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Biderman, Abraham (Hersz)

BIDERMAN, Abraham (Hersz)

Nationality: Australian (originally Polish: immigrated to Australia, 1949). Born: Lodz, 1924. Family: One son. Career: Prisoner, Lodz Ghetto, 1940-44, Auschwitz, 1944, Althammer, 1944, Dora, and Bergen-Belsen. Worked in the clothing industry, Australia, beginning in 1949. Awards: National Biography award and Banjo Patterson award for nonfiction, National Book Council, both in 1996, for The World of My Past.

Publication

Memoir

The World of My Past. 1995.

* * *

The Holocaust survivor Abraham Biderman was born in Lodz, Poland, and during his formative childhood years he enjoyed a traditional, close, middle-class lifestyle within an extended family. All of this changed dramatically with the Nazi conquest of Poland in September 1939. He has written a memoir of his experiences in the Lodz ghetto, where he was incarcerated in 1940, before eventually being transported to Auschwitz in August 1944 when the ghetto was liquidated. After spending two months in Auschwitz, he was evacuated to Althammer. From there he was sent to Dora, the underground factory where Wernher von Braun's rockets were built, and finally to Bergen-Belsen, where he spent the last few weeks of the war working as a slave laborer for the infamous SS Lieutenant Colonel Rudolf Hoess, the former commandant of Auschwitz. He was liberated by the British and witnessed Hoess's surrender. Although he was offered the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, he decided to apply to Australia. Sponsored by family friends, he joined a substantial survivor community in Melbourne, which has the largest proportion of Holocaust survivors on a pro rata basis of any place outside Israel, the vast majority from Poland. As with many of his confreres, Biderman went into the schmatte (clothing) business and was very successful.

So that his son Simon (named for his grandfather, who perished in Auschwitz) would remember and to explain it to other family members, Biderman decided to write his story. He began in 1985 and produced the major work entitled The World of My Past. The book also was written in fulfillment of the last wish of his mother, Fradle—"Remember, remember what they did to us"—as his parents were taken away on their arrival at the station in Auschwitz. In his memoir Biderman describes the scene as follows: "I stood confused. Although I saw what was taking place around me, my mind could not fully come to grips with the tragedy which was unravelling. My mother, holding on to my father's arm, leaned her head against him as they walked and were herded away with the others. My parents were only in their early forties. I never saw them again." Remembering the events of the Holocaust and passing them on to others became his "eleventh commandment," as the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim has called it.

After six years of attempting to find a commercial publisher, Biderman decided in 1995 to self-publish his book, with a print run of about 1,000 copies. The book was selected by the National Book Council for its CUB Banjo Award for nonfiction in 1996 as well as for its biennial biography award. Comparing his difficulties in finding a publisher with Eli Wiesel 's in the 1960s, he told Susan Wyndham, a reporter with the Sydney Morning Herald, "Nothing has changed. Holocaust stories were of no interest to the Western world then and they are of no interest today." As a result of the work's significant acclaim, however, it was later republished by Random House. This is unusual in publishing and reflects the strength of the memoir.

Biderman's memoir joins a significant body of Holocaust literature produced in Australia, written by survivors and their descendants and also by interested Jewish and non-Jewish scholars and novelists. Many of the writers in these various categories have received prestigious literary awards over the years. They include Mark Baker , Lilly Brett, Inga Clendinnen, Thomas Keneally , Romana Koval, Serge Liberman, and Arnold Zable. While a significant number of actual survivor testimonies have been published in Australia, Biderman's stands out, however, for receiving an award, since the survivor generation rarely developed sufficient literary skills in English to produce an award-winning publication. Biderman joins his Landsmann the poet Jacob Rosenberg in writing about the Lodz ghetto, but Rosenberg's poetry is written in Yiddish, although some has been translated into English.

As a firsthand account of a survivor's experiences in the Lodz ghetto and the extermination camps, Biderman's memoir has come to play an extremely important role within Australian Holocaust literature. Sir Zelman Cowen, the leading Australian Jewish scholar and the former governor-general, has written, "As do accounts of such writers as Primo Levi , Elie Wiesel and Samuel Pisar, so too The World of My Past overwhelms me with the tragedy and horror of it all."

—Suzanne Rutland

See the essay on The World of My Past.

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