Too Good to Miss #7
Contrary to popular belief or mythology, neither do I read every book that arrives at the Library nor do I know every book in the Library. But every now and again a book passes over my desk that makes me sit up and take notice. In that case I might skim it. If the skimming grabs my attention then I might read it. And if I am deeply impressed by it, I will go out of my way to bend every ear possible, to alert everyone to check this book out, for it is too good to miss.
Yesterday I received the donation of a book to the Library. As I withdrew the book from the package and I saw its title, my hands began to shake! Not many books have such an effect upon me.
The book is entitled, We Want To Live, by Jacob Rassen.
The book bears no International Standard Book Number; the title-page bears no city or name of publisher. The verso of the sparse title page tells that the book was first copyrighted in 1949 by Jacob Rassen and in 2007 by the family of Jacob Rassen. The Acknowledgements includes thanks to Professor Murray Sachs (professor emeritus of French literature) at Brandeis University.
The book's subtitle reveals its contents: "On the arduous journey of Jewish martyrs across Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia, Poland, Germany, and distant seas to a new life, to the Land of Israel."
So why did my hands shake?
Jacob Rassen was my Hebrew school teacher the year of my bar-mitzvah fifty years ago. He was a Holocaust survivor, and we were spoiled suburban kids "bored out of our gourd" by Hebrew school. And oh, were we rotten to him! He only remained in Providence only that one year and moved with his family to Boston. We were even proud to have broken this teacher such that he left town. Such can be the cruelty of the young...
We had heard he had written a book about his experiences during the War, but as it was in Yiddish, none of us had a clue as to its contents, i.e., what this unfortunate man had gone through. Remember, there was almost to "Holocaust literature" in English at this time. Indeed, even the word "Holocaust" referring to the Jewish experience during World War II was not even coined until 1965 (by Alexander Donat, in his classic The Holocaust Kingdom)!
Last year I re-discovered his book in our stacks, with an autograph dedication to Rabbi Stephen S Wise by a name in Hebrew I did not recognize. Perhaps it was a name Mr. Rassen had used. This time, armed with the knowledge of Yiddish I had gotten over the past twenty-five years I read his book. It was slow going because the author's language was uncommonly rich.
The subtitle only scratches the surface. Lately, with so many Holocaust memoirs published and being published, we think we have an inkling of the contents. But Jacob Rassen's was different.
To keep his sanity as he moved from place to place, from camp to camp, Jacob Rassen kept diaries and composed verses in Yiddish chronicling his experiences, writing them down on any scrap of paper to come his way. Many scraps did not survive his ordeal, but we are fortunate that at least some did.
When I finished Mr. Rassen's book I knew immediately what made his book different from those published in the past twenty years. The countless accounts published over the past generation were written by individuals who had been adolescents during the War, their view of the world frozen in time as an adolescent. And many are written with the assistance of a ghost writer.
Jacob Rassen's book was written by a man already in his forties, a man who had been an adolescent during World War I. His accounts have the immediacy of having been written first in his diaries and then within a few years, in this book. There is no hindsight, only immediacy.
And then there are his poems! How many great poems have been written in Yiddish about the Holocaust? More importantly, how many were written by Survivors? Rassen's are outstanding. I am sure there is more I could say about his poems, but it would be gilding the lily. Again, the immediacy of his work is what makes it so outstanding.
If anything, We Want to Live is one of the earliest (if not the earliest) works that combines the historical genre of chronicle and the literary genre of verse. To say Jacob Rassen's book is "unique" would hardly be an understatement.
When I finished reading the Yiddish original I made a silent vow to translate the book into English, but, I sadly confess, since then I had not progressed very far.
I "Googled" Mr. Rassen and found out that he had died in San Francisco in 1986 and that his widow was still living there. On Purim of 2005 I telephoned Mrs. Rassen and had a lovely conversation with her. When she found out I speak Hebrew she insisted on carrying on the remainder of the conversation be-'ivrit.
I did not tell her of my vow, lest I fail and disappoint her. Or in the event that she was not alive, I disappoint myself. Perhaps I ought to have told her, for then she might have informed me that a translation was well under way.
I can only praise Professor Sachs' translation, for it is clear his Sprachgefuehl (native feeling for the language) is far greater than mine.
I cannot give you a call number to jot down, for the book is so new that it is not yet in the bibliographical data-base we use for cataloging. It could possibly get a number putting immediately next to the original, but the Library of Congress has developed a more developed classification scheme for books of Holocaust content than it used in 1949.
All I can do is suggest you write down the name of the author and his book.
NB Cincinnati and Los Angeles Libraries: If you did not receive a copy of the book, please be in touch with me and I'll pass one the name of the donor.