Counting My Steps: An Autobiography

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Memoir by Jakov Lind, 1969

Counting My Steps, published in 1969, recounts Jakov Lind's traumatic experiences during the Holocaust when he was forced as an 11-year-old to leave his parents and home in Vienna, Austria, for The Netherlands, where he lived with various foster families. After the country's occupation by the Nazis, Lind was moved into the Amsterdam ghetto. He avoided deportation, and after having obtained false identification papers, Lind went into hiding. He spent the last stages of the war in Nazi Germany dodging discovery by the Nazis and Allied air raids.

Lind's work is not merely a story of miraculous survival but a deeply personal account of the author's inner crisis resulting from his experiences. The author poignantly reveals loss of identity, cultural alienation, and guilt feelings about having lived as being the price of survival. Nevertheless, his exploration of the horror that he escaped is accompanied by the assertion of an overwhelming lust for life, which undoubtedly helped him survive the ever-present danger.

The text is composed of three parts: "School for Metaphysics," "School for Politics," and "School for Alchemy." These titles clearly place the emphasis on the author's inner developments instead of on outer events. In the first part Lind reflects on his childhood in Vienna. He describes the influences that shaped his early identity and, consequently, his outlook on life. This includes descriptions of his family and his fascination with German and Russian literature and socialist and Zionist ideas, as well as his experiences with the covert anti-Semitism in Vienna, which became rampant with the Anschluss of 1938. In the second part Lind describes his desperate struggle for survival. He escapes deportation by the Nazis by refusing to show up at the collection place. Instead he assumes the identity of the fictitious young Dutchman Jan Overbeek, later volunteering as a foreign laborer for Nazi Germany. He works on a large barge plying the German rivers and, after Allied bombs destroy his ship, he moves on to work for the director of a research unit in the German Air Ministry. The constant danger, the rough milieu in which he moves, and the continual need to change his identity take an emotional toll: "I thought I had fallen out of all spheres and beyond and underneath all levels. I was not part of humanity … I am not speaking of loneliness and isolation. I am speaking of nonexistence … Not because my initials had changed and I listened to another name; my consciousness had ceased to function altogether." The alienation from self extends beyond the end of the war. In the last part the reader learns of Lind's aimless drifting in Palestine. His peregrinations come to an end after he writes and publishes the diaries of a young man who escaped the death camps of Europe only to be killed in battle shortly after his arrival in Palestine. Writing this story helps Lind come to terms with his own experiences and rid himself of his crippling emotions. The memoirs end with Lind's return to Europe in search of a new personal and cultural identity.

Counting My Steps marks Lind's shift from writing in German to English. In the introduction to the German edition of the work, which Lind helped translate, Lind explains that he couldn't have written his autobiography in German as he needed distance from his subject matter. Seemingly the linguistic distancing made it possible for him to analyze his experiences and actions objectively and to reveal honestly the emotional turmoil that led him to reject his Jewishness. In addition this distance made it possible for him to situate his own story within the larger context of the Nazi terror. He describes German occupation of neighboring countries; persecution, ghettoization, and deportation of the Jewish population; forced labor practices; and finally the misery of the displaced-persons camps after the war. The work successfully reveals the connections between an individual life and the historic events of the Holocaust without privileging one over the other. With its lucid style and its perfect balance of reflection and dramatic narration, Lind's autobiography is a most successful example of this genre.

—Helga Schreckenberger