Chasing Shadows: Memories of a Vanished World
by Hugo Gryn with Naomi Gryn
Viking 2000, 265pp ISBN 0-670-88793-5
Many were shocked to hear of the death of Rabbi Hugo Gryn in 1996. Having served as rabbi at the West London Synagogue for 32 years, during the latter part of his life he had achieved national renown through his regular appearance on the panel of Radio 4's The Moral Maze.
Many, of course, knew him long before his Moral Maze phase. Indeed, he was a great supporter of the cause of broadly based religious education. I remember well an address he gave in Southport at the annual conference of the Association of RE Advisers, Inspectors and Consultants (AREIAC) in 1994. His wisdom and his wit left an impression on me, as it did on others.
But, when I met him in Southport, there was something which I knew about his background which was constantly in my mind: he was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and several other Nazi concentration camps. His personal warmth, wit and wisdom shone more brightly because of this.
Hugo Gryn had intended to write his autobiography, but never got beyond a cluster of chapters. It was these that Naomi, his daughter, found after his death, together with some other jottings made whilst training for the rabbinate in Cincinnati in the early 1950s. The cluster of chapters - 10 in all - the jottings and some details culled from talks and interviews make up the text of Chasing Shadows.
In the first 10 chapters, Hugo Gryn writes of his Jewish upbringing in the Carpathian town of Berehovo in what was then Czechoslovakia, but which was later amalgamated into Hungary. He paints a vivid word picture of life at the time - of the many relatives and neighbours, of school life, of the Great Synagogue in Berehovo, and of his own bar mitzvah. But, as the 1930s gave way to the 1940s, anti-Semitism increasingly restricted the life of Jewish families like the Gryns. Hugo's parents made plans for the family - mother, father, Hugo, his bother Gabi - to escape from Europe, but loyalty to their own parents prevented them from putting them into operation.
Finally, all Jews in Berehovo were confined to a local brick factory and from there, day by day, cattle trucks ferried to them to distant places with unfamiliar names like Auschwitz. The last human consignment to leave Berehovo included Hugo and his family. Upon arrival, Hugo and his father went to the right; his mother and brother went to the left and, ultimately, to their deaths.
Hugo's account of 'life' at Auschwitz and later camps has great descriptive clarity - and is the more shocking for that. Scenes he describes burn themselves into the mind of the reader. Like when the young teenager Hugo finds his way to the 'bakery' at Auschwitz (he assumes it is a bakery because it has no windows and a tall, smoking chimney) to be caught up in a group of young children preparing to be 'showered'. Hugo is told to go away by a guard but not before one child, walking naked through the double doors into the dry-floored 'shower rooms', recognises Hugo and waves to him …
Hugo survived the concentration camps and, in some of the later chapters, has some telling things to say about the 'force of spirit' needed not to give in to apathy and brutalization (p233). He mentions something which his father - who died in his arms just days after their liberation - told him in the camps one Chanukah time: "You and I had to go once for over a week without proper food and another time almost three days without water, but you cannot live for three minutes without hope!" (p237)
And how did Hugo Gryn make sense of belief in God after these experiences? "People ask me 'Where was God in Auschwitz?' I believe that God was there Himself - violated and blasphemed. The real question is 'Where was man in Auschwitz?'" (p251)
And how did such things happen? Hugo Gryn drew a strident message, for all people in all times and in all places: "No one is safe when religious or ethnic prejudice is tolerated, when racism is rife and when decent, well-meaning people keep quiet because it is prudent". (p252)
This is a powerful book, not only because it reveals the spirit of a wise and tender human being, but also because it poses questions which refuse to go away.
Reviewed by Bill Gent, Redbridge Advisory and Inspection Service