Saturday, May 21, 2016

Jerzyk’s tragic story

‘In town there was a poster confirming the shooting of ten people. If by the 4th of the month the bandits aren’t handed in they will shoot the next ten hostages to set an example.’ This is the 11-year-old Jerzy Feliks Urman (known as Jerzyk) writing in his diary in late 1943. He was in hiding with his parents in Drohobycz, then part of the Soviet Ukraine occupied by the Nazis, and it would be little more than a week before he committed suicide. Shearsman Books has just published a fresh version of the boy’s short diary and supporting documents, as translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and edited by Anthony Rudolf.

Jerzyk was born in 1932 in Stanisławów (then part of Poland, now Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine), a town with a population of 50,000, more than forty per cent of whom were Jews. The Soviets invaded Poland’s eastern territories in September 1939, but then, with Germany’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stanisławów found itself in an area overrun by the Nazis. Moreover, the local population seemed particularly willing to collaborate against the Jews and the Poles. Thousands of Jews were murdered that winter in Stanisławów, and a ghetto was established. Atrocities continued into the following year, with many more thousands of Jews being deported to Bełżec, the first of the Nazi extermination camps.

One day, in mid-1942, Jerzyk returned home and told his parents, Izydor and Sophie, about having witnessed a child caught smuggling food into the ghetto, and about how the child’s eye had been gouged out by a German with a red-hot wire. Thereafter, Jerzyk insisted on being allowed to carry a cyanide pill (available at a price on the black market); and the family agreed they would not be tortured and deported - they would survive together or die together. By March 1943, Jerzyk, his parents and two other family members were in hiding in 
Drohobycz, 100km or so northeast of their home town. In November that year, the local militia (German collaborators, but not the Gestapo) came to the house, and assaulted Izydor. Jerzyk fearing the worst, took his cyanide pill. The militia were so shocked by the child’s death they left, without even reporting the parents, who went on to survive the war.

Anthony Rudolf, an author, poet and literary critic, was researching his own family background when he came across the story of Jerzyk, his second cousin once removed. Rudolf
 located (in Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem) a transcription of a diary Jerzyk had kept for two months before his death; and he also had regular contact with Izydor and Sophie. He even made ‘pilgrimages’ to Stanisławów and Drohobycz. In explaining how he became involved with Jerzyk’s story, Rudolf explains that he was already writing about Holocaust survivors and had become ‘obsessed with the territory’. In 1991, Menard Press published Rudolf’s I’m not even a grown-up: The diary of Jerzy Feliks Urman.

A quarter of century later, Rudolf has revisited his second cousin’s story with Jerzyk: Diaries, Texts and Testimonies of the Urman Family, published by Shearsman Books. Jerzyk’s diary remains the centrepiece, freshly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones from the original manuscript, but Rudolf supplies supporting documents (all translated by Lloyd-Jones) to enrich Jerzyk’s story, aiming to give it a place in the historiography of the war against the Jews. These include a distraught diary kept by Sophie after her son’s death, and a 1964 interview with Izydor.

In this new book, Rudolf provides a thoroughly researched and rigourously annotated account of Jerzyk’s tragic story. But, here and there, the reader is also aware of how important this story is to him personally. He now owns the Jerzyk manuscript (acquired from Sophie) and writes about how it is ‘a precious family heirloom which will end up in Yad Vashem one day’. And he does not shy away from mentioning how his ongoing enquiries created tension between Jerzyk’s parents: while Izydor found the subject too traumatic and forbade his wife from discussing it with Rudolf, she herself would meet him secretly.

Rudolf explains,
 in the introduction to the 2016 edition, his motives for doggedly pursuing the fine detail of Jerzyk’s story: ‘I regard the keeping of Jerzyk’s diary and the manner of his death as acts of resistance, resistance of the noblest and most tragic kind. Although Jerzyk was precocious, clear-sighted, and sharp-witted, the diary is not a work of literature. Nor is it even the work of a future writer [. . .] unlike, for example, the diary of Anne Frank. It is, however, a document of considerable interest beyond the heart-rending fact of its existence. It is an intelligent child’s truthful account of experiences and states such as threat and rumour, nervous energy and fear, pain and insight. He kept the diary, he said, because he wanted people afterwards to know what happened.’

Finally, here are three extracts, the first two from Jerzyk’s diary and the third from his mother’s diary.

3 November 1943
‘[. . .] In town there was a poster confirming the shooting of ten people. If by the 4th of the month the bandits aren’t handed in they will shoot the next ten hostages to set an example. Marysia said the ten shot already were all Ukrainian. There were 2 Poles but the [Polish] Committee liberated them.’

5 November 1943
‘ ‘Don’t leave any dinner for me because I have a meeting with a lady [in town].’ But later, after a longish time, Hela came back really furious because she had gone [in vain] to watch the executions and because she’d been told that today they were going to shoot a Ukrainian priest and 6 women. She hadn’t even finished dinner when Marysia [said]: ‘Come on now or you won’t see anything. We must secure a place in the first row if we want to see anything.’

Hela stopped eating at once. She dressed hurriedly and left. She was out of the house for a long time, a few hours later she came back. She entered the room without saying hello, and said nothing. We made a point of not asking her anything. In the end she couldn’t keep her mouth shut and betrayed to us that the executions were postponed until tomorrow. Genia told her they were shooting people for hiding Jews. [. . .]’

13 January 1944
‘My one and only Son! Two months have passed since that terrible day when evil people caused your death. Here I am writing that word, though I still can’t believe it. Sometimes it feels as if you’re just absent for a while, and sometimes I try to convince myself that we’ve hidden you in a safe place, to protect you from the degradation and atrocities of this incredible war until it’s over. Surely since the world began, there can never have been such a terrible disaster, devised by Satanic minds. Dear Son, Mother Earth has proved extremely merciful. She clasps everyone to her bosom, rich and poor alike, the poorest and the richest, people of any denomination and nationality, and is not governed by the cruel laws invented by our assassins, which hold that only people of ar [Aryan] origin are allowed to walk on her surface, whatever their worth of ability, to render service to to anyone else in life. My dear Son, now you’ve gone to another mother, surely more worthy of such a treasure than I, who failed to protect you. I envy her for hiding so many children in her bosom, but my little Kitten, you were all I had, and now I’m on my own. I no longer visit you twice a day [he was buried in the garden] as I used to, because I’m afraid to attract the attention of the klemp [dimwit]. I only say ‘Good morning’, and ‘Good night’, once, on Fridays before bed. Every time Daddy has tears in his eyes, because he’s reminded of home and all the happy times we spent together. Who could have foreseen that we were destined for such terrible homelessness, and that such a painful blow lay ahead of us! I’m perfectly aware that we’re not the only ones, but for us that’s poor consolation.’

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