The Death Train: A Personal Account of a Holocaust Survivor

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Memoir by Luba Krugman Gurdus, 1978

The Death Train: A Personal Account of a Holocaust Survivor is comprised of a double testimony, a written memoir and accompanying illustrations, both by Luba Krugman Gurdus. The text and pictures follow her along a varied and brutal path of survival, such that Gurdus's personal experiences constitute an unusually comprehensive account of the Holocaust. They include life in Warsaw at the outset of the Nazi occupation; clandestine crossings in and out of Russian territory to support her fugitive husband and brothers; displacement to the countryside and labor under Polish and Nazi authorities; flight, hiding, and passing; and internment in Majdanek, while still passing among the Polish prisoners. The precaution of maintaining multiple false identities in the camp, along with a knowledge of German, was crucial in securing release from Majdanek, after which Gurdus traveled back to Warsaw, surviving on the "Aryan side" along with her sister and the aid of helpful Poles. In a brief epilogue Gurdus relates that her husband, Jacob Gurdus, who had escaped to Palestine and joined the British army, returned to Warsaw at the close of the war and arranged for both his wife and her sister, Mira, to leave Poland.

In the wide array of personal experiences to which Gurdus attests, the death train of her title seems absent. The apparent discrepancy, however, points to the very heart of the double memoir, for Gurdus enunciates the title through her son, whose testimony is also incorporated into the book. Death Train is the title Gurdus ascribes to a drawing Robert Michael "Bobus" Gurdus had produced on his fourth birthday, on 24 August 1942. The child had seen the countless trains passing near the family's room in a house on the outskirts of the town of Zwierzyniec and was aware of their purpose. One of his little Polish playmates had helped to dispel any doubts: "'You will soon be in a train like that."' His mother reassures him, "'No, no, it's not true my darling … Janusz is small and stupid; we will not go, I promise you."' It is a promise Bobus reminds her of when the family is included in a later roundup of Jews, from which they obtain a last-minute reprieve. "[Bobus] often argued with his playmates that he would never be forced to mount the monster train because I would find a way to protect him," Gurdus recounts. "But the fear, looming in his subconscious, suddenly appeared with unmistakable clarity in his drawing of the death train." She reproduces the drawing facing a full-page portrait of Bobus, and in addition to the "force and conviction" she finds in her son's artwork, one also notes the manner in which his testimony is encased. It appears, coffinlike, within the frame of her own drawing, which is crowned by her own motif of the death train that she uses in other illustrations and that echoes the architecture of the Warsaw Ghetto. It is as though Gurdus were bearing her son's final resting place within herself. The particular edge of this melancholic incorporation derives from the irony that undermines the fulfillment of her promise. For, indeed, she does keep her word. Bobus never rides the death train of his drawing. Instead, he dies of diphtheria in Zwierzyniec before the roundup in which Gurdus's parents are murdered and from which she and her sister escape.

The manner in which Gurdus narrates Bobus's death is exemplary of her laconic style. "I summoned the only Polish physician in Zwierzyniec, who came in spite of German restrictions forbidding him any contact with Jews," she writes. "His prognosis was grim, and the lack of medicine sealed my son's fate." Without further elaboration, she immediately opens a new paragraph: "Our entire life now revolved around the factory." Much as in this climactic moment, her stark narrative seldom pauses for expressions of horror, outrage, or lament. The passage is also characteristic in that, while Gurdus remarks on Polish complicity with the Nazis, she often includes brief notice, as here, of instances in which she received assistance from Poles as well. Her streamlined approach goes beyond style to touch upon the general narrative structure of the memoir. Gurdus develops neither a background of prewar tranquility nor a postwar romantic denouement, frequent features of memoir literature, as a contrast to her experience of the Holocaust. Instead, she keeps a steady focus upon the rigors of survival and chief among them the burden of loss.

—Andrew Bush

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The Death Train: A Personal Account of a Holocaust Survivor

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The Death Train: A Personal Account of a Holocaust Survivor