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Gone to Pitchipoi - A Review

A Boy's Desperate Fight for Survival in Wartime

Author: Rubin Katz

Hardcover, 326 pages. Academic Studies Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61811-234-7.

Reviewed by Carl Hoffman

Over the past ten years or so, I have read and reviewed numerous books for this magazine. Some of these books have been novels, others were histories, and yet others have run the gamut from political polemics to a pamphlet about trees and shrubs. Some of these books have been quite good; others were not. The good books have enabled me to write enthusiastically positive reviews. The books that were not so good have sometimes tested the limits of my good will and impelled me to be kind.

A certain category of books, however, have been in a class by themselves, different from all other writing, to be read and appreciated with an entirely different sensibility and set of standards. I am referring, of course, to books about the Holocaust written by Holocaust survivors. And I have said over and over again—recited like a mantra—that all of these narratives are valuable, necessary, and vitally important documents of events and experiences that must never be forgotten.

Each of these accounts has been written by someone who went through a period unique in world history, endured the unendurable, and experienced horrors that present-day Holocaust deniers insist never happened. They did indeed happen, and these books—no matter how well or imperfectly written—remind us of those horrors and are therefore all "good books."

Once in a while, however, a Holocaust survivor narrative comes along that is "good" not only for being important Holocaust documentation, but also for being a fine piece of work. We have such a book in the newly published Gone to Pitchipoï, by Rubin Katz.

As we learn from the subtitle, Katz's narrative is the story of his struggle to survive as a boy caught up in the whirlwind of World War II, and particularly the six-year war against Europe's Jews.

Katz was all of eight years old when the Germans invaded Poland and came to Ostrowiec, his hometown. His childhood had been idyllic. The pampered youngest child in a wealthy assimilated Jewish family, Katz lived in a big beautiful house in bucolic open countryside surroundings near his family's candy company, the third largest in Poland. He recalls, "I loved exploring the area and have fond memories of roaming freely with my pet dog Dynguś at my side, leaping joyfully through the fields of corn interspersed with red poppies and blue cornflowers, chasing butterflies, while Dynguś went after the field mice which seemed to entrance him. I enjoyed an exhilarating and adventurous boyhood in the country. That was my own secret playground; oh, how I wished it would remain like this forever."

The idyll ended on September 1, 1939, as the drone of German Luftwaffe bombers was heard in the skies above Ostrowiec—along with the sound of explosions in the distance— and "grim-face soldiers…covered in dust and grime… with goggles on their helmets and machine guns mounted on their side-cars" rolled into town on BMW motorcycles around three weeks later." Katz recounts, in chilling detail, the increasing sense of menace as conditions for the local Jewish community began to deteriorate quickly, as had the community's relations with the Germans and its non-Jewish Polish neighbors.

As the tragic story progresses, we follow the family's precipitous descent from wealthy Polish citizens to outcasts; their property was confiscated, their freedom of movement proscribed, and increasingly, their very lives were at risk. We then read, in open-mouthed awe, how a pampered eight-year old became a survivor, living alone entirely on his wits, evading the Gestapo, the SS, the Polish police, Polish informers, and numerous roundups of Jews. We marvel at the boy's survival instincts, his ingenuity—which included improvising a way to make himself look uncircumcised—and his unshakeable determination to outlast the Holocaust and stay alive.

Katz's story covers a great deal of ground as his struggle for survival takes him on a desperate odyssey across Poland, through town and country, in forests and fields, constantly on guard, fearful of discovery and capture. Through his eyes, we are able to appreciate both the enormity of the events he describes and the minute detail only a child can truly absorb and remember. From the invasion of Poland to the arrival of the Soviet Red Army and the end of the war, we literally gasp at Katz's numerous escapes and brushes with death.

Throughout the narrative, we learn that if the Holocaust had any greater villains than the Germans, it was unquestionably the Poles. The implacable anti-Semitism of the people among whom Jews had lived for more than 1,000 years runs like a leitmotif through the book.

"As far as my research shows," Katz says, "Poland became by far the worst country for a Jew to find himself in occupied Europe, and I have never seen convincing evidence to the contrary." Not only did the Poles actively assist in the identification and arrest of their erstwhile Jewish neighbors and fellow-citizens, but they actually continued to murder Jews after the war, as in the infamous 1946 pogrom in Kielce, in which 42 Jews were killed and around 80 more injured.

"The Nazis had many willing accomplices in many countries during the war," says Katz, "but only the Poles were guilty of such crimes after it was over…It has been estimated that well over a thousand Jews were killed in the pogroms that swept Poland after the war, but the true figure can never be known."

In addition to the core narrative of his struggle to stay alive, Katz provides us with the additional narrative of his mother who was transported to Auschwitz, was selected on arrival for death by Josef Mengele, managed to escape from the gas chamber, boarded a boat to Palestine after the war, was intercepted by the British and interned in Cyprus, and eventually found her way to Israel a month after Israel's independence. Katz's book is almost a comprehensive history of the Holocaust as it was actually experienced.

In addition to the core narratives, Gone to Pitchipoï has the added value of an informative preface by Anthony Polonsky, Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University, as well as some wonderfully erudite bits of information from Katz himself.

In the course of his story, Katz expounds about the early history of Jews in Poland, the medieval origins of the badge of identification that the Germans forced Jews to wear, the Mendel Beilis ritual murder case against the Jews in Czarist Russia, and even the medieval invasion of Krakow by Tartar horsemen. Moreover, the book is well written, well organized and, not surprisingly, almost impossible to put down. I read Gone to Pitchipoï—all 326 pages—in two late-night sittings.

As for the somewhat ambiguous title of the book, the alert reader must no doubt be wondering about the meaning of "Pitchipoï." Is it a thing? Is it a place? And if it is a place, who went there?

Read the book and find out.

See also an interview with Rubin Katz on Revelation TV http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55FuqJqCD9k 

 

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