Alan Gratz (2013) Prisoner B-3087
Posted by celticman on Thu, 03 Apr 2014
This is a novel based on the true story by Ruth and Jack Gruener. Inside, the book is dedicated: ‘For Jack who survived’. So it’s a novel that’s not a novel and a memoir that is not a memoir. All memories are ersatz, watery coffee brought to the boil with novelistic techniques. So we open, Chapter One, page two, with equilibrium, a remember of remembering: ‘If I had known what the next six years of my life were going to be like, I would have eaten more.’ Then, next paragraph, we get into character. ‘I wouldn’t have complained about brushing my teeth or taking a bath, or going to bed at eight o’clock every night. I would have played more. Laughed more. I would have hugged my parents and told them I loved them.’ Paragraph three is a lead into the big three of time, speed and distance. ‘But I was ten years old, and I had no idea of the nightmare that was to come. None of us did. It was the beginning of September, and we sat around the dining room of my family’s flat on Krakusa Street, eating and drinking and talking: my parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and me, Jakob—although everybody called me by my Polish name, Yanek.’ This is just about perfect. A few hundred words and we’re off. We’ve got the Jewish ghetto by chapter three: ‘I was twelve years old when the wall began’. By chapter six we’ve got ‘The pigeon coop became our home, and no Nazi was the wiser’. Plaszow Concentration Camp 1942-1943, chapter nine: ‘The Nazis snatched me up one day when I was at work’. Here Jakob is in the belly of the machine. The world of kapos, work-gangs and brutality. There were other prisoners, but to be a Jew was to be a number with the lowest chance of survival. He meets his Uncle Moshe who offers him the only survival tip worth a button, and a button could be worth a great deal, as he finds out later. ‘Here are Plazow, you must do nothing to stand out. From now on you have no name, no personality, no family, no friends. Do you understand? Nothing to identify you, nothing to care about.’ The Commandant Amon Goeth shows him what to expect by setting his two German shepherd dog on a prisoner and killing him. He overhears prisoners whispering about how many prisoners Goeth had killed that day, like a football score, ‘Goeth seven, Jews nil’. One of the prisoners Goeth kills later is Moshe. This sets up the dramatic arc when Jakob and two fellow Jews hide in a space between bunk beds, during the day, when they should have been on work detail and Goeth appears with his two dogs. Obviously, the reader knows Jakob survives this. As he survives salt mines, death marches, Trzebina and Auschwitz Concentration Camps. It’s a journey inward to the boy beneath the man as it is outward to these stains on the human psyche. The book tells us the Ruth and Jack Gruener speak to children in schools about their experiences and the importance of remembering. I fear those lessons have, within a generation, been forgotten.