Ascent from Hell


Patricia Allen, a graduate of Hope High School, RISD and Brown, married Jim Weiss, who grew up in the orphanage at the site of the Miriam Hospital, and among foster homes. They now live in Florida throughout the winter months. Patricia sent me a remarkable Holocaust memoir written by their neighbor and friend, Simon Birnbaum, “as told to Richard Skolnick.” Every word of this testimony, subtitled “The Remarkable Journey,” is sharply carved, even the dedication, foreword, introduction and prologue. I offer here brief excerpts from each section.

From the dedication: “Evil, while unconquerable, must always be opposed and contained.” From the foreword by Chabad rabbi Mendel Mangel: “It is both humbling and inspiring to be in the presence of those who went through the horrors.” From the introduction by Richard Skolnick: “Grandson Jason provided the driving force and the spark that kept us at our task, with his love and admiration for his grandfather.” And from the prologue: “I lived each day with the fear that at any moment I would be murdered. I was witness to barbarisms so extreme, to sights so cruel, as to make the blood freeze and cease to flow. Somehow, I managed to keep from being pushed over the edge, from being fed into the killing machine that the Nazis had unleashed upon Europe.”

I have collected many accounts of the slave laborers, the hidden children, the partisans, those rescued and risen from the dead, but each one has its unique quality and individual value. “Ascent from Hell” is true to its promise and finds its special focus upon the courage to come back up, and those are the passages I will cite here.

Simon Birnbaum was born in Poland but remained in the postwar world in Germany until, in 1949, he and his wife Dora left for Israel. They relocated to Canada and later settled in New Jersey before he retired to Florida. Of the chapter as a displaced person, he says, in his own words, as a footnote:

“I was a bit brazen at this point, the attitude that had enabled me to survive. With two friends, at a local German bar, we overheard a remark made about how Jews were animals ... by a guy probably drunk at the time. Nevertheless, it infuriated us, and we proceeded to punch everyone within reach and also to break up the place, using chairs and smashing everything in sight. We then walked out unharmed, having, I’m sure, made our point.”

And I thought, he sure did! This is the straightforward tone of Simon Birnbaum’s frank, free-spirited and fabulous – but also poignant and even poetic – autobiography, a moving summation on this, his 90th birthday year.

The book sells for $19.95.

Mike Fink ( teaches at RISD.