I’m thrilled to announce that my book about the life of Jewish World War II resistance fighter Bernard Mednicki, told in first person by Bernard himself, is back in print for the first time since 1997 and also available as an ebook for the first time ever. I won’t waste time with humility. During this holiday season, any reader of this blog site will not go wrong in buying multiple copies for gifts. Bernard’s story of heroism, inspiration, and love of family deserves wide distribution.


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Flight to France, Pose as Christians

Never Be Afraid: A Belgian Jew in the French Resistance begins with Bernard’s father and mother taking their family out of Russia to escape the pogroms at the turn of the last century and ending in Belgium on their way to America. There, Bernard is born in 1910. A street-smart Jew from a working-class, Orthodox, socialist background, Bernard flees Belgium with his wife and two young children in 1940 when the Nazis invade, assumes a Christian identity, and settles in Volvic, a small town in the mountainous region of southern France, where their third child is born.

While living in Volvic and trying to feed and protect his family, he finds his way—through a series of life circumstances, every one of them a heroic step of courage—into the Maquis, the French Resistance. Never Be Afraid ends with Bernard finally bringing his family to America after surviving the Nazis, completing the journey his parents began forty-two years previously after surviving the pogroms.

I fell in love with Bernard when I met him at a Holocaust conference in Pennsylvania through the passionate way he told his story, which encompassed a full range of hand movements and emotions, from sadness to humor. But it was only in Ann Arbor, where he came with his second wife Minnie to spend two weeks being interviewed and tape recorded by me to lay the groundwork for this book, that I became fully aware of at least one hidden reason for his compulsion to tell his story.

Uncovering Repressed Memories Forty Years Later

I learned that he was telling his story not only so that the world would know what happened, as was the stated motivation of so many Holocaust survivors, but to make peace with actions he had taken under stress that he couldn’t control but that he also couldn’t excuse. Never Be Afraid is not a blood and guts story. Bernard killed but he never glorifies his actions. He preferred a hand grenade to a gun, he would tell me often, because with the former he never had to look into the eyes of his victim. Only twice did he kill a man with his hands.

The trauma of that second time and the events that followed are what he ultimately repressed from his memory. Three days later, he returned from the mountains to his first wife, Chana, and their three children but he didn’t tell Chana what he did. The war ended, they settled in America, she died in 1964. He never told her. At some point along the way, he forgot. In retelling his story through the years, I believe he was trying to unblock the memories to free himself from his own pain, but his efforts were blocked by the standard format of his presentation, forty minutes of the same oft-repeated anecdotes and twenty minutes of surface questions and answers.

Only by first allowing Bernard to tell his whole story without constraints of the clock and then probing deeper into areas of his story that were literarily incomplete or still surface, including his experiences in the Maquis, was I able to help Bernard break through those blocked memories midway through our eleventh of twelve ninety-minute interview sessions. Bernard had begun to slow down by this time anyhow, even in his enthusiasm to tell his story, from sheer force of stress and—despite the fact that in Ann Arbor he was taking a sleeping pill every night instead of his regular three per week—lack of sleep. Still, he had patiently answered all of my questions and even allowed me to repeat one session when that day’s tape was found to be defective. By the end of that eleventh interview session, Bernard had become impatient for the first time. The next morning, I ate breakfast alone for the first time as he finally was able to sleep soundly, and for more than his usual four hours, without having taken a sleeping pill the night before.

In Chapter 19, “Like Blood out of the Aorta of a Pig,” the most experimental memoir chapter I’ve ever written, I’ve tried to retain the feel of his struggling to open his memory and unleash those painful secrets that had haunted him since that time, so that the reader can actually experience his pain along with him, as I did that day. That one chapter’s outline is less chronological than the traditional biographical chapter and more like one might feel getting pulled into the funnel of a cyclone.

As you read the chapter, do you feel his struggle? I would love comments.

Bernard’s story is a story of survival, but it also is a love story. Bernard loved his children and he loved Chana. Then he loved Minnie. “It was an ideal twenty-six years I shared with her,” he said over the phone when he called to tell me about Minnie’s death. “And before her I had thirty-two good years with my first wife. I was lucky.”

After I sent him the final 8 1/2″ x 11″ double-spaced manuscript version of his story, he photocopied it about a dozen times and passed it around to his family members. His health nosedived quickly. In the summer of 1994, after suffering a stroke, Bernard moved into a nursing home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, near where his daughter Eliane was living with her family. He never did live long enough to see his story’s publication but he didn’t care because, with my help, he had fulfilled his final wish. He and I had enabled his family to hold his story in their hands. The copyright date for this second edition of his story, January 2, 2015, commemorates the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Bernard was an amazing storyteller, in the tradition of the legendary Yiddish writers Chaim Potok and Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer. But he wasn’t a writer like them. I was honored that he asked me to write his story for him.

In an appendix, Philip Rosen, former director of the Holocaust Awareness Museum at Gratz College, puts Bernard’s experience in its historical context.

“moving, profoundly moving”—Elie Wiesel

“engrossing … wonderful”—George Cohen, Booklist

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Unlike Lambs to the Slaughter: Remembering the Holocaust and the Resistance

As Jews observe Yom Ha Shoah, the remembrance of the Holocaust, I hear again the question, “Why didn’t the Jews resist?” and I am angry. The myth of “the passive Jew” has joined the folklore of bigotry along with the myth of “the happy Negro” in the pre-Civil War South.

But if passivity is a myth, what is the reality? Fortunately, a growing body of research is reconstructing for Jewish resistance fighters the history the Nazis tried to destroy.

The answer, as researchers present it, demands at least three areas of explanation: the mind of the Diaspora Jew, the Germany of the 1930s and ‘40s, and the actual resistance.

Ever since the Diaspora, Jews have faced the question of how to be a Jew in a gentile society. Many shed the hardships by conversion or assimilation. Others clung to Orthodox Judaism, which they practiced in small communities apart from the mainstream.

Often, Jews lived in ghettoes under harsh conditions. Anti-Semitic laws barred them from certain trades, and they were made scapegoats by monarchical regimes to divert the attention of peasants from legitimate grievances. Many individuals, and sometimes entire communities, responded by escaping to other countries. The mass migration of Jews to the United States between 1880 and 1920 was in response to pogroms encouraged by the czar of Russia.

But usually Jews endured the hardships and prayed for better times, which often returned. By the time Hitler came to power, German Jews were the most assimilated Jews in Europe. Many had been leaders of the enlightenment that swept Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Within the religion, they were founders of the Reform Movement, which encouraged assimilation as a survival tool. Many had wealth and status.

Then came Hitler. Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, Jews lost all civil and political rights.

Why didn’t they flee? Partly because the troubles were expected to pass. But many tried. Unfortunately few countries would accept them, including the United States, which approved 850 visas a month from a pool of 110,000. Still, before 1939, 400,000 Jews left Germany. Many fled to Poland. Then Hitler came to Poland. Ghettoes were set up and became holding tanks for Jews on their way to the death camps.

Although armed resistance was rare before 1942, when the truth about the camps leaked into the ghettoes, nonviolent resistance was common. Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer cites a study of 73 Jewish councils in southeastern Poland, which showed that 45 resisted, even before they knew their lives were in danger. Resistance included refusals to hand over names of people, money, and clothing to the Nazis. Sixteen of the chairmen of the councils were later executed; five others committed suicide. More than forty ghettoes in Eastern Europe had armed underground units.

Jews were also in the resistance movements of Western Europe. Numerous acts of sabotage included blowing up trains, bridges, and SS headquarters. Inmates at five of the camps, including Treblinka and Auschwitz, staged uprisings.

But Jewish resistance failed. Lack of arms was one reason. Lack of contact between ghettoes and with Jews on an international level was another. Also, the Jews were being systematically starved. According to Bauer, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto lived on 336 calories a day, a third of which was smuggled in by children who were shot if they were caught. No social or medical services were available.

Finally, there never was a long-range plan of extermination that might have warned the Jews. According to Bauer, this plan only came into being as a result of the Nazi decision to attack the Soviet Union. “How, then, can the victims be blamed for not foreseeing their fate at a time when the murderers had not yet decided it?”

This fact alone makes belief in the “passive Jew” myth startling by assuming that the Jews of the 1940s had the benefit of a 1980s retrospective view. How much easier it might have been had this been so.

[I was going to post my latest entry on the underground press digital project today but, as it turns out, today is Yom Ha Shoah, the day Jews commemorate the victims and survivors of the Holocaust; so instead I posted the above story, which appeared originally in the Chicago Tribune on Monday May 5, 1986, under the title “For Jews, myth becoming passive.”]