Memories of mass betrayal, mass graves

April 14, 1993|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Contributing Writer

"I have just found out your father was executed," Rivka Hochberg writes in a letter to her children. "I am an old woman, and I have no strength to go on living. . . . I am prepared to turn myself in."

But save yourselves, she tells them. And remember to "tell the whole world about these atrocities. . . . Avenge our blood and the blood of Ziporah and all the hapless souls who were murdered and their loved ones slaughtered. Remember, revenge, revenge, revenge."

This passage from the memoir "Glimmers of Light in a Betraying Land," by Baltimore-area physician Giora Praff, follows an especially horrifying section in which Aharon Hochberg has been captured and slain by Nazi soldiers. The elderly, crippled man was ordered to undress. Soldiers searched his clothes and saw the excrement pouch on the side of his stomach. They tore it off, and seeing the contents, they beat him. When Mr. Hochberg dies, it seems a blessing.

No wonder that Dr. Praff would write his mother's story and fulfill his grandmother's request. But in the spirit of the Holocaust Day of Remembrance this Sunday, as Dr.Praff tells the world about the atrocities visited, especially on his mother, Hannele Hochberg Praff, he seeks remembrance, not revenge.

The Holocaust, as seen through the eyes of the Hochbergs, is not only a betrayal of the Jewish people -- it's a betrayal of every goodness ever conceived. It's a betrayal of man's very soul. That betrayal is relieved only by a few people who, like angels, brought the glimmers of light referred to in the title.

Dr. Praff, an Israeli-born physician who completed his training at Sinai Hospital, interviewed his mother when she came to the United States to be treated for cancer. At her bedside, he wrote down the events that became this book.

This suggests some of the book's flaws. The language is stilted, partly because the author is a doctor and not a writer.

The book also is a translation from Hebrew to English, which may also account for the awkwardness in style. Dr. Praff introduces many people with foreign names. A list of the people and an attempt to identify them would have helped, as would a map and a few dates. There are also numerous typographical errors.

Finally, the book's structure is imbalanced. The first 95 pages look closely at Hannele during the years Germany invaded the Ukraine. The remaining 26 pages cover her arrival in Israel, her marriage, her life as a mother and teacher, and her coming to the United States.

Despite these flaws, the book is riveting. The story is tragic, horrible and as fresh as the newsprint in front of you. Another section of this newspaper most likely holds a similar story happening now in the former Yugoslavia.

The book abounds in irony. Mr. Hochberg's death, for example, follows his refusal to believe that Germany would do such a thing: "An enlightened nation which has given rise to writers and poets . . . and [a nation] which helped cure my cancer will not

engage in wanton killings."

Yet this book is filled with killings, not only wanton but brutal. So brutal, Dr. Praff tells us, they must be remembered.


Title: "Glimmers of Light in a Betraying Land."

Author: Giora Praff.

Publisher: Shengold.

Length, price: 121 pages, $18.95.

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