How a Holocaust memoir was saved in translation

Henry Lew enlisted a global army of Yiddish speakers to bring a moving Shoah story to a wider audience.


By Dan Goldberg, November 20, 2008
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Henry Lew with the original Yiddish version of Rafael Rajzner’s book

Henry Lew with the original Yiddish version of Rafael Rajzner’s book

Like Nobel laureates Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, Rafael Rajzner was one of the few Holocaust survivors who wrote about his traumatic experience in the immediate post-war years. But unlike them, his harrowing, 324-page eye-witness account of the liquidation of Bialystoker Jewry, published in Australia in Yiddish in 1948, was never translated into English - until now.

Rajzner was one of only 1,000 Jews who survived when the Nazis destroyed the 60,000-strong community in the city of Bialystok, near Poland's eastern border. He was sent to Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he became one of the currency counterfeiters coerced by the Nazis into the famous plot to undermine the economies of the Allies.

But when he died in 1953 aged 56, all hopes evaporated that Der Umkum Fun Byalistoker Yidntum (The Annihilation Of Bialystoker Jewry), scribbled from memory into notebooks at the end of the war, would ever be translated.

Sixty years on, an English translation has been published, thanks to the determination of Henry Lew, a child of Bialystok refugees who was born in Melbourne around the exact time Rajzner's original Yiddish version was brought out in 1948.

"I have no doubt that had Rajzner still been alive and had it been translated in 1960 or 1961, it would have become a very famous book," Lew says. "Nobody looked at Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel until the 1960s."

Lew was introduced to Rajzner's book in 2001 by his 95-year-old father, Leo, a Bialystoker survivor who regretted that it did not have a wider audience. "When he died in 2002, I found the book," recalls Lew.
His Yiddish was not good enough to translate it, but the idea percolated at the back of his mind for a few years until he stumbled across Aaron Lansky's book, Outwitting History, which describes how this secular Jewish student devoted his life to retrieving Yiddish books.

"I was very inspired by Lansky's book," says Lew, who emailed the author in 2004 for names of Yiddish translators. Lansky provided 55 names, all of whom received a letter from Lew asking if they would translate 10 pages of Rajzner's book. Lew amassed an army of 22 "righteous translators" from the United States, Canada and Australia.

The book, which Lew self-published under the title The Stories Our Parents Found Too Painful to Tell, has been described by eminent historian Sir Martin Gilbert, as "a valuable memoir, which adds to our knowledge and understanding of the fate of the Jews of Bialystok, a city of importance in the life of pre-war Polish Jews".

He says he believes it should "receive the widest possible circulation and publicity" .

Lew, an opthalmologist who has written three other books, says the project took him four years. "I started another book on Bialystok based around my family," he says. "But I put it aside because I wanted the translators to be still alive by the time Rajzner's translation was finished."

The Stories Our Parents Found Too Painful to Tell is available at www.abebooks.com or www.readings.com.au

    Last updated: 4:37pm, September 23 2009