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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President Obama, I’m Your Man for the Supreme Court

Watching Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and the other Republican Judiciary Committee members attack Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a racist last week over her statement that her background as a “wise Latina” would help her decide cases, it suddenly hit me. I am supremely qualified to be the next SC justice if her nomination is rejected or if another SC member retires on President Obama’s watch. I am perfectly qualified because I am a Jew who can say in all truthfulness that I have not been influenced by my background.

Yes, I know that in religious school I learned Hillel’s summary of the Torah: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” But that’s so negative. Isn’t it? Double negative, in fact. Who could be influenced by such a theological position? Anyhow, the better-known version (spoken by another Jew but that’s only a coincidence) is much more positive. That’s probably the one that shaped me.

During my graduate school years, I studied Jewish-American literature, but only because I majored in creative writing and Jews are, after all, “people of the book” so I figured they would be good writers. The tales I read of men and women scrimping for a living in the shtetls of eastern Europe and finding strength in family, community, and tradition had a lasting effect on me: They made me realize that, yes, Jews were good writers.

It’s true that my ancestors fled the pogroms at the beginning of the last century to come to America. As the family genealogist, I heard those stories and, strictly as a writer and historian, recorded them. And, yes, many relatives who stayed behind in the old Austria-Hungary (what today would be Rumania) died in Auschwitz. I judiciously added their names to my family tree even though I never met them. My interest was strictly academic and anal retentive—it would have been untidy and incomplete of me to not include them.

Later I wrote two books about Holocaust survivors, one about a girl from Auschwitz who was invited to participate in Dr. Mengele’s last selection of the entire war and actually spent 18 hours in a gas chamber but survived because the Nazis were more concerned about starting the cover-up than they were gassing another 100 women; and the other about a Belgian Jew who posed as a Christian and fought in the maquis, the French resistance in southern France. But they were exciting stories. Can you blame me? I would have been crazy to pass up those opportunities. Do you think the girl met any of my relatives while she was in Auschwitz? Just curious.

Passover is my favorite night of the year. Any excuse to bring my family together is reason enough to celebrate for me. Every year during the Seder we are reminded that “We were strangers, too, in the land of Egypt.” But there’s no way that has anything to do with my solidarity with the plight of the poor and the dispossessed in America. After all, how many of them came from Egypt?

So I feel confident in saying that I am bias-free. I have what it takes to be on the highest court in the land. Like my hero, Justice Samuel Alito.

[He said what? “When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.” Oops.]

I mean, like my hero, Justice Clarence Thomas.

[He said what? “I believe … that I can make a contribution, that I can bring something different to the Court, that I can walk in the shoes of the people who are affected by what the Court does.” Oops.]

I mean, I have what it takes because it takes a real man to not be influenced by his background enough to be a Supreme Court justice and I am much more of a man than Sonia Sotomayor. Any day of the week.