Why you should care
Because slippery slopes abound.
A while back, I sat down at my computer to translate my grandfather’s Holocaust memoir. He had called it One Chance in a Thousand, and I meant it as a gift for my husband’s birthday.
The book starts in 1940 in L’viv, now Ukraine, but then Poland. The beginning of World War II caught my grandfather unaware. He and his fiancée got resettled into the ghetto, where they got married. Right after, raids on the Jewish population began. His sisters and niece went to work one day, never to return. They were either shot or sent to concentration camps. Fearing for their lives, my grandfather and his wife decided to move to Warsaw (where I was born many years later).
They also tried to get my grandfather’s mother to join them, but she was arrested and eventually died in a concentration camp. My grandfather described this as the biggest tragedy of his life. But this loss was soon joined by another: His beloved wife was shot by the Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
It doesn’t even begin to explain the circumstances of a man who was lonely, powerless and pursued. I think that to describe my situation, the term ‘rat’ was much more suitable.
Heartbroken, sick and starving, my grandfather decided to go into hiding. After the uprising failed, the Nazis were methodically burning down the city, one house after another. There was nothing left to hide in. Still, my grandfather moved into one of the damaged houses close to the city center and stayed there for four months. People like him, who refused to get expelled from their hometown and who survived the war hiding in what was left of the houses, were called the Robinson Crusoes of Warsaw. But my grandfather resisted this label.
“It doesn’t even begin to explain the circumstances of a man who was lonely, powerless and pursued. I think that to describe my situation, the term ‘rat’ was much more suitable. Like an animal, I crept around in dark cellars, I ate whatever appeared in my way and my oppressors were trying to kill me,” he wrote.
My grandfather was a highly educated, intelligent man. But for four months, he lived like an animal. He stayed in the ruins through the worst of the Polish winter. He would eat whatever food he could find in the cellars, mostly flour mixed with water, and nothing else. The water he drank was often squirming with maggots. Worst of all, he started talking to himself.
He was alone for much too long, and the fear of descending into madness eventually made him go out and surrender himself to the Germans. Instead of killing him as he had expected, they brought him to a prisoner camp. There, his job was to loot the city, saving anything the Nazis considered worthy enough of being taken back to Germany. After the war was over, my grandfather was a free man at last. He survived but was sick and broken. Later, he became a diplomat and lived in various countries, including the Netherlands, where I live now.
Throughout the book, my grandfather describes situations in which he could easily have died, but didn’t. Twice, someone decided not to kill him. Once, a cat saved his life. Nowhere does he say that he was more intelligent than other people. It was luck that kept him alive, and nothing else. It was, as the title says, one chance in a thousand.
As soon as I read his story, I knew I wanted to share it with someone. Luckily, my husband’s birthday was approaching. I thought my grandfather’s story would make a perfect gift for him. He is very interested in history, and despite the fact that he is German, my husband doesn’t shy away from his country’s dark past. Because I wanted more people to know about what happened to my grandfather, I decided to translate it into English rather than German.
Rendering the book into another language was hard. I couldn’t eat. I was slowly but steadily nearing depression. The hardest part was reading about my grandfather’s first wife. My grandfather was a broken man after her death. But from my point of view, if she hadn’t died, my mother wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.
For a long time, I’ve been experiencing feelings of guilt over this. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with the knowledge that you owe your life to someone else’s death. But I kept at it, because I saw my grandfather’s intelligence and dry sense of humor shine through the darkness. Translating the book helped me get to know him better. He died when I was 10 years old, and I don’t remember much about him. I was also finding out that I resembled him more than I thought. My whole family is scientifically minded, except for me and my grandfather. Like me, he showed a talent for languages and cultures, and, like me, he was a writer.
According to my mom, it’s my brother who reminds her of her father, but I was delighted to find further evidence of the similarities between us. I used to hate my tendency to blush at seemingly random moments. I can blush extensively, and my face stays red for a long time. It’s embarrassing, but I started to embrace my “talent” when I found out my grandfather had it too.
When I was done, I presented the book to my husband. He was touched. He read it carefully and provided thoughtful feedback.
“Holocaust stories are usually about heroes or victims,” he eventually said. “Your grandfather was neither. He was just a human being trying to survive in inhuman times.”