The World of My Past

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Memoir by Abraham Biderman, 1995

Abraham Biderman's The World of My Past (1995) is a powerful and poignant memoir of the author's experiences during the Holocaust, with the bulk of the details being devoted to his years in the Lodz ghetto, the longest surviving ghetto in Nazi-dominated Europe. The book is more than a memoir, however. Throughout his account Biderman provides information about the broader historical context, based on his own primary research and on his study of secondary sources, which are acknowledged in the footnotes. The inclusion of this broader material is both a strength and a weakness. For the general reader who does not have an in-depth knowledge of the Holocaust, the additional information provides a context, allowing a clearer understanding of Biderman's personal story to emerge. On the other hand, the additional information sometimes interrupts the powerful flow of the narrative.

Without doubt, Biderman's brilliance lies in his ability to create clear, decisive pen sketches both of key historical characters and of various individuals. For example, he draws a forceful picture of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish leader who ran the Lodz ghetto. In one paragraph Biderman writes as follows: "The post office printed its own stamps displaying the head of the ghetto emperor, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski … With his long and flowing silver hair he gave the impression of being a member of the nobility. But the proverb, 'Don't judge a man by his appearance', was especially applicable to him. He had the gentle face of an old man which was a mask only, a disguise, and behind it Mephisto was hidden."

In his chapter on the ghetto in 1942 there are moving descriptions of the German Jews who had been deported to Lodz. One was a member of the distinguished Rothschild family, a Viennese Jew in his mid-60s who tried to use his signature to acquire extra food. As Biderman writes, "When I saw him for the first time, he was immaculately dressed and cleanly shaven, the image of an upper class, western European gentleman. It was painful to watch the aristocrat become a beggar." Rothschild eventually died in the streets of starvation.

Biderman deals with many themes in his memoir. They include issues of good and evil, of man's inhumanity to man, of the strength of the human will, of the anti-Semitism of his native Poland and of the Volksdeutscher, and of the indifference of the West. Biderman explores the moral dimensions of ghetto life, especially in terms of the activities of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) and the Sonderkommando, the Jewish police, both through his own personal story and from a broader perspective. In 1942 his older brother, Lipek (or Lipman), is offered the chance of joining the Jewish police, which would have brought special privileges, including additional food, from which the family could have benefited. Biderman's father, Shimon-Dov, stood firm, however. He told his son, "'So make your choice, Lipman, between your father and the Sonderkommando ! But make no mistake. Should you decide to join the Sonderkommando , you are no longer my son. You will leave my house. I will not live with a Sonderkommando policeman under the same roof!"' Biderman writes that at the time he did not understand his father, and it was only with the passage of time that he came to appreciate his father's integrity and moral heroism. Lipek listened to his father; he was later deported from the ghetto and did not survive. The hope of finding his brother after the war was a key factor in providing Biderman with the strength to struggle to survive.

Another important and ongoing theme is the role of the Church and its responsibility for the inbred nature of Christian anti-Semitism, which eventually led to the Holocaust. Biderman believes that the seeds of the Holocaust were planted by the Church with its teaching throughout the generations that Jews had to be punished for shedding the innocent blood of Jesus. Biderman constantly reminds the reader that Jesus was a Jew, or, as he calls him, "Rabbi Yeshua Hanitzri."

In his concluding chapter, "Reflections," Biderman writes, "Humanity will have to create a new language, a new vocabulary, that will convey and express the horrors of the Holocaust." For the reader of this compelling but harrowing account of six years of the nightmare, the hell on earth that is called the Holocaust, Biderman has come as close as possible to communicating his "unspeakable pain." He has demonstrated the complexity of the Holocaust in all of its hues, from those who operated at the highest moral level to those who sank to the lowest depravity. For people who wish to gain an understanding of this terrible period from a single work, this is a book to read.

—Suzanne Rutland

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The World of My Past

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