Book Reviews

Revisiting the Shadows

Irene Shapiro. Elk River, Minnesota: DeForest Press. 2004.315 pp.$29.95 Can, $19.95 U.S. (softback). ISBN 1-930374-06-2.

Reviewed by Gillian McCann, Ph.D.

Revisiting the Shadows is the gripping and moving memoir of Irene Shapiro, a witness to the "perished world of Polish Jewry." Shapiro is one of the approximately 480 who survived the Bialystok Ghetto which had an original population of 60, 000. Her story describes the pre-war period, the Bialystok Ghetto, her time in the labour camp of Blizyn, the concentration camp of Auschwitz, and eventual immigration to the United States. While she describes a past that is filled with seemingly unremitting horror, Shapiro renders it with pathos, humour and a clear eyed understanding of humanity in its light and dark aspects. All who appear in this story come brightly to life, including the author. With honesty and wit Shapiro describes from the inside the tragic fate of the Jewish community of Poland. Her decision to revisit these shadows was the fulfillment of a pledge made to her friend Golda Lipkies, who died in Auschwitz. Before going to her death, Lipkies called out to the author, " Don't forget! Swear to me that you will tell the world!"

Irene Shapiro's memoir begins with recollections of her early life in Grudziadz, Poland. While much the description is of an idyllic middle-class childhood, the uneasy political situation of Poland becomes evident very early in the narrative. Shapiro lived in the Polish Corridor between East and West Prussia that was created when the country was partitioned by the Austrian, Russians and Germans after World War One. As part of a minority among Germans and Gentile Poles, Irene was made aware early in life that she was "not one of them." Faced with growing anti-Semitism the Shapiro family, while previously quite assimilated, began to gravitate back to the Jewish community. The author was drawn to the Hanoar-Hatzioni, a liberal branch of the Zionist movement, as fascism spread and her father's livelihood as a music teacher was increasingly threatened. By 1938 Irene's grandmother wrote to her uncle in Palestine begging him to get her son out of Poland. That same year the Shapiro family was relocated to the city of Bialystok and in 1939 the city was invaded by the Germans at the beginning of World War Two.

Events move with dizzying rapidity with the onset of the war and the Soviet Red Army almost immediately drove the Germans from Bialystok. The Russians managed to hold the region until 1941 and as Shapiro writes, " protected Eastern Poland's Jews for two years from the horrors of the Holocaust." She remembers this period with fondness as she had a natural appreciation for the egalitarian ideals of the Soviets. Compared with what was to come this was a halcyon period despite the challenge of learning a new language and adapting to a different culture. During this time Shapiro also honed her skills as a musician and performer, an ability she retained through all the trauma of the war. This idyll was ended, however, in July of 1941 when the Germans retook Bialystok and immediately began to prepare for the extermination of the Jewish community. Irene made an abortive attempt to escape into the Soviet Union but was forced back and entered the Bialystok Ghetto along with her mother and father. 

The description of the Bialystok Ghetto is harrowing but stands as a tribute to the courage of normal people in an untenable situation. In what can only be seen as a healthy impulse towards normality in an insane situation, those living in the Bialystok Ghetto recreated a functioning society despite the threat of imminent death. Shapiro seems to have never been in a state of denial that might be expected from a sixteen year old in such a situation. Throughout she retains a clear eyed appraisal of the events going on around her and her chances for survival. Irene made connections with the underground while working as a labourer at a knitting mill and also taught children to help support her family. Her description of these children, whom she knows have little chance of survival, is difficult to read. But somehow all those living in the ghetto continued to make music, to organize and Irene even fell in love with Izio Pupko, one of the only survivors of the Lida massacre of nearly 40, 000 Jews

While the Jews of Bialystok established a community under great extremity of circumstances, the plans of the Nazis moved irrevocably foreword. On August 16, 1943 they began the final deportment of those left to concentration camps. The resistance of the Bialystok Ghetto was second in magnitude only to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and lasted nine days. Shapiro makes the point here that accusations that the Jews did not resist are inaccurate and do not reflect the variety of ways in which many did fight back, and often paid with their lives. Shapiro, her family and Izio were forced onto a train that took them to Majdanek where her father and boyfriend were murdered along with almost all the Jews of the Bialystok Ghetto. Irene was one of the very few who was selected for work as a seamstress at Blizyn labour camp. In the turmoil she managed to take her mother with her thereby saving her life. While working at Blizyn she and her mother were assailed by hunger and disease but the author managed to shift for the both of them. However, even this questionable reprieve was ended in October of 1944 when she and her mother were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Shapiro wrote of her sense of their close connection at the time saying, " she has been the essence of my survival... caring for her has been worth living for." While at Auschwitz Irene continued to shield her mother despite her deteriorating health but ultimately she could no longer protect her. In a very moving passage Shapiro describes how her mother released her saying, "It is your time to try and save your life. If I don't make it, you make it instead of me." Shortly after mother and daughter parted Irene Shapiro was taken to another work camp where it became evident that the war was coming to an end. In March of 1945 the inmates were forced onto one the notorious death marches that occurred at the close of World War Two. During this period, even when all was lost, the Nazis continued with their mass murder right until the last. Shapiro's group happened on the town of Kaunitz that had already been liberated by the Americans and here her time as a prisoner of the Nazis ended.

Thwarting the desire of the reader for a neat happy ending Shapiro describes the challenges that faced her after the end of World War One. Remaining in the village of Kaunitz, which became a makeshift Displaced Person camp, Irene worked as a translator for both the British and American armies. Shapiro, despite all the trauma suffered, retained her sense of compassion and even interceded to save the life of a German soldier during this period. From this camp she attempted to find her mother, who she eventually discovered had died a month before the end of the war at Bergen-Belsen. She then made a difficult journey back to Poland to locate her sister and aunts. During this trip the author discovered that despite the atrocities of the war vestiges of anti-Semitism still existed in Poland. 

Reuniting with her aunts, Shapiro found that their attitude was hostile as they blamed her for not protecting her mother. Irene's sister, who had been protected by Polish Gentiles during the war, had converted to Catholicism. Irene Shapiro's reaction to these final blows of fate are indicative of her strength of character, realizing that there was no place for her in Poland she decided to make a life for herself in the United States.

Revisiting the Shadows is a complex and fascinating book. Shapiro's switches in time throughout the narrative at first present a challenge to the reader. However, by the end the whole work comes together like a tapestry. This technique, it can be argued, is a more faithful rendition of how memory really works weaving in and out of many different time periods. This book also provides a personal account of the history of our time. It is one thing to learn in history class that World War Two began in 1939 with the invasion of Poland. It is very different to experience these events through the eyes of someone who saw the tanks rolling into the town in which she lived. Revisiting the Shadows shows the real human cost of the clash of many different worlds and ideologies. For Irene Shapiro this resulted in the destruction of everything she knew. This work also takes into account the challenge of identity for the Jews of Europe after the war. Shapiro's decision on this matter is hard won. It is mark of her determination and optimism when she says, " I look into the eyes of my American daughter, my sons and grandsons, and see in these eyes a confirmation of my belonging here with them." This conclusion is not reached, however, by denying her past. Instead, Irene Shapiro weaves this new life together with the shards of the past, remembering the dead and yet moving into the future.