The year was 1948. The place was Vancouver, Canada.
The street was quite deserted, except for two drunks coming noisily along the sidewalk toward me. For a moment I watched them approach; then I crossed the sidewalk and stood in the gutter, hoping they wouldn’t notice me.
But they did.
Still arguing drunkenly, they paused to look at me, obviously surprised at what I had done. Then off they went again down the street, shouting and shoving at each other.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! Neither of them had made a move to strike me. They hadn’t call me names. They hadn’t even understood why I was standing in the gutter!
This is how Leon Kahn begins No Time to Mourn, his personal history of being Jewish in Lithuania and Russia during the World War II and the holocaust.
Kahn had recently immigrated to Vancouver, Canada from eastern Europe. But he carried the trash of an intensively anti-Semitic culture with him – in Poland, Lithuania, and parts of Russia, Jews did not use the sidewalk when a Gentile approached.
It was a fertile environment for the German philosophy of race and superiority. And it was a natural base of operations for the dreaded SS Einsatzgruppen, who killed most of Kahn’s family, some one and a half million Jews, and other ‘undesirables.’ Kahn personally witnessed SS troopers killing truckload after truckload of Jews by rifle and machine gun. Local civilians helped out by spreading layers of lime and dirt between successive waves of victims.
Kahn survived by becoming a Partisan living in the forest. He fought the Germans in guerrilla actions such as blowing up train tracks, destroying supplies intended for the front, and hunting down local collaborators … but it didn’t prevent him from continuing to experience sometime violent racism.
The book is emotionally gripping in the extreme. Not only does Kahn reveal how each of his relatives died, he does not shrink from revealing his and his otriad’s executions/killings of the worst collaborators and murderers of Jews.
The worst part of living this experience with Kahn as you read his book, however, is the pure banality of evil as the local schoolmaster or farmer or shoemaker becomes a violent child-killer, dashing little children against rocks and worse.
This book is sobering but an invaluable record of barbarism on a henceforth unimaginable scale – a very worthy read even though it was originally published in 1978.