After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring

After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring


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Winner of:
2015 National Jewish Book Award; Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

This memoir is a fascinating portrait of mother and child who miraculously survive two concentration camps, then, after the war, battle demons of the past, societal rejection, disbelief, and invalidation as they struggle to reenter the world of the living. It is the tale of how one newly takes on the world, having lived in the midst of corpses strewn about in the scores of thousands, and how one can possibly resume life in the aftermath of such experiences. It is the story of the child who decides, upon growing up, that the only career that makes sense for him in light of these years of horror is to become someone sensitive to the deepest flaws of humanity, a teacher of God’s role in history amidst the traditions that attempt to understand it—and to become a rabbi. Readers will not emerge unscathed from this searing work, written by a distinguished, Boston-based rabbi and academic.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789655241624
Publisher: Urim Publications
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Joseph Polak is an infant survivor of the Holocaust, during which time he was a prisoner at two concentration camps: Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen. He has published extensively in leading popular and scholarly periodicals and newspapers, including the Boston Globe, Commentary, Jewish Law Studies, Judaism, and Tradition. He is an assistant professor of public health (health law) at Boston University School of Public Health; the rabbi emeritus of the Florence and Chafetz Hillel House at Boston University; and the chief justice at the Rabbinical Court of Massachusetts. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. Elie Wiesel is a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor, author of 57 books, and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. He lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring

By Joseph A. Polak

Urim Publications

Copyright © 2015 Joseph A. Polak
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-965-524-227-0



This is what she says: "The Nazis came to our house in the middle of the night."

"They came," Mother said, "they came," she accused, "with motorcycles, with guns." "They banged," she said, "they banged with the guns on the door." They pounded incessantly on the door — no let up. The pounding does not subside — they will not go away, they will knock until the end of time, and even after that they will pound into the blackness of the night. The percussion of the Holocaust. Diabolical intrusions, life irrevocably interrupted. You realize that the pounding will never cease, that they will pound until you are dead, or until they are, it is then that you understand not just that your life-trajectory has been irreversibly disturbed, but also that your autonomy has come to an end, your sojourn among the world of choosers is now over. In the evenings, you will no longer draw the curtains, shut the lights, close the doors, and conclude the day. You have tumbled into the latrine in which all choice ends.

Someone opens the door, and police wearing jackboots climb the stairs bearing guns and bearing lists. Were you to think that it is the guns that gave them their authority, you would be wrong. The guns helped set the scene, delivered the sense of terror, but it was the lists, the lists, that gave the Nazis their authority.

The lists, the endless lists, the six million typed names brought to our houses on those black midnight visits — it was the lists themselves that allowed the bearers to pound on our doors until we could no longer take it, the lists that allowed them to pound with the relentlessness of the pursuer. Had there been no lists, they would not have come, would not have pounded. It was the Jews, the Jews, who had, before the war, prepared the lists.

What to make of this. When does order, the possession of lists, the ossification, the finalization of bureaucracy, become formidable enough in its autonomy to establish the paraphernalia of murder? The Joodse Rad, the Dutch Jewish Council, in delivering the lists to the Nazis, was not knowingly suicidal. Yet the murder of 102,000 Dutch Jews could not have taken place without the lists, without the bureaucracy, without the typewriters and the foolscap and the carbon paper and the onionskin. It could not have taken place but for the addresses, the birthdates, the professions that the lists provided.

The list is what snared you. It was terser than you, more to the point than you; neater than you; in its own way, more real than you. Your birthday was on it, your address, your occupation. Its authority lay not just in its data but in that it was typewritten. Typewritten meant official, official meant authority, authority meant license. Each name and its accompanying detail occupied a line; the approaching end of the line was signaled by the typewriter bell, and soon after it rang, the next line, with its next victim began, so that the bell tolled for you, and for each person after you. Six million bells rang in those years. Six million bells indicating six million verdicts, indicating six million deaths, six million murders.

My father lies in a mass grave in a churchyard deep in eastern Germany, where the bells still toll. Christians sought him out, Christians murdered him, Christians buried him with Christian love, Christians still tend to his grave sixty years later with Christian love and deep remorse. Christian bells still disturb his great slumber, echoing the bells from the typewriters in the Joodse Raad, where he had worked and on which he had no doubt typed. The typewriters which upon printing the names, tolled the doom of the victims into eternity. Shall we, as a memorial to the six million, call for the silence of all the Christian bells of Europe? The percussion, the percussion of the Holocaust. A friend who, like myself, is an infant survivor of the Holocaust, has been the chief percussionist of a major symphony orchestra for over thirty years. What rings for him from those bells?

* * *

I am still not born. After the war, Mother is prepared to repeat the tale as often as I want to hear it (which is pretty much never). When I am finally prepared to hear it — by which I mean to internalize it, to appropriate it — she is long dead, the tale is on tape, and I am bursting. I cannot hold myself back from traveling to The Hague, to find the house, to find the door they pounded on. No mention of anyone ringing the bell that night.

Don't have a clue where in The Hague this house is. Don't know if it survives. Don't know how to find it. It is summer, 2002, and I think (incorrectly, I later discover) that anyone who might remember is long dead.

In Amsterdam, at the War Historical Institute (NIAD) I find, fluttering in the microfiches, the prisoner lists compiled in Westerbork. Oh, the sailing, tumbling names of the microfiches! How they float directionless, not to heaven, not to earth, like ash from a chimney. I scour the ever-trembling plastic, I enter the rain of ascending and descending souls, I duck bodies, avoid faces. Everyone waves, thousands, tens of thousands of them, graveless, this is their final imprint on earth, the typewriter bell tolls at the end of each name; again at the end of each address. We lived at 82 Wetteringenkade, The Hague.

Two stories, part of a row house, a sex shop nearby. There are two buzzers on the doorpost, one for a downstairs apartment, the other for a small duplex townhouse. Perhaps a shadow where once a mezuzah hung. The police came up the stairs, Mother had said. I have found the place, and it does not look as though it has ever seen better times.

Who answered the door that night? Grandmother Rika? Did she put on her sheitel for the Nazis? Perhaps they broke the door down. Did her son, my father, answer? Too good natured, too much love for the world — more reality in the pounding than he could altogether bear. Don't know.

They come up the stairs in their jackboots. Mother, nine months pregnant with me, is under the covers.

"What are you doing here?" she accuses — she had a powerful voice which she saved for occasions such as these, or for when, while in high school, I came home much too late at night. On such occasions, in Montreal, sitting invisibly in the pitch dark dining room that abutted my room, she would use this voice, which never failed to frighten me, to ask — "Where have you been?"

I don't know what the Nazis said, something, I'm sure, about our having to leave for Westerbork. It is about 4 a.m., and the dawn has not yet broken through the Dutch sky.

The same voice says to them, "What's the matter with you? I cannot go to Westerbork, I am in my ninth month!" A silence, broken only by the irregular thunder from motorcycle engines outside making the house tremble, finally ends with one of them saying to her, "If this is the case then you will have to show us the pregnancy."

"Nothing, nothing in the whole war," Mother later said, "was more humiliating than that moment. Not even the barracks of Bergen-Belsen." Her laments on this were filled with sobs of horror that drew you into their rhythm: "A Jewish woman," she would repeat again and again and weep as she repeated it, "a Jewish woman. Imagine making a Jewish woman get out of bed to show them."

They left. The motorcycles roared into the distance and as dawn slowly rose over The Hague on that fall morning in 1942, a hush fell over our household. I can't imagine that anyone went back to sleep. I can't imagine what else was done, what else was said.

* * *

Who was there? Who witnessed this event? Father is eerily absent from every narration. Perhaps Mother was unwilling to remember, relate or judge his helplessness on the occasion. He must simply have stood by: there was no alternative. She spoke of the event as we would today of a rape. In the old Wild West movies, I sometimes think, they would have known what to do. The script would have called for a tobacco chewing grizzler pulling out his Winchester, looking the buzzards squarely in the eye, and saying something like, "Get offa ma land." My mother took on this role, and I, bleating in the exposed swollen belly, I am the one to become protagonist, to have saved the day.

The Holocaust thus begins with an act of incapacitation. When a parent realizes that he can no longer protect his children, and is thus perpetrating the deepest of all human betrayals, then it is in the shame of this helplessness, like the crack of the neck when the noose fully tightens, that the breaking of the human spirit begins. "They can take away your children," you suddenly realize, "they can take away your children, and there may be nothing you can do about it." An ontological failure has been exposed from which, if you recognize it for what it is, you may never recover, and after which you will be irreversibly mad, incapable of parenting again, should you manage to survive and start over. You will challenge your child's every movement towards independence; you will have to steel yourself not to crush his spirit. Or, you may well turn child-rearing into a spectator sport, with your non-survivor spouse doing the job, as you look on, helplessly, despair-ridden, unskilled, lost and sad; if you're lucky, doing only marginal damage as the child grows up.

I have no visual memory of Father. I think I may have some sense of what his voice sounded like. He succumbed to typhus and malnutrition before I turned three, that is to say, he was murdered by the Germans before I turned three.

What were the consequences of this brief triumph of being saved from immediate shipment to Westerbork? Were there lessons learned? That Nazis (Mother always called them The Police) were suckers for hard-nosed encounters, that they were no match for the disposition that came from strong character? Did anyone think that they wouldn't be back? An interlude, to be sure, had been provided.

But what an interlude! When they finally came to get us, a full year had passed. We arrived in Westerbork on the 29th of September, 1943. At least half of my murdered Dutch relatives had already come to their end in the death camp Sobibor, and by this date the Nazis were no longer sending Dutch Jews to death camps. The last train from Westerbork to Sobibor was on July 20, 1943. The reprieve of a year from the Nazis' first visit may well have saved our lives.

Grandmother Rika was not so lucky; she was gassed in Sobibor. Mother never spoke about the circumstances of when they came to get her mother-in-law. She was in her seventies at the time, a religious woman of deep dignity, and certainly where I was concerned, a repository of unlimited love.

* * *

What did Mother and Father say to each other in the aftermath of this triumph, framed as it was in a double humiliation — Father's powerlessness, and Mother's belly-baring? Father hunted for business during these days, and when he found small jobs, shared them with other families, to bring in, as they said in those days, a little income.



Note: This chapter, the only one of its kind in this memoir, is a fantasy in a talmudic setting. The quotes from the Talmud which trigger the reflections are authentic, and appear in bold-face type. The description of the circumstances of my birth is likewise authentic.

Tanya [an Aramaic word meaning "we have learned"] ... when the child finally passes [from the womb] into the world, that which was sealed [the lungs] is now opened, and that which was open [the navel] is sealed. Were it not this way, the child could not survive even a single hour [on earth].

SCENE: The heavenly holding tank, from whence souls depart to enter the world, and to which, upon death, they return. It is very crowded. Among the comings and goings, the returnees are in overwhelming majority. A montage of harrowing sounds, one atop the other: We hear automatic weapon fire; dogs snarling and barking furiously; an interminable, unintelligible speech in a bad microphone by the Fuhrer making him sound as though the back of his throat were lined with bubble gum; shouts of "Hear, O Israel," the proclamation pious Jews recite twice daily, and if they can, before they die; children, children, in numbers larger than the mind can accommodate, cowering before some horror, and weeping, and weeping; their consoling moment, the one grownups know to anticipate, disappeared into some invisible future, even in this higher world where all is revealed and all is transparent. And Mozart, of course; lots of Mozart. An angel appears, he seems to be wearing noise-abatement earphones. The date is 16 October, 1942.

Me: Let me out of here! Too much! Too many children, too much crying. Why is it so crowded? Why don't they stop crying?

Angel: They died crying and screaming and are not able to stop.

Me: Why not?

Angel: Perhaps because their trauma was so great, their outrage so beyond any ever experienced, that even their deaths failed to console them.

[aside] (Perhaps also because they wish to drive God mad.)

Me: Who are they?

Angel: They are one-and-a-half million Jewish children, without sin, about to be or already burnt alive or starved to death, led by hapless parents. They don't want to enter the gates of Heaven.

They don't trust entranceways. The camp gates promised them freedom — they don't believe in promises at entranceways, don't like going from one place to another. They're not even interested, it turns out, in the promises offered at these hallowed gates.

Think about it. How could they imagine that God would be here for them? Where was He in the world where their little bones now lie cremated in a mountain of ashes seven tons thick in Majdanek, seven tons of madness in which the silence of their screams is overwhelming? So they refuse to enter the gates, they were betrayed at the gates of the earth, and are terrified of a repeat in Heaven. They did nothing, they shout, to deserve the fiery furnace on earth — how could they trust what's in store for them in Heaven?

Me: How will it benefit them if God is mad?

Angel: They weep out of outrage: they have experienced a magnitude of injustice, of humiliation, and of physical suffering not imaginable by mortals, perhaps not even by immortals.

Their suffering challenges the very omnipotence of God Himself. Could He have thought this up, they ask — could He have planned this for them as part of their sojourn in the world? Is this what is meant by the prayer, "He prepares the steps of men?" To presume this is to offend God in the deepest ways, and to contradict all that is said about Him in the Torah.

Yet to claim that He was helpless in the face of the great and murderous slaughter of the children is equally offensive.

They cry because they have arrived in the Hall of Justice and have found it wanting for judge and trial. And so they will cry and stamp and pound their little fists upon the two empty thrones, of Justice and Compassion, until the end of time. And even as the voices of the Torah can never be silenced, neither can their sobs. So coterminous are their voices with the Torah, that it is not always clear whether the crying comes from the martyred children or from the Torah itself.

Me: Are you saying that God has abandoned the Torah?

Angel: No, to the contrary, that He has taken refuge in it.1

Me: How long will He stay there?

Angel: Have you not studied the laws of the blood avenger? If a man, the Torah relates, unintentionally kills someone, then the relative of his victim has the right to destroy the murderer in revenge. But if the unintentional murderer flees to the city of refuge established for him for just such eventualities, he is there offered sanctuary from the blood avenger. I am not suggesting that God is implicated in the murder of the Jewish children — this is beyond anyone's capacity to judge, save for Him alone; I am merely explaining from whence we derive the parameters and limits of sanctuary. To answer your question: He is free to leave the sanctuary after fifty years, at which time the blood avenger has no further claim on him. (Check out your Talmud, Sotah 49a, in the name of R. Ilai ben Berahya).

Me: Then He is overdue?

Angel: What is a single year in the eyes of the Lord?

A light is kindled over the head of the child about to depart for the womb. In a sweep that extends from one end of the universe to another, he stares at the world for the first time, contemplating it as one might in a dream [taking it all in, missing nothing].

Indeed there is no hour in the human experience when a person has it as good as when he is still in the womb. Here is he taught the Torah in its entirety ...

Me: Tell me, then, why am I not crying? Am I not myself about to enter that furnace?

Angel: Because although you will pass through the fiery furnace, you will also survive. You will have seen everything, but you will remember very little.

Yet as soon as the child leaves the womb to enter the world, an angel taps his mouth, causing him to forget all the Torah he has just been taught.


Excerpted from After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring by Joseph A. Polak. Copyright © 2015 Joseph A. Polak. Excerpted by permission of Urim Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Elie Wiesel,
Book One,
Chapter 1: Percussion,
Chapter 2: Tanya,
Chapter 3: Who's Going on Tuesday? Westerbork,
Chapter 4: Bergen-Belsen,
Chapter 5: The Lost Transport,
Chapter 6: Mother, Father, and Other Unfinished Business,
Book Two: After the Holocaust,
Chapter 7: The Bijenkorf,
Chapter 8: After the Holocaust, the Holocaust Continues,
Chapter 9: The Holocaust in Canada,
Chapter 10: The Last Witness,
About the Author,

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After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Rabbi Polak is my mentor.  I admire him very much.  I thought I knew him. But now that I have read the book, I realize that there is so much about him that I did not know.  If you have ever met Rabbi Polak or heard him speak, you owe it to yourself to read this book.  
DollDebbie More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down.  It contains descriptions of the Holocaust which I have not read in other books.  Although it contains statistics, it  is primarily a personal report of larger events as they transpired through one little boy's family.  I could not sleep for nights after reading the terrors which his family suffered.  Regardless, the rebirth of this man and his family is inspiring.  No matter how many Holocaust books you have already read, add this one.  
DebbieDoll More than 1 year ago
Unique, Riveting, Compelling  This book is not like other Holocaust books.  It has both stunned and inspired me. It relates the details of Holocaust history through the experience one man's family.  It moves from statistics to feelings to perceptions.  I could not put the book down.  You will learn something, and will be both horrified and inspired.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was impressed by this outstanding memoir. It had all the elements that I look for in an exceptional book – brilliant writing, the communication of deep truths, and an intriguing story to share.   This memoir resonated with me because it showcased a unique perspective which I have yet to find anywhere else; whereas most holocaust memoirs detail Nazi horrors, this memoir proves that a war which spanned 6 years continues to reverberate shock-waves up to today. It’s well worth reading.