Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine Under Nazi Rule
By Karel C. Berkhoff
Belknap, 2004, 480 pp.
The Choice: Poland, 1939-1945
By Irene Eber
Schocken, 2004, 240 pp.
Two books, one a meticulous history, the other a grim, beautiful memoir, reveal life under Nazi occupation in the East. (To say "describe life" would render lifeless the power of their accounts.) Berkhoff, a Dutch historian, has painstakingly pieced together what happened to and among the people in the Reichskommissariat Ukraine-Jews, Roma, prisoners of war, local Germans, Ukrainians, and, eventually, partisans. He starts with the invasion, the killing and the destruction, much of it done by retreating Soviet elements, but then turns to his principal task: to explore living, working, surviving, and perishing under a regime bent on erasing all but those who would serve as draft animals for an imported German population brought to realize the Nazi agrarian dream; for whom famine was a tool, not an effect; and whose genocidal madness extended to Jew, Roma, and Slav. Piecing all of this together was an enormous labor, and doing it with balance, restraint, and objectivity a major accomplishment.
Eber was an adolescent when the shadow of German occupation darkened Mielec, a small town, now forgotten, in the south of Poland. The nightmare began in the early winter months of 1942, when the motorcycles arrived and Mielec's Jews were rounded up and set on a murderous march toward the death camps in eastern Poland. Eber, for many years a specialist on Chinese history and literature at Hebrew University, has crafted a small literary masterpiece, summoning memory of the unbearably inhuman ordeal-the casual but never-ending executions, the narrow escapes, the rat's life of hiding, the survival strategies, and, ultimately, the conscience-shaking choices. As a young teenager, her choice was, in the midst of flight, to part from her family, including a father she would not see again. The base facts of Mielec's Jews before and after January 1942 would in any case have weight, but the artistry and humanity Eber brings to them create something very special.