Mendel Balberyszski's "Stronger Than Iron" is an engrossing, interesting, and at the same time painful reading experience. Painful in that while much of the text will keep you wanting more, select sections will make you put it down and contemplate what you've just read, reread sentences, paragraphs, or even entire pages in an effort to understand that what you're reading is not just fiction but an historical account of a people used, abused, and all too often simply killed. When a German in the Klooga concentration camp began to beat a Jewish doctor for being Jewish, the doctor responded with "Why are you hitting me?" That, in essence, is a reflection of the majority of the Jews and their attitude toward their treatment. These were people, professionals, middle class, working class, and even those well off who expected that life meant something to the Germans, if only in the form of slave labor. Who could contemplate that unending death and destruction awaited them at every turn without a logical reason? For many, the simple question "why?" had yet to be answered.
From the creation of the two Vilna ghettos until their destruction, Balberyszski gives us an account that surpasses a single memoir or reminiscence. He relates stories that he was told, witnessed, and heard about, which creates a greater depth to our understanding of everyday life in a ghetto. More so, he was on friendly terms with many in high positions, including both the ghetto police and the Judenrat. This created opportunities for obtaining jobs and food through his connections and even places to hide during the regular German 'cleansing actions.' Another aspect to this story is the continued hoops the Germans made Jews jump through, changing the color and type of document(s) they needed to survive the next "cleansing" process created a desperate need for the Jews to bargain with whatever they had and with whomever they could for the newest document in order to save themselves and their families. But always these documents were limited, so in the end some Jews had to remain 'illegals', even among their own. Throughout the entire story, what interested me were the interactions between the author and the Germans, Lithuanians, Russians, and Ukrainians. The majority of non-Jews encountered in the text were working with the Germans in one capacity or another, but among them we can find those who wanted and did help Jews and those who abused them at every opportunity. But the same can be said for some of the Jewish police in the ghetto itself, this was a time when everyone was desperate to save themselves and their loved ones. In one instance that instinct to save forced a woman to give up the hiding place of the author and dozens of others if only for the hope that an arrested relative was released.
It becomes difficult to describe some of what you'll encounter in this text. How easily we can read over stories that detail the escape of someone from the ghetto in order to save themselves and/or their families, and a few sentences later we're told their eventual death at the hands of the Germans came anyway. This is a book that needed to be written, and I'm thankful it came out in English translation as it gives new depth and understanding to how Jews lived and survived ghetto life, something often missing from the enormous literature on the Holocaust that concentrates on concentration and death camps rather than the ghettos.