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roman's journey

30 march 2019

Roman Halter was a Jewish artist and architect, long resident in the UK but born in Poland in 1927. Like several other Holocaust survivors, including Joseph Bialot in C'est en hiver que les jours rallongent (2002), Halter did not publish memoirs of his early life till he was about 80 years old. The increasing demand for such stories once nearly everyone who could tell them had passed away may be a factor in this phenomenon of long-delayed memoir, but some writers may simply need a lifetime to face such horrors.

Halter paints a picture of multicultural Poland in the early interwar years. Prejudices and misconceptions abounded, but three ethnicities lived on close and peaceful terms in Halter's village of Chodecz, between Bydgoszcz and Łódź. Halter's community were Jewish Poles; others were German Poles, and the third major group were the Polish Poles. What pecking order existed may have shown itself more clearly in language than in social class, wealth, or education: to infer from Halter's representation of dialogue, Poles tended to speak only Polish, Germans to speak Polish in addition to German, and Jews to speak Yiddish, German, and Polish. In such contact situations, the more multilingual you are, the lower your status. (Roman's Journey is written in English, Halter's adoptive language.)

The fall of 1939 shattered this co-existence forever. Once Hitler invaded Poland, Halter relates, Poles oppressed German Poles, on the pretext that they were plotting a fifth column. Jews were somewhat neutrally regarded in this brief interval, but as Joseph Bialot says, many Poles were to counterproverbially adopt the "enemy of their enemy" as their enemy. In any case, the Germans soon overwhelmed and annexed the Chodecz region (which today is in central Poland, and by 1939 borders was in the west of the nation). Briefly a despised minority, the German Poles suddenly became the elite, a fertile recruiting ground for the SS. Poles were oppressed, and Jews began their long sojourn to the ghetto and deportation.

This early period is the hardest part of Halter's book to read. And to say that of a memoir that includes the Łódź ghetto, concentration camps, and Auschwitz is telling. The brief period where the Jews of Chodecz lived in nominal freedom, but expropriated and subjugated to German occupiers, is a case study in cruelty. Halter presents ecstatic overlords romping through a community, exercising all sorts of liberties with a license that would seem sophomoric if it weren't so lethal. The popular imagination thinks of Nazis in many ways: as mad scientists, as depraved ideologues, as sinister puritans, as theoretical racists, as clinical torturers, as detached executioners, even as a kind of decadent, chivalrous caste. The reality, as Halter presents it, is one of ignorant bullies given whips and guns and told that their actions had no consequences. Halter watched his family and friends pressed into all kinds of humiliations, casually beaten, casually murdered. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this narrative is that nobody can say "it can't happen here." Perhaps the philosophical and corporate aspects of Nazism truly can't happen in some cultures, but bullies exist everywhere. Halter's story suggests that they're itching to get their hands on some whips.

The Halter family, once prosperous merchants, were forced into the Łódź ghetto and slowly starved. Roman Halter, young, athletic, and nervy, made his way as well as he could in this new existence, but could not save his family, and as they died around him he suffered greatly from isolation. He says at one point that he had to take chances to survive, and like most survivors presents himself as a liar and con-man of sorts; he gravitated to some of the more opportunistic younger men in the ghetto and camps, and owes his survival to escaping along with a gang of such young men. But his narrative is also full of the randomness of such survivals. Even those best-placed to survive could be snuffed out in an instant.

Halter developed skills as a metalworker – sometimes claiming to have them before he acquired them – and worked in slave-labor factories in Auschwitz, in Stutthof near Danzig, and later in Dresden, before escaping. Liberation found him determined to get back to Chodecz, and he was lucky to be closer to home than many another survivor – from eastern Germany to western Poland was a perilous but possible journey. Yet of course there was no home to go to. Like all the Jews of Eastern Europe (Edith Bruck tells a similar story), Halter returned to his village to find his property divided up among Gentiles and his community extinguished. He had relatives in Switzerland, but they were powerless to get him a visa. He ended up a refugee in Britain and stayed there till his death in 2012.

Halter, Roman. Roman's Journey: A memoir of survival. New York: Arcade, 2007. DS 134.72 .H35A3