In Memory Fields, Shlomo Breznitz shifts from past to present, from a child's perspective to an adult's, to tell a poignant, gripping, and often terrifying story. Caught in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust, Breznitz's family moved from village to village until it became clear that there was no escaping the Nazis. Before they were sent to Auschwitz, however, Breznitz's parents persuaded the Sisters of Saint Vincent to take their two recently converted children into the convent's orphanage. Shlomo--called Juri--was just eight years old. Separated from his parents and from his sister Judith (the nuns segregated the sexes, and communication between them was rarely allowed), Juri recounts his often devastating experiences with the other orphans, the nuns, his teacher and classmates at the village school, the prelate and the mother superior, and the Nazi officers who periodically visited the orphanage. He describes his overwhelming feelings of isolation and loneliness, his persistent dread of being found out as a "stinking Jew" (constantly hiding his circumcision), his earnest determination to be a good Catholic, and the crushing sense of danger that loomed over him at every moment. Memory Fields, however, goes beyond its recollections of childhood. It speaks also for Breznitz the psychologist, as he explores the nature of cruelty and kindness, of stifling fear and outstanding courage, of memory and the ways in which it shapes our lives. In the last chapter of the book, almost fifty years later Breznitz writes of returning to Czechoslovakia and revisiting the places so vivid in his memory, in hopes of finding the nuns who saved his and his sister's life. Helen Epstein reviewed the first edition of the book in the Boston Globe, December 27, 1992. She wrote: "[The] majority of child survivors [of the Holocaust] ... were carefully hidden with Gentile friends, with strangers or in the orphanages of Christian religious orders that offered them protection, sometimes with the stipulation that they convert. "Shlomo Breznitz was 8 years old in 1944, and recently converted to Catholicism, when his parents took him to the orphanage run by the sisters of St. Vincent in Zilina, just across the Slovak-Polish border from Auschwitz. Breznitz is now a professor of psychology ..., and one of a small number of child survivors to write about their experiences during the Holocaust. Like others of the current generation of psychologists, historians, literary critics and memoirists addressing the Holocaust, Breznitz is concerned with more than recollecting people and events. He examines how extreme trauma affects memory. He adds to what we know of children's behavior in situations of extremity. And he meditates on the experience of surviving catastrophe and trying to draw meaning from it. "'For many years, the memories of these events have toyed with me,' Breznitz writes in the prologue. 'While some loose fragments were always available and could be summoned at will, others were more elusive; they would surface briefly, tempting pursuit, only to be lost the next moment. And then there was another type of memory whose existence was suggested by the gaping holes in the story of my childhood. ... The fields of memory are like a rich archeological site, with layer upon layer of artifacts from different periods, which, through some geological upheaval, got mixed up. Since it is the upheaval itself that is the stuff my story is made of, only part of the truth survived.' "The memoir begins in 1942, and the broken narrative that follows is clearly not only an artistic strategy but a necessity. As an adult, Breznitz has only limited access to both the raw material with which to construct a chronology of events and the interlocking pieces of cause and effect that are the underpinning of narrative. ... It's short, sometimes sharp, sometimes cloudy sections chop back and forth in time, heralded by such titles as 'First Game of Chess' or 'In the Toilet,' jolting the reader into a simulation of the 'geological upheaval.' "One layer that concerns Breznitz throughout the book is the moral one: lessons he learned as a child, among them lessons in cruelty. In a set of riveting episodes, he describes being terrorized by other children, by the nun charged with his care, by a teacher who, as a punishment, asked his pupils to 'make a nice rose' with their fingertips and then smashed it with his cane so forcefully that the children could not even hold a pencil for several days. "Breznitz's meditations are as powerful as his descriptions. 'I have learned a great deal about cruelty but, oddly enough, very little of it was from being its target,' he writes. 'The pain and fear experienced by the victim ... monopolize attention to a degree that limits the ability to observe. ... Cruelty is entirely different when we ourselves are the perpetrators and thus it is my own cruelty that I now wish to write about.' Breznitz writes about another Jewish boy named Fisher who arrived at the orphanage after him, and about the 'strange relief' he feels in being able to frighten the new arrival in the same toilet where he himself was terrorized on arrival. "Just as the reader is trying to digest the implications of these meditations on cruelty, Breznitz moves to another layer: current events. Not for him the luxury of 'emotion recollected in tranquility.' As he is setting down his memories of a Holocaust childhood, a radio announcer's voice informs him that Baghdad is claiming [that] Iraqi Scuds have turned Tel Aviv into a crematorium. 'They could have phrased it differently,' Breznitz notes. 'But the word they chose, taken from the unholy vocabulary that dominated my childhood, was targeted to hit the most vulnerable part of their victims' souls, with a precision exceeding by far that of the missiles themselves. ... As I try to erase the impact of these new threats so that I do not lose sight of the all-important 'perspective,' the thought inevitably presents itself that memoirs are a luxury that should not be undertaken under any type of duress. And yet it is precisely at such times that one finds oneself more appreciative of the personal dilemmas and choices that my parents had to face during those years.' ... "This ... memoir ... is an important addition to the professional literature of post-traumatic stress disorder but also falls within the scope of memoirs of boyhood. ... 'The fields of memory are unbounded,' Breznitz writes at the end of his book. So are the thoughts with which he leaves his reader." Lynne Lawner wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer on March 21, 1993 that: "Shlomo Breznitz's superb Memory Fields adds [a] noble brick to the facade of Holocaust memoirs, but once it is in place a reader feels that the whole building would come down without it. As a boy, Shlomo was not in the camps, although his parents were interned at length [Auschwitz]. He passed the war years in a Catholic orphanage in Zilina ... . "This memoir is, among other things, a rigorous analysis of the various shifting psychological states of the young boy the author was. The author, a professor of psychology ..., seems eminently skilled to make such an analysis. What is remarkable is how his unsparing search for self-truth never limits the concomitant narrative aim of evoking, through cautiously sensuous literary prose, the embodied experience itself. ... "It is the relationship to authority figures that is central to the book. They become attached to the Jewish child, fearing for his safety and struggling to preserve him. ... "Despite these essential human contacts, Shlomo was left alone with his emotions and imagination, above all with his sensations, in an atmosphere at once 'claustrophobic' and 'intimate'--words he uses to describe the square and medieval street outside [the orphanage]. ... "As Breznitz tells his tale, these sensations fuse with those of still earlier times. Objects and events are significantly slipped into the story like talismans, since memory saves the narrator, both literally and figuratively, both then and now. "Potato latkes, terrifying geese, white-winged hats, five handkerchiefs from home, a fatal chess game, an ill-equipped latrine, an unstolen fountain pen, sardines, and the odors of distilleries and makeshift hospitals all play a role that is only apparently simple. ... "Waiting ... in a sense, created the psyche of the protagonist. 'Waiting is particularly effective,' he tells us, 'in quickly peeling off the superficial shield that provides our false sense of security and composure. We are never too old to overcome the child in us, afraid to be abandoned.' "The different moods into which waiting can be cast is not so much a sequence of emotions for him as an extrapolation of possible stances and doubts. 'My parents started searching for us (in Auschwitz) desperately wishing to fail. (How does one look for something that must not be found?).' Similarly, young Shlomo was afraid to look out at the street for fear that his looking will keep his parents away. He imagines they don't love him anymore and feels guilty that he might have caused this situation. ... "There's no getting around it: the suffering of others enriches our consciousness. We wouldn't want them to have to go through it, but when they do, they must speak or we will lose something. In a story like this the concern for plot would seem all too prurient. For how much suspense can there be when we know the end? It will be either death by gassing or some other brutal means, or physically or psychologically maimed survival. Breznitz is a 'healthy' survivor, one that surely strengthens in later life through the writing of this memoir. "[The book] is a brief, musical work in which every note is right. Each action works harmoniously with others. It is only one more tribute to the possibilities of a collective conception of beauty--and beautiful tragedy." Finally, Benedict Cosgrove wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 14, 1993 that: "Breznitz's attitude toward the nuns, particularly Mother Superior, and toward the Catholicism to which his parents forced him to convert in order to spare him from the Nazis, form the psychological sounding board at the base of Memory Fields. "Why did Mother Superior risk her life and the lives of the other nuns in order to hide a few Jewish children? This question haunts Breznitz enough so that he actually returns, at the book's end, to a post-Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia to search out information on Mother Superior. "'A young sister who had known Mother Superior found her a towering figure. ... But my humble verdict is different: She was neither a saint nor a martyr; rather, hers was the power of simple human decency.' "The same might well be said of the power of this slim volume to show, through a child's eyes, the basest and noblest corners of the human heart." Shlomo Breznitz is Lady Davis Professor at the University of Haifa in Tel Aviv and Director of the Ray D. Wolfe Center for the Study of Psychological Stress. He is also Professor of Psychology at New School University in New York City.
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January 25, 2002
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