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by Herman Taube

Among the thousands of Jewish communities the Nazis obliterated during World War II, there was the small Jewish community of Lübeck, an old, imperial port city, a half-hour’s drive from Hamburg. Historically, Lübeck was not hospitable to Jews; however, a Jewish community began to grow in the mid-19th century after the annexation of Moisling, a nearby Danish city where Jews first established themselves by the end of the 17th century. With the rise of Hitler’s regime, the Jewish community was systematically decimated through emigration, arrests and deportations to the East – Josef Katz’s family were among the last to be transported in 1941 and 1942.

Katz and his fellow prisoners were sent to Riga, Latvia, soon after the Nazi Einsatzgruppen nearly emptied the Riga Ghetto, marching its Jews to the Bikerniek Forest and the Rumbula Forest several miles away; there they and Russian prisoners of war were forced to dig deep execution pits – over a period of ten days, 27,000 were murdered. Only 4,500 men and 300 women remained in Riga when the first of the German Jews arrived there.

Over the next four years, Katz would experience the most horrific and brutal human behavior that the Nazis could design. Shortly after his liberation, he began his retrospective diary – it is searing in its detail. Beatings, shootings and hangings were his daily companions, let alone indescribable hunger and disease. From Riga, he was sent back and forth to other notorious ghettos in Latvia: Jungfernhof, Salaspils, Liepaja, Kaiserwald, Stutthof, then Danzig from where he barely survived a final death march in Germany, January to March 7, 1945. While it may be comforting to say his survival reflects a triumph of the human spirit, he acknowledged, as have all survivors, that he was the beneficiary of one good fortune after another. “Once again,” he writes of life in Kaiserwald in Fall, 1944, “I have escaped death in a mysterious, incomprehensible manner.”

In Liepaja, a Latvian city on the Baltic, the Jewish community numbered some 8,000 before the war. Less than 10 months before Katz arrived there, Liepajan Jews were rounded up and shipped to Skeden a fishing village several miles away. Between December 15 and 17, 1941, 2,800 Jews, were murdered. Marching raggedly through Liepaja’s dark streets in October, 1942, he likened himself and his fellow slave laborers to the ruins in the Bahnhofstrasse. “We are a column of misery; with our ragged clothes and torn shoes, our unwashed, unshaved and exhausted faces, we look like derelicts and bums.”

Random beatings by Nazi and Latvian guards over these years became routine. At one period in 1943 in Riga, he worked on a farm outside the ghetto. He and his friend Schweitzer were weeding a turnip field, working next to an old Latvian who was both skilled and well-fed. The previous day, Schweitzer had been beaten senselessly by a guard known as Harald the Dane for working too slowly. Schweitzer said he could no longer “go on with this life any longer. He is not going to go to work anymore and submit to [these] brutalities.” Katz and others prevailed upon him to return. Harald came from behind the Jewish prisoners and kicked them as they were bent over weeding. “‘Get up, Jew!’ he commands them. ‘You were laughing at me, weren’t you?’ he says, constantly hitting you in the face with a thin reed.” If a prisoner denied it, he was hit in the face with a fist.

“You did laugh. Why are you lying?” Now he gives his victim a good going-over with his cane so that he screams in pain. “Did you laugh or not?” The tortured man, hoping for relief, admits that he laughed. But now the Dane says, “Why are you lying? I know you didn’t laugh. Take your pants down. You lied to me, you swine.” He continues beating him without mercy until the man is writhing on the ground in agony. I, too, have gone through this several times.

Schweitzer was sent to clean the latrine. Afterwards, he and another Jew were “forced to get into the container with excrement, embrace and say that they love each other. The five SS men stand by, laughing. A few days later Schweitzer is taken to Riga where he dies of internal injuries.”

The systematic cruelty took its terrible toll on civility. Elie Wiesel so many other survivors, Josef Katz among them, write about the inconsolable depths of depravity that such cruelty and hunger – especially the unearthly hunger that no words or photos can truly convey – reduced them to.

The men lying here are members of the human race only in outward appearance. They have lost all civilization or humanity. Here everybody fights everybody else for a place near the stove, for a piece of potato peel, or for the last possessions of a comrade who has just died. The pockets of the dead man are quickly searched, the lunch bag is snatched from under his head and ransacked, and the blanket is torn from his body. It no longer matters how one lives, as long as one survives.

The potato “has become the greatest treasure we can still possess” – for us, the readers who are experiencing Katz’s nightmarish life through his sentences, it is also a symbol of utter human degredation. “After the mass feeding the Kapos have their second meal. It makes my mouth water,” he writes, “when I see them dig deep into the bucket and come up with ladlefuls of potato peels and meat scraps which they gobble up with relish. I have known for a long time that only the worst and most brutal kind of person can survive here. Everyone else is fated for the mass grave.” And again, “But who is going to give up a potato here without a struggle? These people who are hardly able to stand on their feet are fighting and wrestling with each other; there is nothing human left in us anymore.”

Josef Katz could have given us these details of one macabre brutality after another – he could have despaired over human nature and who would have dared to blame him. But One Who Came Back relates as well the unexpected acts of kindness and generosity of strangers, both Jews and non-Jews, including even a Nazi commander Kerschner in Liepaja and a Nazi guard in Lenta, a labor camp. “He never had anything against the Jews, he says. They never harmed him, and that’s why he can’t treat them badly now.” When he and his fellow prisoners were finished and were being sent back to Kaiserwald, the officer said, “Good luck, boys. I did what I could for you.”

Given the danger of such helping, their seemingly small gestures were in themselves heroic and, in effect, said No! to such debasement of the human condition. One more example: “Often an old woman visits the nursery,” he writes of Kaiserwald in June, 1942. “She owns a chicken ranch outside the camp. Lately, whenever she passes me, she drops a bag with dry bread crumbs. She collects them in the neighborhood for her chickens. I nod my head to show my gratitude. She probably saved my life with her stale bread.”

Though Josef Katz wrote his diary-memoir shortly after his liberation, it remained unpublished for thirty years. When it first appeared in translation in 1976, the late Marie Syrkin of Brandeis University praised “its unpretentious candor and simplicity. Katz succeeds in giving a remarkably vivid picture of how life was endured in the ghettos and concentration camps of Nazi-held Latvia,” she wrote. “Writing starkly and with understatement, the author conveys not only the Jewish tragedy but the psychology of survival.” Since then, hundreds of other survivor memoirs have been written – we now have an immense library of survivors who have written of their ordeals and of their survival. How many can we bear? What are we to do with them all? Isn’t there enough terror in the world today? Why must we continue to revisit the past?

There is no simple answer. In a world that for many has been nothing less than a charnal house, Josef Katz;s memoir represents what is enduring in the human spirit – the will not only to go on, but the commitment to live as best as he can, with generosity and compassion. There is no other way if we are to honor those who have been and suffered so terribly and those, our children, who are to come.