Museum Fellowship Book Reviews
Am I a
Murderer? Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman
One important reason for teaching the Holocaust is to give students an opportunity to study human behavior in extreme situations in order to enable them to become aware of the difficulty of choices that human beings, including themselves, must make throughout their lives, as well as the consequences of those choices. Such books as The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal are used effectively in the classroom to stimulate discussion on choices made by perpetrators and victims. There are large gaps, of course, among the often “choiceless choices” that the victims were required to make, the choices of perpetrators indoctrinated by an evil dictatorship, and the choices that most young people of today will face. As Viktor Frankl tells us in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, however, he pondered the exceptionality of making choices. He wondered why some prisoners who knew they were to die that day still spread comfort and shared bread. Frankl believed that it demonstrated that one freedom cannot be taken away: the freedom to choose one’s own attitude in the face of any circumstance. This realization is of great importance to students in enabling them to recognize and to define behavior that encourages tolerance and compassion even if they are not always able to demonstrate it in their own behavior. Reading a variety of personal narrations by those caught up in the Holocaust is invaluable in this process as these types of accounts stimulate discussions on religious, political, moral, and personal issues.
Am I a Murder?: Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman (the original title is “A History of a Jewish Family During German Occupation”) by Calel Perechodnik is an interesting account by a twenty-seven year old ghetto policeman in Otwock, a town near Warsaw. Perechodnik began his memoir on May 7, 1943, while hiding in the home of a Polish woman in Warsaw. The memoir, which is primarily a confession of the guilt he feels for his responsibility in bringing about the deportation of his wife and two year old daughter and their subsequent death in Treblinka, is unique among Holocaust testimonies and is extremely thought provoking. Perechodnik’s account shares his profound sense of guilt for his inability to save his wife and child although that was the primary reason for his decision to become a ghetto policeman in early 1941. His description of the deportation on August 19, 1942, at the Umschlagplatz is chilling. The picture of his wife and daughter, sitting with the other victims as he carries out his duties, creates a surreal, circus-like scene that is intensified as he loads his boxcars. In relation to the previously mentioned comments by Viktor Frankl about the freedom of individuals in making decisions, it is interesting to compare the choices of Perechodnik, who carries out his duties at the Umschlagplatz, and his friend and fellow officer Abram Willendorf, who removes his police armband and joins his family in their wait for death. Perechodnik mentions several times his admiration for Willendorf, as well as for Janusz Korczak, who chose to die with the children under his care, but, sorrowfully, confesses that his fear of death prevented him from making the right decision.
I have reservations about using this book with all high school students, but there are three strengths that might make it appropriate for the mature junior, senior, or advanced placement student. One strength is the sequence of events that Perechodnik chronicles. He records such events as his and his father’s compliance with the Polish radio broadcast command to go eastward to fight in 1939, the formation of the Judenrat in Otwock, Himmler’s visit to Warsaw, the death of Czerniakow, the Aktions of several ghettos including his own, the shooting of 4,000 Jews in Otwock, the cleaning up of the ghettos after the Aktions, life in, and escape from, a work camp, the experience of being hidden in Warsaw, the beginning of understanding of what was happening in the death camps, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the Warsaw Uprising. This strength is enhanced by the addition of excellent notes that correct or explain Perechodnik’s observations since many events he learned of through other witnesses. In most cases his information is amazingly accurate, and the notes afford the student the opportunity to see the understanding of the Jews at that time about what was happening. The preface by the editor Frank Fox and the afterward by Pawel Szapiro from the Polish edition are excellent as well.
Another strength is the authenticity of the memoir as a primary resource. It was of extreme importance to Perechodnik that his testimony, which he considered to be a witness of the events of the time as well as a memorial to his wife, not be lost. When Perechodnik knew that death was imminent (he was killed in a bunker by looters after the Warsaw Uprising), he placed the document in the hands of a Polish friend and requested that it be published after his death. After the war, the memoir was given to Perechodnik’s brother, Pesach Perechodnik, who had survived the war in Russia. The original copy of the memoir was presented to the Yad Vashem Archives, and a copy was given to the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland which today is the Jewish Historical Institute. This book is the first publication of the complete document.
The third strength involves a consideration of ethical and moral issues. For students who have read Wiesenthal’s Sunflower, Perechodnik’s comments concerning his desire for forgiveness would offer an opportunity for a comparison/contrast of the two books. While the Nazi soldier begs for forgiveness from someone who was not his victim and makes no mention of penance, Perechodnik makes it quite clear that only his wife can forgive him. He asks only for understanding, and he speaks of the penance that he knows he must endure. These contrasts could lead into an awareness of possible differences in the ideas of forgiveness in the Christian and Jewish religious traditions.
I do have some cautionary comments about using this book even with mature students. Although Perechodnik’s accounts are considered to be accurate and truthful, there is much that is left out. He speaks little about his activities as a ghetto policeman and makes only brief comments about events in which he, in all probability, played a role that could have caused Jewish victims such as Emmanuel Ringelblum to describe the cruelty of the ghetto police as “at times greater than that of the Germans, the Ukrainians and the Latvians.” This silence on the part of Perechodnik could skew the understanding of the student and lead to belief in, or sympathy for, the victim and failure to recognize the collaborator. A second warning involves Perechodnik’s attitudes toward the Jews and Jewish religion and tradition. As a young, educated man, he has rejected belief in God and the religious traditions of his Orthodox Jewish family. He is very bitter toward the Jews and frequently criticizes them, even blaming them for bringing these events on themselves because of their insistence on cultural and religious isolation. He is sarcastic about others, as well as self-deprecating about his own Jewishness.
Calel Perechodnik’s testimony is a painful and unsettling chronicle to read, but, as Albert H. Friedland, in his book
Riders Towards the Dawn: From Holocaust to Hope reminds us, “The Holocaust can never fully be understood; but we must open ourselves to the questions it asks of us.” With the editor and translator, Frank Fox, “We may wish that Perechodnik had never joined the police force. We may wish that he had been more like the saintly Dr. Korczak or his friend Willendorf. But victims of the Holocaust were forced to consider choices unimagined in human experience. Could we vouch for our own behavior under these circumstances?” The discerning educator can consider the sensitive nature of this book and determine the students that might benefit from reading this exceptional eyewitness testimony of the Holocaust.