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Book Review : Three Very Moving Tales of Alarm, Anxiety, Grief

May 21, 1987|GERRY GRABER | Graber has published three books on the Nazis and recently taught a course entitled "Nazism Re-Evaluated" at UCLA. and

And the Violins Stopped Playing by Alexander Ramati (Watts: $15.95; 237 pp.)

Restless Memories by Samuel P. Oliner (Judah Magnes Museum: $9.95, paperback; 214 pp.)

The Courage to Care, edited by Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers (New York University: $24.95; 152 pp.)

When the ancient Israelites stood at the banks of the Red Sea in their flight from Egypt, they were pursued by the best troops Pharaoh could muster.

The waters parted to allow the Israelites passage to dry land. They reunited to engulf and drown the Egyptian forces who followed them. Hardly any survived, but according to folk-memory and oral history, today's Gypsies are the heirs of these few survivors.

By a historic irony, the descendants of both actors in this drama, the predators (Pharaoh's elite guard) and the prey (the Israelites), were annihilated by the most advanced slaughter machine the world has ever seen: Nazi Germany.

The process has been called the Holocaust, and the story of the elimination of European Jewry has been well documented. That of the Gypsies has not. There are two reasons.

Six million Jews were killed, and "only" 500,000 Gypsies (this is the figure claimed by the author).

The Jews have had the most literate and informed spokesmen. The Gypsies, until the appearance of this book, had not.

Leader of His Clan

Alexander Ramati claims to have received the manuscript from Roman Mirga while attending a postwar conference of surviving Gypsies in West Germany. Mirga is a Gypsy whose father was leader of his clan. His story, which is factual, was written "in 1944 on a Polish farm where I was hiding in a cellar under the kitchen floor." It tells of a journey undertaken by 58 Gypsies from Brest Litovsk via the Ukraine, across sections of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary between 1942 and 1944. When they arrived in Hungary, it had not yet been taken over by the Germans. "We had defied the most powerful military might in the world, triumphed over hunger and exhaustion and, when deprived of our carts, had traveled bareback on our horses, had walked, crossing the thickly forested mountains and the heavily guarded frontier to reach freedom."

Their sojourn in Hungary was only temporary. The entire band was captured by army units when the Germans entered that country, and transported to Auschwitz. Here, with the exception of Roman Mirga who escaped, they died in the most gruesome manner. Because of his familiarity with so many European languages and Gypsy dialects, Mirga was employed as translator by Josef Mengele, the notorious S.S. doctor who performed experiments on his hapless charges.

These are the basic facts. But the story attains considerable literary heights because of the evocative and lyrical skills of the author. At the same time as the Gypsies are dodging the Germans in their attempt to reach safe Hungary, he can write: "Spring came early that year and warmed our camp, as it speckled the meadows with poppies, buttercups and cornflowers, and clothed the trees with fresh foliage." Even more moving, in the midst of the tragic flight, is his love affair with the Gypsy girl Zoya, whom he eventually marries.

'Only Thing I Could Do'

Of her, he writes, "A delicate copper-colored face, perfectly sculpted lids, a small straight nose and black, almond-shaped eyes . . . " When in Auschwitz, "I made love to her not because I really felt like it or had a strength to, but because it was the only thing I could do to convince her that I loved her even without her hair . . . ."

His duties as interpreter brought him frequently into Mengele's office, "a world of scarlet fever, typhoid and dysentery, tuberculosis and noma, and smallpox or varieties of scurvy which inevitably led to gangrene and death. . . ."

I was alternately moved, appalled and occasionally uplifted by this rare book. Because of my relative ignorance about Gypsies, I consulted the Encyclopaedia Britannica on them. In the 1959 edition to which I referred, I learned: "The mental age of an average adult Gypsy is thought to be about that of a child of 10. . . . Gypsies have never accomplished anything of great significance in writing, painting, musical composition, science or social organization. What culture they possess has been thrust upon them from outside. . . ."

I wonder if Heinrich Himmler would have phrased it differently!

There is alarm, anxiety and grief of a different order in "Restless Memories" by Samuel P. Oliner, an autobiographical account of a Jewish boy in wartime Poland who posed as a non-Jew in order to escape the death camps. He looked the part. "My blond hair blended in with that of the Gentile Poles."

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