Auerbach, John 1922-2002

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AUERBACH, John 1922-2002


Born 1922, in Warsaw, Poland; died 2002, in Israel; married second wife, Nola Chilton Auerbach (theater director); children: Adam (deceased, 1973). Religion: Jewish.


Polish Army, beginning of the Second World War, soldier; served as a stoker on a German ship; served on Swedish ships after the war; Mossad Aliyah Bet, transported refugees to Israel; worked as skipper on fishing boats; Israeli Merchant Marines, Chief Engineer, until 1973.


PEN/UNESCO Award, 1993, for "The Owl."


Tales of Grabowski: Transformation, Escape, and Other Stories, TOBY Press (New Milford, CT), 2003.

The Owl and Other Stories, TOBY Press (New Milford, CT), 2003.


John Auerbach was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1922 and he served as a soldier in the Polish army during the beginning of World War II. He was placed in a Warsaw Ghetto during the German occupation of Poland, but escaped to work as a stoker on a German ship under a false identity. While trying to escape to Sweden in a stolen boat, Auerbach was captured and sent to the Stutthof concentration camp. It was after the war when he joined Mossad Aliyah Bet, a ship where he helped transport refugees to Israel. After three years he was captured by the British and held at a Cyprus camp for two years. After his release he lived at Kibbutz Sdot Yam in Israel where he worked as a skipper on a fishing boat. He completed officer training and served in the Israeli Merchant Marines as a Chief Engineer for fifteen years. In 1973 his son was killed in the Yom Kippur War and Auerbach left the marines and returned to live on the kibbutz where he worked on his writing. Though it is not his native language Auerbach does all of his writing in English, and it is often translated into Hebrew.

Both of Auerbach's major works were published after his death. Tales of Grabowski: Transformation, Escape and Other Stories is a story of one man's struggles during World War II and is based greatly on Auerbach's own ordeals. The book is comprised of two novellas, Transformations and Escape, which, together with several short stories, tell the story of David Gordon. Gordon, like Auerbach, is a Warsaw Jew serving in the Polish Army during WWII when he is forced to live in a Ghetto. He escapes and takes on a false identity, that of a Polish gentile killed earlier in the war named Wladyslaw Grabowski, and becomes a stoker on a German ship. Gordon struggles with his double identity, and issues of guilt surrounding his situation. He is given the opportunity to leak out information to an Argentinean spy, which helps him reconcile his guilt in that he is working against the Germans. Gordon tries to escape to Sweden but is captured and held in a concentration camp. He escapes and, like Auerbach, goes to live on a kibbutz where he tries to make sense of what has happened to him.

A reviewer in Library Journal stated "Transformations and Escape are undiscovered masterpieces of twentieth-century writing." Hazel Rochman of Booklist commented, "With stark immediacy, these interconnected, autobiographical stories by a recently discovered Jewish writer add a new dimension to Holocaust survival literature." A contributor for Kirkus Reviews found "Auerbach's prose has a raw, spare quality that is both the best and worst aspect of the collection." Cecilia H. Rothschild of Aufbau praised Auerbach, "His ingenious use of such ancient story-telling devices as disguise, trickery, role reversal and irony allow him to examine illusions of existence and the evils which thrive on social norms."

Published the same year as Tales of Grabowski was the collection The Owl and Other Stories. Auerbach received the first PEN/UNESCO award in 1993 for the title story of this collection. These stories also draw from Auerbach's own experiences and relate to times he spent out at sea and on the kibbutz. "The Owl" is the story of an Israeli merchant ship and the disruption of the crew when a large owl lands on top of their mast. "The Black Madonna" is the tale of a sailor who gives a locket containing the portrait of the Madonna to a woman at a mysterious port empty of men. "Cohen" is the story of two Polish Jewish sailors who find their connection to a Warsaw Ghetto in the hold of an Israeli steamer off the coast of Ireland. Hazel Rochman of Booklist conceded that all the stories are not of the same caliber "but the best of them speak with terse drama about the pain and power of being alone."



Booklist, June 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Tales of Grabowski: Transformation, Escape, and Other Stories, p. 1739; September 15, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of The Owl and Other Stories, p. 208.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2003, review of Tales of Grabowski, p. 692.

Library Journal, June 15, 2003, Edward Cone, review of Tales of Grabowski, p. 98; July, 2003, review of The Owl and Other Stoires and Tales of Grabowski, p. SS28.

Publishers Weekly, May 26, 2003, review of Tales of Grabowski, p. 47.


Aufbau, (October 22, 2003), Cecilia H. Rothschild,"Tales of Auerbach."*