quickly became a hardened farm-hand and a skilled milker.
Gestapo and police patrols now stalked the land. The hachshara students were rounded up. Schnitzer boldly asked permission to retrieve his identity papers, fled the dormitory building through the back door and escaped. He made his way to Amsterdam where the Nazi-appointed Jewish Council advised him to report for deportation to the Westerbork concentration camp.
"My responsibility is to save myself!" shouted Schnitzer. Like their counterparts in the Salonica Jewish community¨and throughout occupied Europe¨the leaders of the Council had concluded that their strategy must be to sacrifice the many to save the few.
As 'Eli Hart' he lived in semi-clandestinity in Amsterdam, while around him the Germans were rounding up all those who wore the yellow star. It was the spring of 1942. The Wansee Conference had taken place; the Final Solution was now being implemented. Schnitzer refused to wear the incriminating emblem.
Crossing over into Belgium he acquired a new identity, that of Jan van Cappelle, the name of a soccer star, and set off with a companion through France toward Switzerland. In each town they passed through they located the Catholic church, entered the confessional and threw themselves at the mercy of the parish priest. In every case, they were given food, and often a night's shelter.
Neutral Switzerland proved no safe haven. Ragged, hungry Jewish refugees were systematically deported. The two young men were no exception, and were sent back whence they had come.
After a series of short prison terms in occupied France, Schnitzer was returned to his 'native' Belgium, where he was once more imprisoned. Again, by a combination of quick wit and good luck, he was released onto the streets of Brussels, a free man¨and "German Jew via Holland, Switzerland and France."
By now, Schnitzer had developed a cat-like awareness of danger and a finely-honed sense of what must be done (the answer: everything) to survive. He joined the Belgian underground, learned to use a pistol. Betrayed with his comrades, he leaped from a third-story window ledge to elude the pursuing German police. Now a wanted man, he found work on a dairy farm near Waterloo where he lived out the war in cautious anonymity.
Schnitzer attributes his survival to 95 or even 99 percent luck. But from the understated pages of his memoir emerges the picture of a man who had learned, or perhaps instinctively knew, how to maximize those meagre chances. In his determination, one finds echos of Steinlauf, Iron Cross in the 1914-1918 war, in Primo Levi's If this Is a Man. In the midst of the horror of the Auschwitz extermination camp, Steinlauf insists on washing himself in dirty water every day not because the regulation states it, but for the sake of his own dignity and propriety, the protection of self.
His memoir reveals the same irreductible core of grim resolve I encountered in the person of Heinz Salvador Cugno, one of the handful to survive the eradication of the Salonica Jewish community. Cugno, who had been transported to the death camps as an adolescent and lived to write about it, had the ramrod-straight bearing and quiet dignity that bespoke the same unquenchable thirst for life that percolates through Schnitzer's account of a journey across the periphery of Hell.
Most of all, Schnitzer's story brings to mind another account, this one fictional, of a kindertransport survivor: W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz. In fact, the two books¨as distinct as only an accomplished work of literary art can be from the raw material of experience¨share not only a common geography, that of the Low Countries, but a common atmosphere.
Sebald's eponymous protagonist chillingly evokes in his long talks with the narrator the utter dispossession, the randomness of evil, the frivolity of hope, the ever-fading quality of memory. One senses a similar disposition in the young Schnitzer, and a determination to bear witness against the oblivion that creeps up from the ground like gathering night.
At the core of Nazi ideology lay a determination to strip those fated for extermination of their humanity, their sense of self. To convince the victims that no salvation, no rescue, no survival was conceivable: only pain unto death. That they were, in effect, shadows of less substance than the disincarnate objects that Jacques Austerlitz sees as he walks the eerily empty streets of Theresienstadt, the Nazi 'model city' where his mother had been killed.
"The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate was (his) image of the vanished past of his family and his people which, as he knows, can never be brought up from those depths again," writes the narrator of Austerlitz as he concludes his tale.
Morris Schnitzer lived for six years on the edge of that chasm, often reduced to a feral state in his struggle for survival. Today, he is a prominent soil organic chemist living in Ottawa. To the question "why?" he declines to answer. Like Austerlitz, like the late Primo Levi's Steinlauf, like Heinz Salvador Cugno, he instinctively understands that no explanation exists, nor can one be offered.
It is enough, and more, to tell the tale. ˛

* In an essay entitled "A Four Point Program for Jewry" written in 1938, composer Arnold Schoenberg gave a detailed warning of the dangers facing the Jews of Europe targeted by Nazi Germany for deportation. "Is there room in the world for almost 7,000,000 people? Are they condemned to doom?" wrote Schoenberg. "What have our Jewish leaders, our Jewish men with foresight, done to avert this disaster?" [in The New York Review of Books, February 27, 2003, p 49]

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