Blood from the Sky (Le Sang Du Ciel)

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BLOOD FROM THE SKY (Le Sang du ciel)

Novel by Piotr Rawicz, 1961

In Piotr Rawicz's novel Le Sang du ciel (1961), published in English translation as Blood from the Sky in 1964, the precariousness of survival for a Jew in Europe during World War II is presented in a series of stream-of-consciousness vignettes that take place in the Ukraine and in Paris. Rawicz reveals the difficulties and challenges of his hero, Boris, trying to pass as a Gentile in Paris: "A jumble of distinctive gestures handed down from our forefathers and resuscitated by our life in the walled-up town seemed the greatest threat to our survival: relics of sign language, fugitive expressions of the people around us …" Boris finds on the ground a birth certificate of a Ukrainian named Yuri Goletz and decides to pass as a Ukrainian nationalist:

"I had thus swapped races, bartering one that for thirty centuries had regarded itself as Chosen for another that had been harboring a similar belief for only some thirty years. Both had been molded, sculpted, chiseled out of sufferings vaster and richer than those endured by the races around them. In different degrees, I was indifferent to the destiny of neither. But the second, with its Cossack past, its traditions of life in the steppes, its sad songs and incomparable landscapes, was joining in the task undertaken by the invader of exterminating my own people. The masquerade that we were enacting had a particular flavor to it: from a slave doomed to immediate cremation I was turning into a slave who assisted and vindicated the fine attendant in his task."

After his arrest Boris's circumcised penis reveals him to be a Jew: "The ripped trouser-fly reveals the bluish penis. On it, the sign of the Covenant is inscribed in indelible lettering, all too easy for these bustling men to read." Nonetheless, Boris does not abandon his uncompromising effort to cling to life: "Since he persisted in denying his origins, he was transferred to another cell—this one inhabited by people who were not doomed to immediate extermination."

An examination by a Nazi Ukrainian intellectual, Professor Humeniek, leads to the conclusion that Boris is not a Jew: "As I said politically I wouldn't trust him an inch. A pernicious character, on quite the wrong side of the fence. But he isn't a Jew. No question of that. He speaks our language too well, he knows too much about our history, our literature, our way of life …" Boris then explains away his Jewish ritual circumcision by claiming that it was an operation to cure a penile infection.

Central to Boris's survival are his strength and fortitude in resisting torture during interrogation. In an effort to break down his will, electrical current is run through a steel ring around his penis:

"Whoever is interrogating you sits down at his desk and runs his finger over a button. Obviously, however much you are affecting indifference, you can't help looking at him. For his part, he doesn't look at you: only at the button. The moment he moves his finger toward it, you screw up all your strength: I must resist, I will resist! You clothe yourself in anticipation, in your thickest armor. You bid agony come, and set it nought. He can pluck the living heart from me and I won't cry out, I won't confess to anything. I'll pull through. You have summoned all your resources: huge they are, haughty as a mountain."

The book is permeated with the will to resist death at all costs, even when the Nazis are knocking at the door. Rawicz shows how even the slightest coincidence can prolong a tenuous hold on life under the most hostile of circumstances. His description of the effort to hold on to life even in the face of death reveals his belief in the sanctity of human life.

—Peter R. Erspamer

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