Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"Jews Eyes" by Sholem Asch (1948, translated by Barnett Zumpoff) - A Short Story

I was delighted to learn that a major previously untranslated work by Sholem Ash, The Underground Trilogy ,translated by Caridad O'brien will soon be available.

A very good biographical article on Sholem Asch - from The Yivo Encyclopedia of Eastern European Jews

My Posts on Yiddish Literature

“You look, we didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Said at a conference by the press secretary for the president of the USA, apparently unaware of the use of chemical weapons in the Holocaust

Normally I refrain from posting on short stories that cannot be read online.  Today I read a story by Sholem Asch (last name sometimes spelled as "Ash", 1980 to 1957, born Kunto, Poland, died London, England), "Jews Eyes" so heartbreaking, that it almost moved me to tears.  I think the supreme ignorance embodied in the remark I quote above motivated me to post on this story.  I have said numerous times that the Holocaust was, among many things, an attack on a people as dedicated as any culture has been, to the reading life, to study, to knowledge for the beauty of knowing.

I will tell a bit of the plot (reading time under 15 minutes).  A woman from the Warsaw Ghetto smuggled her child into the Buchenwald concentration camp, after hiding her for a long time in an attic.  The woman was assigned to a work group that prepared the clothes of those murdered in the camp for distribution to German citizens.  The girl was the only child packed in with eighty women, almost all of their children were dead.  The women hid her, gave her food from their very sparse rations and mothered her as much as she could.  In repairing the clothes of the dead, one of the

women found a doll and gave it to the girl.  One day the Nazi woman in charge of the group make a surprise inspection tour, she saw the doll which had been left out and  thought there must be a child hidden.  Accompanied by two SS men and German dogs, they find the girl. The woman is amazed by the eyes of the girl.  In a  scene chilling to the bone,  which hurts to read, the full inhumanity of the German ideology comes through

"Mirele’s gaze fell upon the eyes of Fräulein Gertruda, and it was as if some unknown, previously unfelt sensation animated Gertruda. Mirele’s pitch-black pupils moved down to the horizons of her large, watery eye-pools, and from beneath the thinned-out, emaciated corneas they shone out with a moist, heartbreaking, pleading look. The pupils changed color with the speed of a waterfall as she gazed: now they took on the hue of a pitch-black abyss and now their borders quickly changed and manifested an orange glow, then a violet glow, and then turned to a deep blue like two large, otherworldly, water-clear sapphires. “What eyes!” Fräulein Gertruda couldn’t restrain herself and exclaimed to the two S.S. men who were standing behind her.....Her face even changed for a second —creases appeared in her smooth, white, creamed cheeks, near the corners of her mouth. Even her cool, feline, steely-sharp blue eyes shone with light. The flash of light in Fräulein Gertruda’s eyes, together with the creases around her mouth, ignited a ray of hope in the women’s hearts. “Real sapphires! I’ve never seen anything like them,” exclaimed one of the Gestapo men. “Ach, what earrings you could make out of them,” the second one said. “What?” “Jews’ eyes, of course.” “How?” “If one can petrify animal’s eyes, it must be possible to do the same with human eyes.”  “Jews’ eyes.” “It’s a thought.” The entire conversation between Fräulein Gertruda and the S.S. men lasted only a minute. They conducted it quietly, as if the women couldn’t hear them. Suddenly Fraulein Gertruda shook herself, grabbed the girl that the dogs had dragged out by the feet, and turned the child’s head toward her. “A knife!” she called out to the S.S. men. And immediately the blade of a knife that one of the S.S. men had drawn from its sheath, on which the words “Blood and Honor” were engraved, glinted in the air like a sacrificial knife. “Cut with a lot of flesh,” one of the S.S. men, who was holding the child’s hand and turned her on her back, advised in a loud, indifferent tone.  A shriek like the roar of an animal was heard from the women. Immediately, however, they choked back their outcry. Several of the women threw Mirele’s mother onto a shelf and stopped up her mouth with their fists."

Excuse the long quote, but as it cannot be read, as far as I know, online, I wanted to share this with you.

Gertruda makes earrings from the eyes, having them preserved by a famous taxidermist, and wears them to a German Cultural Festival where all admire the earrings made from a Jew's Eyes.

Believe it or not, the story has almost a happy ending.  I think it might make a good class room story though many will find this story very intense.

This story was first published in Yiddish, in New York City, in 1948 in a collection of short stories, Tales of my People.

I read it in Volume I of Yiddish Literature in America, a great contribution to Yiddish literature, indeed to the world.


Suko said...

That story is horribly heartbreaking.

Mel u said...

Suko, this story is so heartbreaking I would not want my adult daughters or wife to read it . Thanks as always for your comments, they mean a lot to me.