It takes a long time to complete the reading of this book for two reasons. The first is the subject matter which is very hard to read in more than small doses. The flagrant disregard for even the remotest form of human dignity, and the obvious disgust and/or detachment, with which the Nazis and their followers view those they are abusing, will disturb most readers. Second, the heft and design of the book is not conducive to holding and reading. The cover is too stiff to turn comfortably or turn back, and while turning the pages, which are also too stiff and thick, there is the risk of separating them from the binding. The book cannot be opened and laid flat. In addition, the width of the book is too narrow for its length to be comfortably handled. That said, the cover is an impressive design, and the story is well told. It would be sad if people were turned off from this amazingly detailed, informative memoir simply because of the difficulty of handling its package. I learned far more about an individual’s experiences during the years leading up to and including Hitler’s rise to power, and then to his execution of his horrific Final Solution, than I had ever before, although I have read broadly on the subject of the Holocaust. This was almost like a daily diary which was all inclusive and which more than adequately expressed the confusion of the victims when they were first confronted with such hatred and brutality. Their behavior and reactions and the reasons for them, become very clear as the book progressed. This record of events really explains why the author’s father-in-law and others, behaved as they did. She relates his story as he is telling it, and he tells it as if he is still living in each moment of his past.
Hitler believed that the Aryans were the master race, but if nothing else, the war and the survival of the Jews should have shown him and his ilk that perhaps the Jews were more masterful than anyone ever believed. Perhaps the G-d of the Hebrews enabled those survivors to make it, perhaps it was impossible for their Yahweh to do anything more against the terrible forces of evil unleashed by Hitler, but keep the “tribe” alive to live another day. Perhaps they were not abandoned, as Joseph thought. Perhaps, instead, they were an example for others to follow, an example of the will to survive. Although he describes every circumstance as one of abandonment by friends and family, as one with few comforts, he manages to appreciate what little he had in every place he found himself, by removing himself from the experience emotionally, essentially giving up all feeling and forgetting about each tragic event as it happened, moving along to the next moment, living only in the present. He simply wanted to survive and did whatever was necessary at any particular time.
He describes how some Jews felt superior to other Jews, felt safe while others were being harassed, losing their basic rights and forcibly removed from their homes. They, in a way, like some of the Germans and, of course, the Nazis, didn’t concern themselves with the plight of the others. Perhaps this is due to the general feeling of superiority that most Germans felt about themselves or more likely, it is due to the fact that the Jews who behaved this way were reduced to an animal state, lower perhaps, since animals only usually kill to survive, not for pleasure or their own self satisfaction and they were forced to observe wanton torture and murder as well as to behave heinously themselves, often, in order to survive. Joseph’s own account, sometimes does exhibit an example of the arrogance some Jews felt toward other Jews which led to their lack of insight and inability, at first, to recognize and address their own problems. It also lays the groundwork for Joseph’s eventual rejection of religion since from the get-go, he didn’t want to be perceived to be like Jews. He had this attitude as a youth, really because he didn’t want to be bullied or abused as other recognizable Jews were, but he seemed, as his family and other Jews seemed to feel, that they were better than those being persecuted and therefore felt they existed outside of the problem. That attitude may have helped Hitler to gain control. There was a lack of negative reaction, a lack of resistance early-on, rather they absented themselves from the problem, as Joseph did so completely in the workhouses and camps, didn’t really offer much solace to the other suffering refugees, felt that Jews from other countries remained on the outside of their concerns; it didn’t involve them, until it did, until the nature of their silence in the face of wrongdoing eventually came to roost in your own backyard, until the unimaginable began for all Jews and included them.
This narrative feels like a confession, a very personal conversation with Joseph as he unloads the baggage of his past, a past he has been forced to carry all these years, scarred by his experiences of being shunted from one place to another, each more awful, a past filled with experiences he can never fully discuss with anyone until now. It feels, at times, almost like a plea for redemption of some kind. The story of Joseph Kempler’s life is more horrific than many of the survivor books I have read because it is so inclusive. It begins at the beginning, in the 1920’s, and ends, at the end, as he nears the end of his life, in the early 21st century. This is, unlike other revelatory explanations which prematurely end, sadly, with the death of the unfinished life of the person being written about, or start in the middle after Hitler’s rise to power and thus don’t contain such a complete narrative. Also, it involves many places and camps that I had not known much about previously.
The prologue explains Joseph’s love of trains and the awful consequences they would one day have upon his life. The book is told in several parts, each describing a period of time from the early years before Hitler’s rise to power, at a time when the German population showed some common sense, and he wound up in jail, and then continues to explain the lifestyle of Joseph Kempler, at home, at his father’s business and in a variety of schools, leading up to his experience in the ghettos and workplaces established by the Germans for the Jews, and ultimately to his time in Concentration Camps, a time he describes as more organized, although more barbaric, since the dead had to be recorded so that random unremarked killings ceased. The book then continues to the time after the war ends, covering his struggles with religion and his eventual discovery of a life worth living, although he is never able to truly feel or offer his love freely again.
Joseph complains of never having seen love or compassion in the camps, other than as it was expressed in the faith and loyalty shown by Jehovah’s Witnesses who could have gone free had they renounced their faith. This belief of his, however, flies in the face of many of the other stories I have read which tell of people making enormous sacrifices to save each other. There were times when I did not like Joseph because of his own cruelty and selfishness. He describes the bestial way the Jews treated each other as if it was the norm, and yet, I have read so many books where they tried to care for each other or their family members as best they could with what little they had. Perhaps he saw no compassion because he rarely showed any to others, so preoccupied was he with his own survival at all costs. He seemed to have more freedom to move about at the beginning of Hitler’s rise, than most I have read about previously. Perhaps it was his youth and his Aryan look, light haired and light eyed. He also seemed unafraid to defy the rules, at first, and only later when he was broken by the Nazis, at the mere age of 16 or 17, did he become afraid of defying anyone.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses he so admired, and to whom he eventually converted, would never have behaved as he did towards others, but I did not think his rationale for leaving his faith for another was anything more than a search for guidelines to follow, to free him from making decisions. He had been brainwashed to follow orders, blindly, and he still wanted that kind of structure in his life. He liked to be told what to do, for left to his own devices, he tended to luxuriate in his newly found freedom and do nothing. However, this is his story, his perspective about his experience, no one else’s, although much of the brutality was experienced by all who survived, in one form or another, and I will not judge him. I doubt that I could have walked in his shoes and survived. As a result of his exposure to such hatred and barbarism at so early an age, Joseph really knew little else and was, eventually, unable to show real emotion, love or compassion to anyone. He only ever seemed concerned for his own safety. Hitler’s policies robbed him of his youth, his emotion, his religion, the future he had dreamed of, and his ability to feel anything deeply, for others. Joseph felt everyone, including his G-d, had failed him and he eventually went from being a Jew to an atheist and finally to becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Although this conversion is a very small part of the book, it is an important part since it gave him a future and a purpose. One must not forget, though, it was in a very vulnerable time of Joseph’s life that he was actively proselytized by the Witnesses, a practice that is totally unacceptable for most Jews. It is something they would not even consider.
The dates at the front of each chapter signify how the world went from the sublime to a nightmare for so many! The dates of significant events coupled with the photos, add to the book and serve to guide the timeline effectively. In addition, while it may be a bit distracting for some, the notes on the top of the pages of each chapter, detailing the age and major issue facing Joseph, or stressing a particular comment, are relevant and serve to keep the reader focused.
In the body of the book, we witness Joseph’s amazing memory. His description of the early years, even before the ghettoes, is presented in a style that is almost childlike in its simplicity, as if Joseph is actually able to take us there in his mind and relive the experience for us, relating it as a child going through it in the immediacy of the moment. He was still young and unformed, inexperienced and totally unprepared for the events to come, as were most people, regardless of age or accomplishments. His honesty about his own brutality will have the reader gasping in awe. The story is written in his voice, by his daughter-in-law, April Voytko Kempler, as he relates it in unbearable detail, revealing even more atrocities than I was aware of prior, forcing me, the reader, to live through it with him. The fact that he is still alive and lucid is miraculous. Soon few will be, and the stories will be lost. Many people are tired of hearing Holocaust stories. Perhaps they do not realize that there is so much we still really do not know or understand, perhaps they do not realize that to stop listening is to forget, and to forget is to pave the way for another tragic genocide. Future generations must continue to read and learn from this despicable blemish on world history.
This memoir exposes brutality and barbarism in a way that I have not read before. It is almost commonplace and it is impossible that everyone turned a blind eye and saw nothing. Those “blind” were also sensory deprived since they also didn’t seem to “smell” the odor of the crematoria. I, like Emile Zola, accuse those who said they knew nothing, accuse them of being totally complicit! “J’Accuse”!