Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of Bulfinch PressA Promise to Remember: The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of its Survivors
Michael Berenbaum
Boston: Bulfinch Press / AOL Time Warner Book Group, 2003

Reviewed by:
Robert Hutcheson

Webster Groves High School
Webster Groves, Missouri 


Michael Berenbaum’s A Promise to Remember will be an enticing entity to many teachers, as it was to this reader. The book’s subtitle, “The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of Its Survivors,” cannot render full justice to the idiosyncrasies of this see-and-hear work. Berenbaum includes text, an audio CD with its own booklet of testimony transcriptions, and, especially, a number of pockets with inserts or other bound-in items on practically every page. Teachers and students alike will appreciate and be stimulated by this mixture, and I can imagine group and individual work within a classroom facilitated by this tantalizing feature. To be honest, all of the pocketed/inserted items could easily have been incorporated within the book’s uniform pages without the pocket layout, yet they allow one to respond deeply to the sense of authenticity that comes, for example, from holding in one’s own hands a yellowing facsimile of Rabbi Leo Baeck’s Kol Nidre prayer (1935), replete with handwriting and typeovers. When needed, accurate and very serviceable English translations are provided on the backs of the facsimiles; while these might have been placed in an appendix at the end of the book. Thoughtful and erudite reads of these documents and pictures and will be led to interconnect the variety of strands presented.

There are sixteen core sections (each containing two to three pages), including an introduction and afterword. In his acknowledgments, Berenbaum praises his editor at becker & mayer! as one who “cut and cut the material trying not to sacrifice quality for brevity” (47). The author manages to say a great deal in the forty-eight pages, in the audio CD, and in and through the insertions, nonetheless, and the spoken testimonies are distinctly and helpfully contextualized through the printed pages. In general, it is notable, particularly for educators, that there seems to be a sensitivity to avoid the lurid in the photographs that accompany the text. Piles of discarded garments outside a shower are represented rather than piles of corpses, and this may make the book an especially appropriate one for upper grades. The book will certainly leave its impact on most adult readers, as well. Although the book’s length prohibits extensive historical development and analysis, the text is concise and literate.

In his “Introduction: The World Before,” the author clarifies, “This book is a hybrid-part text, part visual, part interactive, part audio” (4). He then quickly traces the panorama of pre-Holocaust history of the Jews through the period of Nazi domination. Almost half of the chapters contain testimonies of survivors who also speak on the audio CD. The first chapter (“The Assault Against the Jews”) deals with remembrances by Norbert Wolheim (also see CD) and information on the burning of the Reichstag, the Nuremberg Laws and the Kindertransport. The above-mentioned prayer of Leo Baeck is also to be found here inside a pocket.

“Theresienstadt: Life in the Ghetto” makes brief mention of the opera Brundibar, but without any mention of its author/composer, though a performance photo is given. Mina Pacter’s recipes help broaden perspective on what occurred in that camp, and lines from thirteen-year-old inmate Franta Bass (“I am proud of my people, / how dignified they are. / Even though I am suppressed, / I will always comes back to life.”) end this section.

“The Einsatzgruppen” (see Simon Davidovich Dodik on CD) references first-hand testimony and learned opinions of Browning and Goldhagen, and includes a facsimile of the proclamation leading to the Babi Yar massacre in 1941. “The Decision to Kill the Jews” is devoted to the Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution, with a Heydrich-signed facsimile-invitation to the conference from the “Chef der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD” “für eine Gesamtlösung der Judenfrage in Europa” [“for a thorough solution to the Jewish question in Europe”] included in a pocket. The conference was postponed until January 20, 1942.

“The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” will be of high interest, especially to readers of her On Both Sides of the Wall, because of the information given on and by Vladka Meed (also see CD) and copies of her 1944 photo and her false I.D. “Life Inside the Camps” presents the witness of Lilly Appelbaum Lublin (see CD). Her struggle with temptations to suicide led her outside at night, where she looked at the stars, expressed her frustrations in words and tears, and always returned to the barracks (20). I find this “star” image quite a useful basis for classroom discussion of and comparison with Simon Wiesenthal’s wonderful “sunflower” image in his classic book of the same title.

In “The Sonderkommando” chapter, Sam Itzkowitz (see CD) tells of his experiences and describes the death of Bess Platka, the details of which should be shared in pre-college classrooms only with care and discretion. She strangles her baby rather than letting the SS man do it, throws the corpse in his face, hits him over the head with a large beer bottle, and grabs his gun and empties the chamber into him before she meets her own death. This chapter also uses the rather famous and somewhat lurid sketches of David Olére (who painted under the name “Prisoner No. 106144”) which one should also use with great care in the classroom (I would not use most of these myself, though his later painting, “The End of Law and the Rights of Man,” 1950, at the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters House could be used with older students if a print can be obtained). The photo of clothing falling out of a warehouse door (22), however, pointedly and silently witnesses to some of the prisoners who were gassed at Auschwitz.

”A Mosaic of Victims” offers inserted photos of non-Jewish victims and a famous table of “Markings [shapes and colors] for Prisoners in the Concentration Camps.” “Bystanders: News of the Final Solution” discusses Leipzig-lawyer Gerhart Riegner’s ominous telegrams and the testimony of the brilliant Jan Karski (see CD), and also, for some reason, devotes a full page (premium space in a book of such length!) to a picture of a 1933 anti-Nazi demonstration in Madison Square Garden. Karski’s testimony (28), both personal and philosophical, is poignant:

But I am a Christian Jew. I am a practicing Catholic. Although I am not a heretic, still my faith tells me that the second original sin has been committed by humanity: through commission or omission or self-imposed ignorance or insensitivity, or hypocrisy, or heartless rationalization. This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. It does haunt me and I want it to be so.

“Rescue: Denmark and Bulgaria” presents testimony by then thirteen-year-old Leo Goldberger about the atmosphere and events in Copenhagen, the stirring story of Metropolitan Stefan and Bishop Cyril on behalf of the Jews of Bulgaria, and a pertinent letter from Bulgarian writers questioning legislation aimed at protecting the Jewish minority because they and all minorities in Bulgaria are citizens first and should be protected as such.

“The Murder of the Hungarian Jews” includes words and artwork by Alice Lok Cahana in addition to text on the plight of Hungary’s Jews towards the end of the war. “Death Marches” appends the text with a facsimile of a map of German concentration camps, which was “prepared by the Political Department and the adjutant’s office of the Buchenwald concentration camp” (38). “Liberation” contains more testimony by Alice Lok, who puzzles over the meaning of the word “liberation” upon first hearing it (41). There is a photo of a tattooed arm at Buchenwald—it is questionable whether one should indicate that the tattoo likely stems from processing at Auschwitz, not at Buchenwald (the online photo archives of the USHMM don’t tend to present such clarification either). “The Return to Life” will interest many who have heard the firsthand testimony of Nesse Godin in person. Her words are included here, though not on the CD. [For teachers looking for another, for me, sublimely usable resource for the classroom, I cannot recommend the Discovery Channel video The Holocaust: In Memory of Millions, which was “hosted” by Walter Cronkite at the USHMM and released in 1994, highly enough. The cassette indicates that it runs sixty minutes, but the real time exceeds ninety minutes, and it also includes unique testimony by Leon Jacobson, the builder of the famous Lodz Ghetto model, which is on permanent display at the USHMM.] The inserts relate to displaced persons camps and suggest that life continued with at least some approach to normalcy for some survivors (43).

The “Afterword,” continually misspelling Wehrmac[h]t, discusses issues such as the banking scandal in Switzerland and other disturbing Holocaust landmarks. Irving Greenberg’s “principle of authenticity”—“No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made which cannot be made in the presence of burning children” (46)—remains worthy of reflection by every human and, indeed, by every Holocaust educator. Berenbaum includes here some perspective on “the role of Holocaust memory in the contemporary world”; his words will, perhaps, prove true for the ages. Hopefully, there will be no future event in human history to top this “nuclear bomb of moral epithets.” The Credits page appropriately makes frequent reference to materials found in the USHMM archives.

The booklet that accompanies the audio CD presents a dutiful, verbatim transcription. The transcription makes one “miss” on Track 8; Jan Karski is said to speak of Justice Frankfurter’s “theoretical language” —though the audio CD quite distinctly pronounces “juridical language”--and the word Selektion/selection/selection is not printed uniformly, but these are very minor quibbles. Berenbaum’s own interspersed commentary is frequently artificial and perhaps intrusive, yet some sort of introduction and commentary is needed, and the CD remains an immensely valuable asset to the reader and the educator and should definitely find its place in the classroom. A complex collection of resources, it merits teachers’ attention and will reap harvest according to their needs, sophistication, and creativity. It well worth the purchase and the study.


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