Ed. by Lawrence Sutin
1995. 225 pages. Hardcover. Graywolf Press.
From: Public Library, Interlibrary Loan
For: Spotlight Series
Jack and Rochelle Sutin tell their survival story, taking turns recounting all that they endured as Polish Jews during the Holocaust. They start with a brief account of their family and their lives before the war. Mere acquaintances before the Nazi occupation, the two met again after escaping the ghettos, hiding with other Jewish partisans in the Belorussian forest called Naliboki.
In December of last year, I read Nechama Tec’s book Defiance, about the Bielski partisans, who took in Jewish ghetto refugees and fought the Germans. The Bielski otriad (partisan group) was in the Naliboki forest, as were Jack and Rochelle, who joined a different otriad. The stories told in Defiance were incredible, and I was glad to return to the subject and read another story of the same place and time.
Jack and Rochelle is written with some passages by Rochelle and others by Jack. They take turns, sometimes interjecting a sentence in the other’s narrative. In his preface, Lawrence Sutin says:
My parents chose to speak openly of their experiences to us – to my sister Cecilia and myself. I cannot remember at what age I first began to hear their Holocaust stories.
So it seems fitting that it is written as if they are telling the stories to us, the reader.
Jack and Rochelle are very candid and seem to hold very little back from the reader. For instance, they openly admit that Rochelle did not trust Jack for a while after they met again in the forest. He wanted to take care of her, but she thought he just wanted her for sex. Considering Rochelle and her friend Tanya’s previous experiences with Soviet partisans, her distrust is understandable.
Although I knew of course that Jack and Rochelle survived the Holocaust and made it to America, that did not prevent me from feeling the intensity of their ordeals. Consider a few quotes from the book:
We didn’t expect to live that long. We just decided that we didn’t want to be killed the way the Nazis planned – slowly, as it suited their purposes, and after we had worked ourselves to near death. We could die with some dignity. We would try to get away, they would shoot us with their machine guns, and that would be it. (p. 73)
Then we realized that these two Germans thought we were Russian partisans. So we explained the truth to them. We told them what the Germans had done to our families. When they heard that their faces turned white and they started to tremble. (p. 141)
For the most part, Jack and Rochelle are in agreement over the events that they jointly experienced. However, Rochelle would mention several times how she worked to keep Jack from going out on the most dangerous partisan raids. Jack was always quick to follow with a statement that: though she may have kept him from some raids, most of the time he did fight with the rest of the Zorin otriad fighters. As a result, I wasn’t sure how much Jack went out on raids.
I definitely appreciate that Jack and Rochelle did not stop their story when the the Germans were ousted from Poland in 1944. By continuing on, the book covered an aspect of the Holocaust experience of which I knew few details: what happened to the Jews immediately after their liberation from the Nazis.
For indeed, Jack and Rochelle’s troubles did not disappear with the defeat of the Nazis. When they returned to their hometowns, the couple found that the majority of their Polish neighbors hated them and wished they had not survived. The Soviets were conscripting the partisan fighters to their army, to fight and likely die on the front. Jack and Rochelle wanted to live and start a family, so they fled west.
After many, many trials and hardships, the couple and their daughter finally ended up in St. Paul, Minnesota. They were interviewed for a local paper and a story was published about them in 1949. I was horrified to read that Jack and Rochelle subsequently received anonymous letters and phone calls “complaining about dirty Jews being let into America when there wasn’t enough to go around for real Americans.”
The afterword by Lawrence Sutin is essential reading after completing Jack and Rochelle’s story. He has some keen insights about his parents, their stories, and his own experience of being the child of two Holocaust survivors.
Here, of course, lies the value of Holocaust narratives told by the survivors themselves. These narratives confirm that, within the maelstrom of death, the lives lost or spared were individual lives that cannot be encompassed by the horrific statistic of “six million.” (p. 206)