Evil in the Mirror

'De Nacht der Girondijnen' ('Night of the Girondists') by Jacques Presser, with afterword by Primo Levi [translated from Dutch into Hebrew by Irit Varsano-Landman, Hakibbutz Hameuchad], translated into English by Barrows Mussey, Harper Collins, $6.90.

"De Nacht der Girondijnen" ("Night of the Girondists") by Jacques Presser, with afterword by Primo Levi [translated from Dutch into Hebrew by Irit Varsano-Landman, Hakibbutz Hameuchad], translated into English by Barrows Mussey, Harper Collins, $6.90

Jacques Suasso Henriques, an assimilated Jew of Portuguese origin, is the hero of the novella, "Night of the Girondists," the complex, blood-chilling monologue of a young Jew who chose to collaborate with the Jewish police head in the Westerbork transit camp. From Westerbork, Dutch Jews were sent to killing centers in Poland, primarily Auschwitz and Sobibor.

His best friend suggests that Henriques see his friend's father, Cohen, who assists camp commandant Schaufinger in managing Westerbork, guarding the Jewish inmates and preparing lists of candidates for deportation to the East (namely, to death camps in Poland). Henriques persuades himself that, by helping Cohen, he will help the other Jewish inmates and save himself from death. He fails on both counts.

Historian Jacques Presser chose to open his voluminous "Ondergang," translated by Arnold Pomerans as "The Destruction of the Dutch Jews," with the comment that for several decades after the Holocaust, the image of the Dutch was that most of them had mobilized to rescue the Jews from the Nazis. Nonetheless, of the total pre-war Dutch Jewish population of 140,000, just 25,000 survived.

Only later did more accurate studies appear on the Dutch population's behavior under Nazi occupation. For example, even before the German occupation, the Dutch Nazi movement numbered 30,000, growing to 75,000 during the occupation. The latter figure excludes sympathizers and supporters, who numbered much more.

Presser based his research on many personal testimonies from Dutch Holocaust survivors and numerous documents. Himself a survivor of the Holocaust, in which he lost his family and beloved wife, who was sent to the Sobibor death camp, he felt guilty for surviving. In his research, he discovered the grim picture of the behavior of many Dutch Jews, which ranged from indifference and passivity to conscious collaboration with the Dutch police, even with the Germans themselves. This behavior was also displayed at Westerbork, whose inmates soon learned the real destination of Jews deported to the East.

Sending off parents

The novella in question is a monologue whose style is sometimes difficult and verbose. However, once that obstacle is overcome, what emerges is a bleak picture of one individual's decision to collaborate and serve as a Jewish police officer in the camp. The novella sheds harsh light on the complex, complicated personality of assimilated Dutch Jews and their behavior during the German occupation.

Before joining Westerbork's Jewish police, Henriques has the following discussion with its chief, Cohen. Cohen tells him:

"What do you expect? What can I do, what can anyone of us do here? A ship with 1,000 passengers has been damaged and is leaking, yet no one is heeding our SOS message and the rescue boats have room for only 50 passengers. Well, what do you think should be done?"

I didn't answer.

"But I understand you. Okay, let's say I refuse, what do you think will happen? The next Tuesday I'll be sitting on the train and Schwartz will be appointed Jewish police chief and he'll act just like me. And, if he refuses, then there's Rosenfeld and Goldstein or Sacher. As long as there are Jews here, they'll always find people who'll also send, willy-nilly, their mother and father ..."

"Their mother and father?"

"Yes, Suasso, they'll place their mother and father - listen carefully - on the train. You're about to become my deputy. What that means exactly doesn't matter. The important thing is that you're wearing a ribbon on your arm and you're at my side. ... Camp rule No. 2: Anyone who's soft or even half-soft boards the train ..."

Cohen continues: "I'm doing all this for my child. You've got to understand that. If need be, I'll pull him out of hell's flames. I'll just continue playing this accursed, horrible game. ... Follow my example, Suasso, follow my example. You and I look forward to the day when we'll hang Schaufinger on the gallows ..."

Henriques ends the description of the conversation with: "I extended my arm and he shook my hand with immense force. I had just signed my contract with the devil."

Corruption of conscience

The clandestinely written diary of Calel Perechodnik, "Am I a Murderer? Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman," was first published in Hebrew 11 years ago by Keter and subsequently in English (Westview Press, 1996). Although discovered immediately after the war, the diary was translated into Hebrew only 50 years later. Perechodnik wrote it after his wife and daughter were seized in an Aktion in the Otwock ghetto. He was then in the ghetto's Jewish police and he himself brought his wife and daughter to the Umschlagplatz (assembly point for Jewish deportees). He believed the Jewish police chief that police officers' families would be released; however, when he learned they would be deported, he did not join his family, although some of his colleagues did. That was the last time he saw his wife and daughter.

Like "Night of the Girondists," Perechodnik's diary makes no attempt to prettify or justify such acts committed by Jews who were prepared to do anything to survive. Unfortunately, the diary has not found the place it deserves on the shelf of books about the Holocaust and the way Jews coped with the reality imposed on them.

In his book, "The Drowned and the Saved," Primo Levi was the first to dare to talk about the "gray zone" separating the executioners from their victims - that zone on the scale of human behavior, which includes what books like "Night of the Girondists" and Perechodnik's diary expose so incisively.

In East Europe as well, in the ghettos and during the transports to the death camps, not all those slated for death were saints; sometimes the will to live triumphed over every other feeling. After the war, Perechodnik did not want to continue living and wrote that he had to make a sincere, true confession. He said it was too bad that he didn't believe that God forgives sinners. The only human being capable of forgiving him, he wrote, was his wife - although she shouldn't.

Henriques' "confession" ends with the scene where he places on a freight car a rabbi who had befriended him and strengthened his feelings as a Jew. The rabbi's prayer book falls from his hand and when Henriques bends over to retrieve it, Cohen whips him. Henriques attacks Cohen, pushing him aside. He picks up the book, returning it to its owner, as if to atone somehow for his role in the crime: "Perhaps this blood, which has stained my jacket, is mine, although I don't think so. Well, that's everything, absolutely everything. I've concealed nothing, added nothing. This is everything - all I've done and which has been done to me - because of me. Everything."

A no-less-important document has been attached to the novella - an afterword by Primo Levi. He repeats the position he presents in his books: The Nazi regime did not sanctify its victims, and people like Cohen and Henriques are not victims of circumstance. The Nazis brought out the worst in them, making them even lowlier than they already were beforehand. However, it should be recalled that, even if they were guilty, their guilt was the product of a greater, more horrendous guilt - that of those who propagated and applied the concept of concentration and death camps.

Levi writes that evil is contagious and that the inhuman being robs others of all human feeling. Evil procreates itself, says Levi. It multiplies, corrupts the conscience of others and surrounds itself with collaborators who abandon their camp because of fear or, as in Henriques' case, because of some form of temptation.

Every page in "Night of the Girondists" confronts us with ourselves as human beings, forcing us to deal with our moral identity. Even if flawed from the literary standpoint, this is a document that should be read and discussed in educational, civilian, military and other contexts.

Holocaust scholar Dr. Nili Keren teaches at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College and Massuah Institute of Holocaust Studies.