Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used with publisher's permissionOn Burning Ground: A Son’s Memoir
Michael Skakun
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999

Reviewed by:
Nancy Derby

Delaware County Christian School
Newtown Square, Pennsylvania


On Burning Ground is the account of survivor Joseph Skakun written by his son, Michael. The author assures the reader that the account is thoroughly factual, other than very minor details and some of the dialogue. This is the type of book – i.e., a biography rather than an autobiography – that we will be more accustomed to reading for our accounts of the Holocaust in the near future as fewer eyewitnesses remain to tell their stories.

Joseph Skakun was the only child of loving parents and diligently engaged himself in rabbinical studies. However, he lived in Poland and was emerging into manhood when World War II broke out, thus changing everything in his life.

The area of Poland where the Skakun family lived was first occupied by the Soviet Union. Joseph was beside his father when his father, exhausted from labor exacted by the Soviets, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Once the Germans drove the Soviets out Joseph tried his best to protect his mother from the systematic roundups but failed. He himself was set apart and given a temporary reprieve.

This biography recounts the amazing efforts of Joseph Skakun in his quest for survival. Perhaps in this book more than in any other survivor account this reviewer has encountered, Michael Skakun captures the anxiety, terror and desperation that must have been part of each doomed young person’s experience. From reading this account, one can understand more fully that so many others made agonizing choices, tried so many creative and cunning plans, yet failed. Joseph was one of the few whose plans ultimately were successful.

He hid in forests, in a hole in a cemetery, a woodpile, returned to the ghetto time and again for a brief time of shelter, and in some instances got other desperate young people to join him in treks to other locations. At one point Joseph chanced upon a region where descendants of nomadic Tatars lived. These people were Muslim and identity with them eventually became the key to Joseph’s survival. As a blonde, blue-eyed young man, he possessed the physical characteristics to disguise his Jewishness - except for his circumcision.

Michael Skakun writes:

“Never before had Father felt his body to be so confined, his freedom so trapped in the folds of his skin. His life, a contracting series of concentric circles, forced him into ever narrower gyres. No matter which way he turned his physical contingence imprisoned him: the hang of his arms, the shape of his hands, the slope of his shoulders, all were defined and, indeed, imprisoned by his circumcision - a sacred covenant before the war, now a stanchless wound.”

Joseph assumed the identity of a Tatar Muslim, one of a religious community which also practiced the rite of circumcision, and eventually found a measure of protection by volunteering for labor in the enemy country itself, Germany. He vigilantly guarded himself from detection through speech idioms and gestures peculiar to a Yiddish community member. Eventually it became a necessary measure of subterfuge to enlist in the German army where his looks were seen by the examiners as an excellent example of Aryan ones. His physique, he was told, was so superior that he was eligible to become a member of the S.S. Fortunately the war was grinding to an end and thus Joseph was spared the agony of having to go into battle on the side of so hated an enemy.

This is an account that is well written and gives another survivor testimony for future generations to ponder. The only question that the reader is left with from this deeply moving account is why Joseph himself did not write this. One is left wondering about his life after the war although Michael does reveal a bit about his father’s adult life. There is a certain interest one has after becoming deeply involved in an account like this that is not satisfied. This is a biography worth the time of any student of the Holocaust.

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