Stuart W. Mirsky, a city official in the Giuliani administration, is an author and occasional op-ed contributor to The Jewish Press. He has just completed A Raft on the River, (available at Amazon.com) a Holocaust story about a young girl’s struggle to survive the Nazi invasion of her hometown, Kolomyia, in what was then eastern Poland (Paul Mould Publishing, UK).
The Jewish Press: How did you come to write A Raft on the River and why?
I was fortunate not to have many relatives in Europe at the time of the Holocaust (except for a long lost great-uncle on my father’s side) but, like most of us, I was raised in the Holocaust’s shadow. My parents encouraged me to learn about it but this had the unfortunate effect of making it almost too familiar, just another story in the long tale of our people’s suffering. But in 2006, when I was approached to edit the Holocaust manuscript of Bitter Freedom, my writing had hit a roadblock and I needed something different to work on.
Bitter Freedom was a searing personal account of the survival of four people as they hid for twenty-two months in a hole in the ground, never able to come up for air, change their clothes, take a bath, living in the darkness with bugs and rats and Germans periodically stomping around overhead. The author, Jafa Wallach, her husband and her brothers lived through it all. At times, their story brought tears to my eyes. But the family wanted the story preserved as Mrs. Wallach had written it, though I thought there were ways to make it stronger. Jafa Wallach, who recorded her experiences a little more than a decade after they ended, wasn’t a professional writer and I wanted to do more than the family would allow.
As I was finishing it my mother, Ruth Mirsky, came to me with a story about a woman she knew who had gone through the Holocaust, too. Also from Poland, though a bit farther east (in what is today the Ukraine), Miriam Sorger had fled the Kolomyia ghetto at age fifteen, after her blind grandmother was shot by a guard and her mother, sister and cousin were shipped to the camps. Running alone through the countryside, Miriam struggled to hide her identity until she found safe harbor in the home of a Ukrainian priest.
How did her story differ from the first one you worked on?
Unlike the people in Bitter Freedom who suffered terribly in their hidden bunker for two years, Miriam’s is a story of desperation, courage, and chutzpa. She lived each day in fear of discovery. Though some of the people she encountered were sympathetic, others were clearly on the side of the Nazis and her problem was telling them apart. She was living on the edge, her childhood wrenched from her, along with everything she had known until then.
But what really attracted me was that her story gave me the opportunity to do what I couldn’t do with Bitter Freedom. Unlike Jafa Wallach, Miriam had no manuscript. Her story was told entirely in a series of anecdotes which she had shared with her children over the years and they were afraid of losing that knowledge forever. One of her sons, David, was instrumental in the plan to finally get it written down.
Miriam recalled everything in bits and pieces so I had to visit her weekly, over a six-month period, to tease out the details. She wanted her story accurately told but, at the same time, I wanted to put more of myself into it than I had been able to do with Bitter Freedom, to give it a somewhat literary voice and make it more accessible to a wider audience.
How did Miriam manage to survive, given what you’ve described?
A lot of luck and her own naive courage. And, of course, we do remarkable things when we have to. In one instance, in a little town, she was very nearly caught in a Nazi sweep. Earlier she had tried to talk her way into joining her brother and his family who were in hiding with an old Polish woman, but the woman was too afraid. That turned out for the best, since things didn’t go well for her brother and his family in the end. Miriam ended up wandering aimlessly from town to town for weeks on end, living off the land, but eventually she found a place as a servant in the home of a Ukrainian priest in Podhacje. But the priest’s wife — he was an Orthodox priest and therefore married — turned out to be a cruel taskmaster who hated Poles almost as much as she did Jews. Miriam, of course, was pretending to be a non-Jewish Pole.
How did her experiences affect her Judaism, her connection with her own people?
For years she had to live as someone else, but when she got back to Kolomyia it was the Jewish community, what was left of it anyway, that took her in. It took her a long time to give up the little borrowed cross she had been wearing because she had become attached to it as a kind of good luck charm. Traveling west to escape the Russians, Miriam and her new family ended up being caught by the British. Hoping to convince them she was a returning German Jew, she allowed her Polish papers and the little cross she had hung onto until then to be burned. Still, the British guessed the truth and sent them all to Bergen-Belsen, then being used as a displaced persons camp.
Miriam’s story isn’t unique but her flight into the occupied countryside and her struggle to hide in plain sight afforded me the opportunities I’d missed with Bitter Freedom.
Do you plan to do other Holocaust stories?
Having done two, and having found myself with tears running down my cheeks as I worked on both, I’m not sure I’m up for another at this point. I’m finally getting back to the work I’d set aside when I first decided to assist in preparing Bitter Freedom for publication. My first historical novel, The King of Vinland’s Saga, published in 1998, is about Norsemen and Indians in eleventh century North America and I’ve been working on another, about Saul and David, looking at their conflict from a new angle, one that recognizes Saul’s contributions as much as David’s.
I’ve also got one in the hopper about escaped African slaves in pre-Civil War America and another about the Russians and the Khazars in 10th century Europe. Finally I’d like to finish one I’ve begun about a dying businessman struggling with an obligation to forgive a great wrong. So for the time being I think I’ll leave to others the Holocaust and the terrible tales of suffering and loss it generated.