Book Review: The Long Night, a journey through the Holocaust

Darkness fell on Ernst Bornstein's life but he lived to tell us about it. Review of a gripping, just translated Holocaust book that describes a young man's journey through seven death camps up to his liberation by US forces.

Rochel Sylvetsky

OpEds Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

In each and every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt. As it says: "You shall tell your son on that day, 'It is because of this that God took me out of Egypt.'" (Exodus 13:8)

Jews the world over recite these words at the Passover Seder table and have been doing so for centuries. Easy to recite, harder to fulfill after so many years. The rabbis tell us that in order to truly feel the liberation from Egypt as a personal redemption, one has to feel the bondage as well and that the Haggadah read and discussed at the Seder is intended to make us identify with both aspects of the Exodus.

As I read The Long Night, a True Story, written by Ernst Israel Bornstein, I thought that we need a similar statement for Holocaust Memorial Day: "It is obligatory for each of us in the Western world to feel as if he too was a victim of Nazi atrocities in order to appreciate the freedom we have today, in order to cherish it, in order to fight for it- and for Jews, no matter what their political persuasion, to know they must fight for the welfare of the State of Israel."

Well-documented history books and the best academic lecturers will not do it, will not make us feel as though we are those ordinary, but Jewish, people who were targeted for extermination, cruelty and barbaric torture, by the seemingly ordinary, but overwhelmingly evil, people of the "master race." It is only by entering the mind of someone who suffered there and vicariously living through his experiences that this can take place.

 And I think this is accomplished best not through reading a survivor's emotional narrative, a form of writing that has its honored place in the pantheon of Holocaust literature, but through the sober, measured and therefore all the more horrifying and detailed testimony of a Jew in the camps. The Long Night is just such a book. Little by little, reading as one normally does, one is drawn into the story, identifies with its protagonist and unconsciously joins his efforts to survive as if they are yours. 

This week, I attended the funeral of an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor, my late brother-in-law's younger brother. Their father, a famed Torah scholar, Rabbi of Pshittik and direct descendant of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhansk, told the eldest brother, then aged 16 to guard his 11 year old sibling as he was forcibly separated from them forever. How Moshe managed to do that would fill a book in itself. The two survived labor camps and a short time in Auschwitz before being moved to Dachau from where they escaped to Switzerland.

Moshe, then a 21 year old who weighed 70 pounds, became a successful businessman (who lost the sight of one eye in Israel's War of Independence) and father of eight, Meir became a successful lawyer and father of three (his brilliant, gentle son, Rabbi Elimelech Shapiro, was shot dead by a terrorist), both would live nowhere but Israel. It took decades for them to open up enough to tell their children anything about the sufferings they endured during the Holocaust.

That is the way it is. Survivors must deal with the Holocaust in the individual way each has found that he can; in this case, that silence seems to have been their way of exorcising, or trying to bury, the nightmare that filled their psyches. It was a Holocaust denial that did not deny the Holocaust, but tried to deny its ability to hamper their efforts to lead normal lives. It worked for them.

The other way, however, that of a survivor strong enough – or determined enough – to document his experiences with the precision of recent memory after the war, is the way future generations can be brought to feel that they are experiencing the horrors along with the writer, reading an ordinary person's memoirs rather than memorizing stale history books. The result might be their not taking their freedom for granted, internalizing that they might even have to fight for it one day. It is obligatory for those generations who "survived" without ever being threatened personally with that extermination to read books such as this one.

That is how I tried to read The Long Night, the story of a dark, dark night that lasted five years and eight days. I tried to feel that I was this young intellectual-looking bespectacled boy from a pleasant and happy family, whose world is turned inside out, who suddenly has to use every stratagem that his resourceful mind can invent to stay alive, or barely alive, all the while worrying about the family left behind.

Seven concentration camps, can this be fathomed by someone who has always had enough to eat?
His methodical mind remembers each experience, describes – with painstaking care and no whitewashing, making it all the more horrendous – what happened to the people around him, Jew and Nazi. How Jews given power could be merciless taskmasters and cruel oppressors, how people around him died like flies while others were reduced to skin and bone ready to kill one another for a morsel of food. The (future) doctor in Ernst is showing how it was impossible for those starving, beaten, psychologically tortured masses to fight back, making it all the more miraculous that some did, albeit futilely.

That same young mind is married to a heart that refuses to give up or to lose the image of humanity, a mind that describes, matter of factly and with such dignity that one can do nothing but cry, the kindness of a person from the same town who brings Ernst a bowl of soup at night to keep him functioning enough to work and stay alive. There are also the unadorned details of his own efforts to save his doomed uncle, a fellow inmate.

One of the most poignant moments for me was his description of the Yom Kippur service, held by some of the more devout camp inmates while the writer and others sit by and cannot fathom how these men want to pray to the God that has forsaken them. But little by little,"tearfully and with a quivering voice, we imperceptibly joined in the prayers of the faithful" he writes, and thus they experience the fortitude that calling out to the heavens grants them.

Seven concentration camps, can this be fathomed by someone who has always had enough to eat? Just as hard to understand is how the author, liberated by the Americans, finds the power to go to medical and dental school and become a loving and beloved husband and father, a central figure in the Jewish community and a success in his chosen career until his life is cut short too soon.

Ernst's daughter has just translated her father's book from German to English, taken it off its honored place on their mantelpiece, and done it so well that it reads not at all like a translation.

She tells us that her father was galvanized to write the book by the fact that some of his patients knew nothing about the Holocaust only a generation after it happened, others thought it exaggerated and falsified in the telling.

That is, of course, a worthy and necessary goal, but it is not enough for this reviewer. This book, prefaced by a letter by UK PM David Cameron, is part of the obligatory, must read genre of Holocaust works. It has the ability, if read by people the age of the writer when it took place, to transport them to his world, to make them think about what they would have done if faced with the many life or death dilemmas he had to make instant decisions about – to let them feel vicariously the horrors of man's cruelty to man and most crucial, appreciate that human freedom (and, for Jews, a homeland where you are unquestioningly taken in) cannot be taken for granted, not for one moment.