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I Rest My Case

I REST MY CASE

Memoir by Mark Verstandig, 1995

Mark Verstandig's I Rest My Case is a whole life autobiography: 90 pages deal with the prewar years in southern Poland; 100 pages with the period of German occupation; and 100 pages with life in Soviet-controlled Poland, refuge in Germany, and experiences in France and Australia. The work is distinguished by its precision: its clarity and economy of words, sharpness and depth of detail, richness of character sketches, and acuteness of observation. Written late in life in Yiddish and translated into impeccable English by Verstandig's daughter, Felicity Bloch, it was first issued by a small commercial publisher in 1995 and republished by Melbourne University Press in 1997.

The first section of the book covers life in prewar Poland. Born into a prosperous family, Verstandig presents a detailed account of his education from yeshiva to university. In 1936 he graduates in law and in his subsequent small town legal career experiences little discrimination; after German occupation he manages for two years to make a living preparing briefs and representing clients through the connivance of the local legal profession in flouting Nazi dictates. The discussion extends from family history and personal experience to an attempt to explain the political forces shaping Poland's development. There is also discussion of the workings of the Jewish community, presented from the vantage point of one with a lifelong commitment to Vladimir Jabotinsky's revisionist movement.

The year 1942 witnesses a radical change of fortunes for the Jews of Mielec, grown in number to 10,000—deportation (in March) and immediate murder of thousands. Following rumors sweeping the town, Verstandig escapes to Polaniec and later reconstructs events from the accounts of survivors. He learns of the order to gather in the marketplace; the separation of the young men and the forced march of the remaining men, women, and children to a military airfield seven kilometers distant; the shooting on arrival of 1,500 elderly women and men, including his father; the housing of those temporarily spared in an aircraft hangar; the continued murders, over seven days, in full view from the hangar; and the transportation of survivors to Lublin and other locations.

Throughout this and subsequent accounts there is great attention to detail, including character sketches depicting the gamut of reactions to the murderous fury, from the Gestapo collaborator who dispatched his wife and two children to their deaths in a vain effort to save his life, to the president of the Judenrat of Sandomierz, who, when ordered to provide a list of Jews for "deportation," handed over a sealed envelope containing only one name, that of his own. His reward was a bullet in the back of the neck, delivered on the staircase outside his office. Quoting Primo Levi , Verstandig observes that "there are few men who know how to go to their deaths with dignity."

Verstandig subsequently details his experiences in hiding on the Aryan side of Warsaw and in remote rural locations. A major interest is the motive of those who assisted Jews in hiding; he writes that there were honorable people, such as a doctor who answered a call to treat his wife after she was shot, but they were few in number. The great majority who provided aid did so because they were well paid and judged that there was little risk to themselves. He notes that the Blue Police, when they caught Jews, rarely handed to the Gestapo those who had been providing shelter. He documents the denunciations and murders committed by civilians, including the betrayal and execution of two of his sisters.

He is also concerned to describe the murderous impact in Poland of the Roman Catholic church's anti-Semitism and to place on record his experience of the Armia Krajowa: the rejection of his request to join the underground, the murder of his companions in hiding by a detachment of partisans, and the heightened intensity of attacks in the last stage of the war, which he understands as a policy orchestrated by the Polish government-in-exile to complete Hitler's work, important for the reestablishment of the Polish nation.

—Andrew Markus

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