No matter how young you are, nor how long you are going to live, you could probably read a different Holocaust memoir every day and never run out of books. And you would be fascinated by each of them.
If you decided to do this, undoubtedly one of the books you would choose early on would be “For Those I Loved” by Martin Gray, originally published in French in 1971. And there’s a good reason for this. The book tells an extraordinarily dramatic story (with, as it turns out, a positive ending). Gray tells of being born and raised in Warsaw in an assimilating Jewish family. His childhood is ideal and well funded, but everything changes when the Germans enter the city and the Jews are confined to an overcrowded ghetto.
But young Martin (he was then Mietek) was not one to simply await his fate. Even as a young teenager, he figured out how to leave and enter the ghetto, how to work with gentiles on the outside, and how to become a ghetto smuggler, bringing merchandise into the ghetto from the outside which he sold at an extraordinary profit, enough to help his family and his friends, and his friends outside the ghetto, and to pay off a series of Polish ghetto border guards at the same time.
Eventually, the gig was up, and he (along with all his family members, but his father, and his girl friend) were rounded up, and put on a transport for Treblinka, the death camp used primarily to be the killing ground for Jews from northern Poland, including Warsaw. At Treblinka, everyone but Martin were sent to their deaths, but Martin (how old was he, now, 16?) was put in a work crew were he stayed for some time, learning the Nazi mind, looking to save himself at all costs. Eventually he was put on a detail in the “lower camp”, where he was one of a group who took the bodies from the gas chambers and got rid of them. He recognized that his position was one that could be highly criticized, but if he didn’t do it, someone else would, and he would be dead.
He realized that if he could get on a work detail that took the clothes of the dead and moved them to outgoing trains, he might be able to escape on one of those trains, and that’s exactly what he did. We then follow him through the Polish countryside as he portrays himself as a regular Polish peasant and, at the same time, trying to warn the Jews in those towns where the ghettos still stood what their future would bring.
We see him work his way back to Warsaw, back to the ghetto, where he hopes to help those who remain behind, including his father. He helps get ready for what became the ghetto uprising, re-connecting with some of his gentile contacts and smuggling arms into the ghetto (using the sewers as his means of ingress and egress), he fights the Germans as the uprising begins and the Nazis move in, and he sees his father killed in the fight.
But he survives, escapes the ghetto, joins the Partisans and participates in the march of the Soviet Army to Berlin. He’s in Berlin where the war ends, gets into a DP camp, and fairly quickly gets to New York, where his grandmother, and his uncle, live.
Once in America, he is the same determined kid (he is still under 20), takes odd jobs, works in the Catskill resorts, becomes a pedlar in the apartments buildings of the Bronx and in Lakewood NJ (this was illegal), meets an antique dealer and realizes that antiques may be his fortune. Everyone in America wants things from Europe, and he still has contacts there, so he begins to travel back and forth, to buy low and sell high. When German antiques become scarce, he finds a company that makes replicas (largely china, I think) and pawns them off in America as originals.
Then he meets the girl of his dreams, they eventually “retire” to southern France in the house of their dreams and have four beautiful children. But the good times do not last, and in 1970 a wildfire takes his house, his wife and all four of his young children. And, as part of his recovery, he writes this book. Quite a life.
It turns out that his life is not over. Forty four years after “To Those I Loved” is published, Gray continues to live, now in Brussels with his second wife at age 93. What he has done with his time is a bit of a mystery to me, but only a small part of the big mystery that is Martin Gray.
And this is where I get very confused.
The question is: how true is Gray’s memoir? He has supporters who say that every word is true. He has opponents (both serious scholars and Holocaust deniers) who say that no one could have lived the life of Martin Gray during the years of World War II, that he would have been both a Superman and a Zelig – always at the fulcrum of history, often at the point of inevitable death, and continually surviving. And there are those who have tried to research book, who question the timing of various events, who have spoken to others present at the events who have no recollection of Martin Gray (under any name). Yet there are those who know Gray well, or who have interviewed him for various publications, and who swear to his truthfulness.
Usually where there is some question raised about the veracity of a memoir (think James Frye or Benjamin Wilkomirski – Google them), truth or falsity, or a combination of both, is fairly easy to conclude. But not so in connection with Martin Gray. Thus, my confusion. I don’t know if this memoir is 100% accurate, or a piece of fiction.
In one sense, it makes little difference. The book describes important things – ghettos, uprisings, transports, non-Jewish Poland, Treblinka, and so forth. In another sense, of course it is crucial. And not knowing is very disturbing.