Before I make my pitch, I believe it is important to establish my creds. The Holocaust is a subject that I have studied assiduously for well over four decades. I still (and currently) attend courses and lectures germane to the period and have read hundreds of volumes on the subject. My most popular and awarded title is Heroic Children which chronicles the lives of nine child survivors of the Holocaust. In addition, I am a senior docent in Yad Vashem.
I hope that none of the above sounded boastful, as it was merely recounted to establish my familiarity with Holocaust literature. When I say that I have read hundreds of books, I am including books that even Holocaust scholars are unaware of, for I have visited the archives of Yad Vashem where there are over 169,000 volumes. The overwhelming majority will tragically never be read. Many survivors and witnesses published their tales and then had them sent to Yad Vashem where they are catalogued and then relegated to the crypt, unlikely to ever be discovered again.
When writing about a subject that was so widely covered, indeed the most documented crime in history, for a book to be unique it must be truly remarkable. This is indeed the case with Yona Emanuel’s Dignity to Survive. To be honest, I knew that this book would be extraordinary before I even opened it. That is because I was privileged to know Yona Emanuel zt”l, a scholar and gentleman of such gilt-edged character that he is, despite already being gone for many years, unforgettable.
I was privileged to attend a weekly shiur delivered by Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, for fourteen years, and the star of the shiur was Yona Emanuel. An optometrist by trade, he devoted serious attention to limud haTorah, and his intellectual gifts made him the very favorite of Reb Shlomo Zalman. Whenever Reb Yona would ask a question, Reb Shlomo Zalman would turn his head in a special way, devoting his fullest attention to what was being posed. Maybe it was not just Reb Yona’s piercingly analytical mind, but Reb Shlomo Zalman’s keen awareness of Yona’s background.
On every Tisha B’Av, when it is forbidden to learn Torah, Reb Shlomo Zalman would read Dignity to Survive in its original Hebrew. Thus, I knew what a quality book this translation would be, yet all of my anticipations were surpassed by the actual book, which is both personal and general, educational and enlightening. The book is a searing account of the ultimate capacity of man to overcome the harshest of obstacles and defeat the most maniacal of adversaries. I shall cite but one.
Yona’s family was imprisoned in the Bergen-Belson concentration camp. On Tisha B’Av 1944, the entire camp was subjected to the collective punishment of no food ration for an entire day as punishment for someone having burned a lice-infested mattress. For the destruction of (worthless) German property, everyone had to suffer even more acutely.
Yona’s mother attempted to prepare some food for her four-year-old daughter to tide her over the day of exquisite starvation, but was caught in the act by the Jewish police. For attempting to violate camp rules she would be tried and punished by a Jewish magistrate, which always provided entertainment to the Germans who relished watching Jews punish their fellow Jews.
The trial, which had all of the components of a proper civilian court, including condemnation by a prosecutor, vindication by a defense attorney, and the calling of witnesses, took place on a Friday night. All of the participants in the legal procedure, including the judges, were Jewish prisoners. Yona’s mother refused her right to deny any of the wild accusations lodged against her, rendering the procedure very brief. The woman even refused to allow her attorney to argue that the “crime” was the consequence of her trying to alleviate the hunger of her four-year-old daughter. She would say nothing nor allow anything to be said on her behalf.
Without a word of defense, the verdict was swift and harsh. Mrs. Emanuel was to be deprived of bread rations for two days.
Yona asked his mother why she did not utilize her right to defend herself. She was reluctant to respond, but upon repeated badgering, she finally explained, “Every word I would have said in my defense would have been transcribed by the clerk who jotted down the minutes of the trial. I remained silent, for I’d rather starve even more than to cause another Jew to desecrate the Shabbos.”
Such stories of nearly incomprehensible heroism and spiritual loyalty are the norm in this book, not merely justifying, but exalting the title, Dignity to Survive.