Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Dear God, Have You Ever Gone Hungry?" by Joseph Bau

If you are familiar with the film "Schindler's List", then you will remember the scene where a Jewish man and woman are married in the concentration camp at Plaszow. They used a silver spoon to fashion their wedding rings. A deathhouse bunk served as their wedding bed. Joseph Bau was a graphic artist and draftsman, Rebecca was the manicurist for the camps Commandant. Some viewers naturally thought that this scene was fictionalized. But every bit of that scene is true. And more remarkably, the couple were re-united at the end of the war. And they even managed to live happily ever after.

In this mesmerizing book, Joseph Bau tells the story of how he survived before the concentration camp. Roaming the streets without proper identity cards, and with no place to live, he and his brother are forced to live like homeless persons, walking the streets by day to keep warm, and sleeping wherever they can at night. Then came the ghetto. The stories of the Jewish fighters there, as well as the eventual destruction of the ghetto, are unforgettable.

The daily struggle against arbitrary Nazi brutality is well known, but the sheer inhumanity of it all grows with each telling. Life in the ghetto was hard, but some of the hardest days were yet to come, as the family is eventually transported to the the camp at Plaszow.

Arriving at the camp, two things happen that will alter the authors life forever. After witnessing the execution of his father, and in the midst of death all about him, he fell in love with a woman who would become his wife in this hell, and remain so, afterward in Israel. Their marriage would last 53 years. By coincidence, they were married on Valentine's Day, although at the time they were unaware of this.

Joseph Bau was spared by virtue of his talents as a draftsman and artist. He drew signs and maps for the Germans. This is how he met Rebecca. He was outside the construction office, attempting to make a "sun print", which is a reproduction of a drawing, made by using light sensitive paper and the heat of the sun, much as in early photography. It was a cloudy day, both in the weather, as well as his soul. Failure to complete his task meant the possibility of death at the hands of his supervisor. As he stood there, waiting for the sun to do it's work, a pretty girl asked him, "What are you trying to do?" He replied, "I'm waiting for the reluctant sun to come out. Could you, perhaps, take its place?" She ran away in embarassment.

He began to visit her daily before roll call, shining her shoes with a rag, bringing her hot water in the mornings. This was accomplished with the help of a simple disquise, a white kerchief. In the camps, men and women were almost indistinguishable, except for one thing; the white kerchief. The men used a cap to cover their baldness, while the women used a white kerchief to cover their shaven heads. Joseph used a white kerchief as a pass to the womens quarters.

Trading 4 loaves of bread for a silver spoon was hard enough, but getting 4 more for the camp's jeweler to fashion the spoon into rings was equally difficult. But it was done, and the couple was married, by the side of Joseph's mother's bunk. He then snuck himself into Rebecca's hut and climbed into her bunk, on the top tier, to consumate their marriage. This was not to be - as the camp was kept lit all that night while the Germans searched for men hiding in the women's barracks. Although Joseph remained undetected, 2 other men were discovered and beaten to death that night.

The book recounts how Rebecca managed to get Joseph on Schindler's "list", an action that would save his life. Eventually the couple was seperated and then re-united after the war. They raised a family in Israel, and Joseph became Israel's first animator, as well as an acclaimed author, artist and sometime poet.

The book is filled with some of Joseph Bau's sketches and poems. The series of events, which the author rightfully refers to as "miracles", all serve to illustrate the apparent randomness of life, while at the same time acknowledging that there may be forces greater than our own, which guide our actions, as well as our destinies.

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