The International School for Holocaust Studies
Teaching the Holocaust through Literature
By Jackie Metzger
Grades: 9 - 12
Duration: 1.5 hours
- Biography of Ida Fink
- Classroom Activity
- The Tenth Man, by Ida Fink
- Discussion Questions
- Liberation Testimonies Activity and Discussion Questions
- Conclusion: Holocaust and Literature
Holocaust literature remains one of the most powerful pedagogical resources. It includes postwar fiction, drama and poetry, as well as personal diaries kept during the Holocaust. Many writers chose to construct their works as historical fictions, closely adhering to the historical facts of the Holocaust, adding imaginary dialogue to enhance the storyline. Other writers and poets chose to use allegories, metaphors, and other literary devices in order to depict the horrors of the Holocaust.
Literature remains one of the most influential genres in Holocaust education because of its widespread appeal to the public. Younger audiences can benefit from stories written by young people and adult readers can reflect upon stories and analyze their content within a historical context and a psychological framework. Literature, in particular Holocaust literature, often makes a lasting impression on readers due to the vivid imagery and the intimacy of the characters and events.
This lesson and its accompanying activities highlight a short story entitled The Tenth Man, written by Holocaust survivor Ida Fink. The story was first published in Polish in 1983.
Ida Fink was born in Zbarazh, Poland in 1921. She studied music in Lvov 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 in a collection of her stories under the name A Scrap of Time.
Read Ida Fink’s The Tenth Man and use the following questions in order to facilitate class discussion.
The first to come back was Chaim the carpenter. He turned up one evening from the direction of the river and the woods; no one knew where he had been or with whom. Those who saw him walking along the riverbank didn’t recognize him at first. How could they? He used to be tall and broad-shouldered; now he was shrunken and withered, his clothes were ragged, and, most important, he had no face. It was completely overgrown with a matted black thicket of hair. It is hard to say how they recognized him. They watched him from above, from the cliff above the river, watched him plod along until, nearing the first houses of the lower town, he stopped and began to sing. First they thought he had gone mad, but then one of the smarter ones guessed that it was not a song, but a Jewish prayer with a plaintive melody, like the songs that could be heard on Friday evenings in the old days, coming from the hundred-year-old synagogue, which the Germans had burn down. The Synagogue was in the lower town; the whole lower town had always been Jewish – before the Germans came and during the occupation – and no one knew what it would be like, now that the Jews were gone. Chaim the carpenter was the first to come back.
A dark cloud from the burnt-out fire still lingered over the town, the stench still hung in the air, and gray clouds floated over the marketplace the Germans had burned.
In the evening, when the news had spread, a crowd gathered in front of Chaim’s house. Some came to welcome him, others to watch, still others to see if it was true that someone had survived. The carpenter was sitting on the front steps in front of his house; the door of the house was nailed shut. He didn’t respond to questions or greetings. Later, people said that his eyes had glittered emptily in the forest of his face, as if he were blind. He sat and stared straight ahead. A woman placed a bowl of potatoes in front of him, and in the morning she took it away untouched.
Four days later the next one came back. He was a tenant on a neighboring farm and had survived in the forest with the help of the farm manager. The manager brought the tenant back by wagon, in broad daylight. The old man was propped up, half reclining, on bundles of straw. His face, unlike the carpenter’s, was as white as a communion wafer, which struck everyone as strange for a man who had lived so long in the open.
When the tenant got down from the wagon he swayed and fell face down on the ground, which people ascribed more to emotion than to weakness. In fact, it was possible to think he was kissing the threshold of his house, thanking God for saving him. The manager helped him up, and supporting him on his arm, led him into the entrance hall.
A week passed and no more came back. The town waited anxiously; people came up with all sorts of conjectures and calculations. The stench of burnt objects faded into the wind and the days became clear. Spring blossomed suddenly as befitted the first spring of freedom. The trees put forth buds. The storks returned.
Ten days later three more men came back; a dry goods merchant and two grain dealers. The arrival of the merchant upset the conjectures and calculations, since everyone knew that he had been taken away to the place from which there was no return. He looked just as he had before the war; he might even have put on some weight. When questioned, he smiled and explained patiently that he had jumped out of a transport to Belzec and hidden in a village. Who had hidden him, and in what village, he didn’t want to say. He had the same smile on his face that he used to have before the war when he stood behind his counter and sold cretonnes and percales. That smile never left his face, and it astonished everyone, because no one from this man's family had survived.
For three days the grain dealers slept like logs. They lay on the floor near their door, which was left slightly ajar, as if sleep had felled them the moment they walked in. Their high-topped boots were caked with dried mud, their faces were swollen. The neighbors heard them screaming in their sleep at night.
The grain dealers were still asleep when the first woman returned. No one recognized her. Only when she reached the teacher’s house and burst out sobbing did they understand that she was his wife. Even then, they didn’t recognize her, so convincing was her beggar woman’s disguise. She had begged in front of Catholic and Orthodox churches, had wandered from church fair to church fair and market to market, reading people’s palms. Those were her hiding places. From beneath her plaid kerchief peered the drawn face of a peasant woman.
They asked in amazement: “Is it you?”
"It's me," she answered in her low voice. Only her voice was unchanged.
So there were six of them. The days passed, the gardens grew thick and green. They’re being careful, people said, they’re waiting for the front to move – it had been still for so long that an offensive seemed likely. But even when the offensive began and the front made a sudden jump to the west, only a few more came back.
A wagon brought the doctor back. He had lain for nine months in a hole underneath the cowshed of one of his patients, a peasant woman. He was still unable to walk. The accountant and his son and the barber and his wife returned from a bunker in the forest. The barber, who had once been known for his mane of red hair, was bald as a bowling ball.
Every day at dusk, the dry goods merchant left his house and walked towards the railway station. When asked where he was going, he explained, “My wife is coming back today.” The trains were still not running.
The farmer, a pious man, spent more and more time by his window; he would stand there for hours on end. He was looking for a tenth man, so that the prayers for the murdered might be said as soon as possible in the ruins of the synagogue.
The days kept passing, fragrant and bright. The trains began to run. The people in the town no longer conjectured and calculated. The farmer‘s face, white as a communion wafer, shone less often in his window.
Only the dry goods merchant – he never stopped haunting the railway station. He would stand there patiently, smiling. After a while, no one noticed him anymore.
Note to the teacher:
We recommend that each pupil address the questions, followed by a class discussion. Some teachers may prefer working in smaller groups.
- Fink describes a number of survivors in her story. How would you characterize these survivors?
- What impression do they impart on the reader?
- How does Fink describe the physical state of the survivors?
- What is the significance of the physical changes of the characters over the course of the war? Choose two or three examples from the story to illustrate your answer.
- How would you describe the attitude of the townsfolk to the returning survivors? Choose two or three examples from the story to illustrate your answer.
The Passage of Time:
- The passage of time can be measured in several contexts within the story. Show how the author describes the movements of the seasons, the frequency of the trains, and the “activity” of the survivors to create a contrasting tension between them.
The Communities in the Town:
- Both synagogues and churches are mentioned in the story. What respective roles do these houses of prayer play here?
- Why don’t most of the characters enter their homes but instead remain at the threshold?
- Does Fink believe that the survivors, as individuals and as a community, can return to lead normal lives in this town?
Speech and Reported Speech:
- The townsfolk talk among themselves, question, and greet some of the survivors who, except for two, are silent figures in the story. Consider this communication and lack of communication in the two groups and what effect is created with this device.
General Color and Specific Characterization:
- Describe the general tone of the story following liberation. Which character most impresses you? Explain your choice.
The Title of the Story:
- The Tenth Man refers to a central feature in Jewish traditional life, the minyan, or quorum of ten men necessary for public prayer. Fink’s portrayal of this element is tragic. Explain this statement, considering that the root meaning of the Hebrew word minyan is to count. How does this elusive minyan in the story contribute to Fink’s portrayal of the Jewish community’s future?
Read the following testimonies of Holocaust survivors, Yehoshua Büchler and Shmuel Krakowski, detailing their experience and trauma after liberation.
Testimony of Yehoshua Büchler
“Dr. Winter tried to persuade me to go with the rest of the children to a convalescent home in Sweden. But I wanted only to return home, I was positive that someone in my family had survived, that my father was alive, because he was a strong man. When I arrived in my town, I met a few relatives and there was great excitement. I asked, 'Where is father?' I was certain he was at home. 'We do not know where your father is.' 'What, isn't father at home?' Then I learned that no one had come back, that I was alone, that alone I had returned.”
Testimony of Shmuel Krakowski
”Although we had seen a lot and experienced the worst, we still had hoped, still had dreamed. All those days we had struggled to survive, hour after hour, day after day, there had been no time to grasp the enormity of our tragedy. Now everything became clear. No longer were our families waiting for us; no homes to go back to.”
Discussion Questions on the two Testimonies and The Tenth Man
Survivors of war not only suffer from trauma due to the events of the war but also as a result of the events following the war. What problems did survivors face following liberation and how are these problems manifested in Ida Fink’s story The Tenth Man and in these above testimonies? How are these testimonies similar to one another and how do they differ?
What are the merits of teaching the Holocaust through literature? What impressions and feelings can be gained from literature, which cannot necessarily be gained from other genres? Your answers can be based on your own reactions to the story and testimonies you have just read. To help evaluate the merits of literature in general, you might consider other modes such as films you have seen, interviews you have heard, plays, art, etc.