The International School for Holocaust Studies
A Reader of Short Stories for High-School Students
Suggestions to Teachers
This unit is designed to provide teachers of English with some ideas on how to introduce Holocaust-related stories in their English classes. The murder of 6,000,000 Jews occurred in a complex historical context and yet the personal stories of individuals provide us with an invaluable means of entering this time period. The choice of stories allows teachers to decide on using a story from a specific phase of the Holocaust, like the ghetto or concentration camp, or the period following the end of the war – or – using several of the stories to present a more composite picture of the whole. The stories chosen were written by Jewish and non-Jewish survivors, thus enabling the teacher who wants to emphasize the more universal character of the suffering inflicted by the Nazis to do so. Each story is preceded by a short biographical note on the author emphasizing his/her connection to the Holocaust. A detailed lesson-plan has not been provided but central features of the story are discussed.
Ida Fink was born in Zbarazh, Poland in 1921. She studied music in Lvov, today in the Ukraine, but was forced to put an end to her studies in 1941 upon the outbreak of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. During the war she was in the Zbarazh Ghetto, but then fled and lived under false papers on the “Aryan side”. In 1957, she immigrated to Israel. Her short stories, written in Polish, discuss the terrible choices, or lack thereof, that Jews faced during the Nazi period as well as the hardships that survivors faced following the war. Her short story, The Tenth Man, explores the reactions, suffering, and trauma of Holocaust survivors returning to their hometown following the liberation of Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps. It was translated into English and published by North-western University Press, 1995, in a collection of her stories under the name A Scrap of Time.
The Tenth Man
This story focuses on Holocaust survivors who return to their home town and the attendant difficulties they face reconstituting their destroyed lives as the war ends. We are introduced to the straggling survivors as they arrive back in their town and observe the attitude of the local townsfolk as they encounter their erstwhile Jewish neighbors, some of whom they have difficulty in physically identifying.
The main axis of the story focuses on each successive survivor as s/he enters the town and the effect the new arrival has on the local residents. Fink portrays the townsfolk as quietly sympathetic and attempting to help the returnees with different gestures.
The perpetrators are referred to briefly as the occupiers who burnt down the synagogue and took Jews away.
Ida Fink does not propel the reader into the atrocities of the Holocaust. The closest one gets to the camp reality of starvation is the relatively benign description of the returning carpenter, once “tall and broad-shouldered…now…shrunken and withered.” The power of the story lies in the mood of despondency generated with each returning survivor and the gloomy outlook that starts with the return of Chaim the carpenter and ends with the dry-goods merchant waiting for his wife who doesn’t return and the pious man waiting for the tenth man who doesn’t materialize.
The prevailing hopelessness is accentuated in the last three paragraphs of the story when the reason given for the interminable waiting for the tenth man is to recite the “prayers for the murdered as soon as possible”… and where?…”in the ruins of the synagogue.” So Ida Fink closes the circle for the reader, returning him/her to the barely mentioned perpetrator, who at the end of the story, reappears as the agent of ruin and death.
But perhaps in even more telling fashion, the story concludes with the following sentence: “After a while, no-one noticed him anymore.” The reader is confronted with the ultimate indignity of the survivors, that of being shunted aside and becoming irrelevant. With deft understatement, Fink alludes to one of the most pressing needs of people who suffered during the Holocaust – that their seemingly unbelievable accounts be validated and not dismissed. “…no-one noticed him anymore” leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that the aftermath of the Holocaust did not automatically provide the balm so desperately needed by the survivors.
The Tenth Man is the story of one town and its survivors at the end of the war. As such, it can also serve as a mirror-image of thousands of Jewish communities that were lost to the Jewish People in the Holocaust which effectively put an to 800 years of Jewish life in Poland.
- A full lesson-plan on this story in English is available here.
The Key Game
In contrast to The Tenth Man, this story takes place at the beginning of the Second World War before the establishment of the ghettos. Ida Fink introduces the reader to a small family unit of a Jewish couple and their three-year old child. The anxieties of the war situation are made evident from the frequent changes of apartments apparently forced on the family by the German occupation of Poland.
The heart of the story is a “game” devised by the parents in which their child is taught how to react when “they” – the Germans who are never mentioned as such to the child – knock on the door. The story is short and stripped to the essentials of conveying to the reader how the war reality succeeded in turning the natural order of things upside-down. Normally, parents take care of their young. Here, we understand that the little boy is being entrusted with the ‘key’ to the parents’ survival. This ‘key’ involves not opening the door immediately at the knock of the Gestapo, thus enabling his father to squeeze into a hiding place in the bathroom. The poignant difficulty the child is faced with is delivered in the last paragraph of the story when he has to tell “the people” for whom he has now opened the door that his father is dead.
This pre-ghetto story foreshadows the harsh reality that will develop later in the ghettos where we often find the children revealing the initiative and the courage to help their paralyzed elders and overcome the obstacles to survival.
- A full lesson-plan on this story is available here (in Hebrew).
Borowski was born in 1922 in the Soviet Ukraine to non-Jewish Polish parents who were both punished by the Soviet regime and exiled to different Soviet labor camps. Tadeusz was brought up by a family relative until his parents were freed and the family finally reorganized in Poland in the early 1930s. Borowski published his early verse from the reality of the Warsaw underground as a young man of twenty. The harsh reality of war was already given expression in his first works. In 1943, he was arrested by the Germans in their ongoing attack on the Polish intelligentsia, subsequently suffering two years of German concentration camps including Auschwitz I and Dachau. The story discussed here is taken from a collection of his concentration camp experiences and published circa 1948 as This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Tadeusz Borowski committed suicide in 1951.
The World of Stone
This short story is the last in Borowski’s collection of stories published under the name, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. As in Ida Fink’s Tenth Man, the story is situated at the end of the war. However, in this story, Borowski is already settled into an apartment with his wife and the focus of struggle is not the immediate shock of relocation after liberation but rather the more protracted spiritual anguish of reaccommodating to life after the Holocaust.
The story is marked by strong pendulum swings that alternate between descriptions of ordinary daily living and powerful cataclysmic visions, some of which are suggestive of his recent experiences in a death camp. Borowski’s experiences reflect a typical tension in survivor testimonies between the banality of daily routine after the war to the reality of living a day by day routine on the threshold of death in the German camps. There is a high voltage emotional charge in his writing that is riveting and different from the slow developments that mark Ida Fink’s stories. The ravages that were Auschwitz are transmitted, by intimation only, in some unforgettable passages and Borowski concludes this story, with his declaration that his work still lies ahead of him, that of writing the ultimate, “great, immortal epic, worthy of this unchanging, difficult world chiseled out of stone.”
The epic was never written. Borowski committed suicide a few years after these stories were published.
The painter Samuel Bak, himself a Holocaust survivor, committed to canvas Borowski’s description of a world chiseled out of stone and many of his paintings portray fossilized objects like birds and smoke. Bak’s paintings, could be advantageously used in conjunction with this story. Yad Vashem has also published a CD Rom, Eclipse of Humanity, that has valuable source material on Bak. For more information.
Charlotte Delbo, born in France, was twenty-seven years old when the occupation of France by the German army in 1940 found her on tour with a theater company in South America. Delbo returned to France in order to join her husband who was active in the French Resistance. In 1942, the couple was arrested by the French Police who handed them over to the Gestapo. Her husband was executed by the Germans. She was taken to Auschwitz at the beginning of 1943 and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in the Nazi camps. Her best-known book is Auschwitz and After, published in 1985, also the year of her death, by Yale University Press. The following story is taken from it.
The Commanding Officer
In this short story, Delbo manages to fill the gap between the world of adults and children with question marks that obscure the natural dividing line between adult knowledge and children’s naiveté. The story starts with two young brothers aged eleven and seven playing a game that slowly emerges as the children’s impression of their father’s work situation. The contrast of family life played out in a brick house with a lawn, flowers and hedge with the nearby path to the crematorium of the camp under the command of the brothers’ father is achieved by Delbo in the last paragraph. Children eleven years of age are not guilty of their parents’ sins yet Delbo uses them as a mirror to reflect the Nazi world of the camps. The simulation through the children’s game of the life and death situation faced by Jews during the Holocaust is effective and highlights some of the following questions:
- What level of awareness do the commandant’s sons reveal to us in the game?
- Did German children in German towns play similar games? (Yad Vashem’s museum has some original games German children played during the thirties that are abiding evidence of racial antisemitism exploited at the level of children) To view artifacts from the museum.
- How do the children denote a sinister, adult, German complicity?
- When we talk about children of the Second Generation, we usually refer to children born to Jewish survivors. This story could be used to trigger discussion of the vastly different problems facing the Second Generation of Germans. A growing body of literature of this genre is already available.
For an interesting comparison with a story about another two brothers, Jewish children that had been hidden, for payment, with a Polish family, see a story called The Lead Soldiers, written by Uri Orlev, a Jewish author and survivor who lives in Israel today. For a lesson plan about Uri Orlev.
Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy in 1919. Known primarily as a writer, he started out as an industrial chemist until he was caught by the Germans and deported to Auschwitz in 1943. He survived the forced labor in the camp because the Germans used his professional knowledge in laboratory work which protected him from the harsh work conditions outside. After the war and his return home, he turned to writing and over the next forty years produced some of the most seminal accounts of the Nazi camp regime. He died tragically in 1987.
Story of a Coin
This story is different from the others described above- by virtue of the historical content presented to the reader in the thin guise of a story. The Story of a Coin is in fact much less about a coin than about the man, Chaim Rumkowski, whose title of ‘The Elder of the Jews of Litzmannstadt’ appears on one side of the coin. Rumkowski was the head of the Judenrat in the Polish city of Lodz and without having known the man personally, Primo Levi concludes his book Moments of Reprieve - a collection of stories mainly about people he had met and known in his period as a prisoner of the Germans – with this piece about one of the most disturbing personalities of the Holocaust.
The story takes the reader on a journey from Turin, Italy where the author ‘rediscovered’ the coin, through Auschwitz, where he originally found the coin and to Lodz, which is the central location of the story. The reader is given a historical account of this Polish city focusing on its Jewish component and of course on the period of the ghetto from1940 to 1944, when the occupying Germans changed the name of the city from Lodz to Litzmannstadt. Overall, the multi-faceted behavior and personality of Rumkowski is the focus of Levi’s attention. It is the special ability of the author to cast a much-maligned Jewish leader such as Rumkowski in a philosophical light that differs from most accounts. Levi asks near the end of his account if in fact we aren’t “all mirrored in Rumkowski”, and if “his ambiguity…and fever” aren’t also ours and perhaps a universal feature of man’s condition everywhere.
The Cantor and the Barracks Chief
This story of Primo Levi takes us into the heart of the Nazi camp experience that the author knew how to portray so well. The two protagonists are Ezra, the Jewish prisoner, who had been a watchmaker and a cantor in his Lithuanian village, and Otto the Kapo, or barracks chief, a German political prisoner who had already spent seven years in Auschwitz. It is a short, simple anecdote that takes place on the eve of Yom Kippur as Otto is about to ladle out the evening ration of soup. Ezra presents Otto with an unprecedented request to save his bowl of soup for him over the next twenty-four hours since he is prohibited by religious law from eating on the holy day. Otto’s reaction permits Levi to pit two worlds against each other: the ruthless totalitarian regime of the Nazi camps, represented here by Otto, and the internal strength of a solitary Jewish prisoner who strives to maintain his religious identity in the face of death. However the author weaves additional strands of camp life into the short story and avoids presenting the harsh reality in a monochrome palette of good versus evil. We are privy to Otto’s hesitations and observe glimpses of humanity that can still be identified in his behavior despite seven years of brutalization in the camp system.
Through the story of Ezra, Levi also introduces some fine points of Jewish tradition and observance that Ezra aspires to uphold even in the seemingly impossible conditions of the camp. Levi concludes the story with an almost whimsical sigh of admiration for types like Ezra that have dotted the page of Jewish history throughout the ages.
|Author||Title||Time/Location||Level of English|
|Fink||The Tenth Man||Near end of war||Average|
|Fink||The Key Game||Pre-ghetto||Average – weaker|
|Borowski||The World of Stone||Post-liberation||Advanced|
|Delbo||The Commanding Officer||In the camps||Average|
|Levi||The Story of a Coin||Lodz ghetto||Average – Advanced|
|Levi||The Cantor and the Barracks Chief||Auschwitz||Average - Advanced|
 "The Key Game", Ibid., pp 35-38.
 "The World of Stone", Tadeusz Borowski, This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Penguin, England, 1981, pp 177-180.
 "The Commanding Officer", Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1995, pp 98-100.
 "The Story of a Coin", Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve, Abacus, London, 1994, pp 163-172.
 "The Cantor and the Barracks Chief", Ibid., pp 75 - 82.