Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and since the idea behind it is for people to remember I thought I would repost this brief review that I wrote several years ago, before this blog started, of Roman Frister's book 'The Cap or the Price of a Life', because I felt that it taught me a great deal about the history of the Holocaust and its impact.
"I knew that by writing the truth and nothing but the truth I would not only hurt the feelings of other survivors but also contradict the academics who have written many important books about the extermination of six million bodies - but very few about the extermination of a single human spirit."
Although I read Anne Frank's diary when I was quite young I had never read a Holocaust memoir before and this is so much more than a Holocaust memoir. Roman Frister is a renoun jounalist and writer and this autobiography weaves together his family's pre-war and wartime history with his own post-war life. The impact of the Holocaust is never insignificant but it affects people in very different ways and Frister is very honest about his own experience. Despite all we might think we know about the Holocaust only the people who went through it can ever understand how fundamentally the humanity of it's victims was undermined. How do you you react to such inhuman treatment? Frister reacts by refusing to bow to it. He cheats what should have been inevitable death on several occasions, by pure chance. 'Survivor guilt' destroyed many people in the years after the war, but Frister can recognise that there is no implicit moral judgement in his survival, he is not a better person than any that died, just luckier. His is essentially a selfish survival, his own life is the driving force behind all his actions and decisions. He admits to a terrible act, the one which gives the book it's title. He steals a cap from a fellow prisoner, leading directly to the other man's death. And yet you are left unable to judge him by normal standards; who amongst us can be sure we would not have done the same. He says, interestingly, at one point, reflecting on the person he might have become had not the war intervened on his father's plans for his education, that he accepts all that he has been forced to experience, that these experiences formed part of the person he is now and that is the person he wants to be. The book makes you examine your own motivations and acknowledge your own human weaknesses. Despite the horror of much of the story it is an incredibly life affirming book that tackles first hand the moral ambiguity with which we are all so often forced to live.