Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Review: 'Buttons in My Soup' by Moshe Ziv

Author/memoirist Moshe Ziv (Zisovitch) originally wrote his memoir in Hebrew and the book has been translated by Sharolyn Buxbaum. The opening Introductory notes are particularly poignant and only hint that the history about to unravel: ’ In 1938 a military pact was signed between the leader of Hungary, Admiral Miklos Horthy, and the chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. As a reward, territory taken from Hungary under the Treaty of Versailles following World War I was returned to the country. At the time the “Jewish question” was debated in the Hungarian parliament and a series of racial laws was legislated. In 1940, all Jews who had served in the Hungarian army during World War I, including my father, were sent to forced labor battalions. In 1943, a law exiling foreign citizens was passed, mainly affecting the Jewish population. One year later, more than 600,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to extermination camps. I was liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945. In the decades that followed I made notes and partial journal entries as I recalled the events. Following the second international meeting of the “Buchenwald Boys” in April 1990 (in Tel Aviv), and with the encouragement of my family, I decided to turn my notes into a book. In the course of my writing I discovered that I had no need for notes or reminders. Much time had elapsed, almost 50 years, but most of the events were fresh in my memory, and I would not forget them until my last day.’

What follows is one of the more immediately accessible windows into the life of a young lad who is a Holocaust survivor. Moshe’s writing style is terse and that technique of relating his experiences makes the story almost unbearably realistic. ‘All is silent, still and daunting in the emptiness. There is neither sky nor horizon. Heavy clouds hang over us. Thick smoke curls upward from four corners. Is this what Hell looks like? A huge square stretches before us, only black asphalt up to the horizon and a barbed-wire fence all around up to the sky. Everything, like the smoke, is very precise and symmetrical … around me there are thousands of people in striped clothing. Everything is blue and white. This time I am a prisoner with a real identity; this time the Germans kept their promise. I had heard about the “resettlement” for many months. And today, I am on a different planet. Two hours ago we had gotten off the freight train cars. In my car there were close to one hundred people. For a moment I forgot the gnawing hunger inside. A week ago we had been loaded onto the freight cars. My father and I had received two loaves of bread for the journey. My father wanted to be careful: we wolfed down only one loaf of bread on the first day of the journey, saving the other. It was wonderful: fresh bread with a flaky crust…’

It is this sense of communication with which Moshe takes us through his childhood and the gradual encroachment of the atrocities of Hitler’s reign. Moshe introduces Hebrew terms and explains Jewish concepts and places and special days – an ongoing addition to his book that makes is educational as well as a memoir. He details the rise of Hitler’s influence and the eventual deportation to camps in Hungary (Jews were not considered Hungarians!), and the eventual imprisonment in Auschwitz-Birkenau and later Buchenwald. Every detail is here: as for the chosen title of his book, the following explains – ‘I got a bowl of soup and it was thick soup… at the bottom of the bowl I found two buttons, and the soup itself was thin and tasteless. There was no way of knowing its contents. And the buttons? I received a reasonable explanation: every day the freight cars arriving in Auschwitz are cleaned out, and the scraps of food and other “findings” are thrown into the soup pots, thus preparing a dish fit for gourmets.’

Through topic after topic we the readers are allowed an insider’s view of life in the concentration camps, and difficult as it may be to imagine survival on a daily basis, Moshe explains how he made it. ‘Once I heard a kapo say, “Don’t worry Jews. Even if the Germans are defeated, you won’t be alive to see it”.

Moshe’s experiences take us all the way through to his destination in Israel and it is there that he leaves us – more sensitive to the horrors and heroism and survival than any other writer has accomplished. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, May 18

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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