Why an autobiography by a non-entity?
There are millions and millions of books around. There are countless biographies and autobiographies on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Some are literary masterpieces. Amongst them there are volumes written by and about fascinating and famous people and events. So why add another one to the long list? Especially why, as I am not a well-known person, not a recognisable face in the crowd, famous or infamous for an act, or acts of outrageous behaviour and neither am I hungry for fame or fortune. Strictly speaking I am nobody, just another face amongst the multitude and I am quite happy and content with that. I was not borne with an itch and never acquired even an ounce of ambition to get to the top. I am happy to remain, like the Chameleon, well blended into the background.
In case you missed observing my photograph next to my short bio on this website, would you please take a closer look now. It is the photograph of an eleven-year-old boy. A photograph taken just a few short months after the end of the Second World War. The picture is in fact "cut" from a larger photo; a double portrait of my mother and I. The full picture is on page 503 in the closing chapter of my autobiography. (For your convenience I pasted it here at the top of this article.)If you scrutinised that full picture in isolation, it would convey motherly love and pride in a secure family environment, with a happy, healthy and contended child, well protected from the ills and miseries of this World. You would never guess that, but for the grace of God, both of our lives could have ended just a few months earlier in a cataclysm that shook the World. From those smiling faces you would never guess, that at that time we already knew about the loss of my beloved maternal grandmother, several aunts, uncles and cousins and numerous other close and not so close relatives and friends, all of whom perished for the unforgivable sin of being born Jewish. The happy, contended smile on my face does not equate with the experiences of a child, who was deeply hurt. Maybe it is because the child wasn't really hurt… maybe it was only the adult aspiring to emerge and as yet hidden inside the child who was… They say that children have wonderful resilience. They do not talk about the resilience of the adult who eventually emerges from the child…
In the Prologue of my story I poised the question: "Why an autobiography by a person who achieved nothing in life, who is completely unknown to all except a few acquaintances and relatives, and who cannot even be accused of a modicum of literary experience or talent?" I can now add to it another question. Why an autobiography by a person who does not aspire to recognition? Further more, if the author is a nonentity and does not aspire to fame or fortune, why bother to publish and promote the story? Why an autobiography at all?… Let me try to give you an acceptable explanation.
Look at the picture again. The child smiles. That is how I would have preferred to preserve the memory of that child. Happy and content. It was not to be…In the first instance I never wanted to write the story. That way, I believed, the child could have remained happy and content forever. Nobody would have known the story; nobody would have been any wiser. A myth could have been preserved. Besides, who would be interested in the story of a nobody?
Do you know that there are people out there in the world; self professed academics even, who, in spite of the volumes of overwhelming evidence, try to persuade us that the Holocaust never happened? If you think about it deeply, it may be nearer the truth to say that it never really stopped. Would you accept it, if anyone tried to prove it to you, that the events occurring on the 11th of September 2001 had no significance whatsoever? They never happened… I am not one who would wish to deny or even belittle the magnitude of evil surrounding the events in New York and at the Pentagon. The devastation was horrendous, the waste of so many innocent lives lamentable, deplorable and unforgivable. But perhaps you forgive me if I give you a slightly different perspective. By the time that smiling photograph next to my bio was taken, over six hundred thousand Jews from Hungary alone perished in extermination camps, forced labour camps and on death marches. They perished because they were Jews, with many of my loved ones amongst them. The Holocaust never happened? How about it never stopped? Twenty five million is the current estimate of those having perished in the Soviet Gulags of Stalin & Co... No one knows the accurate death toll in Mao's China yet, neither in various parts of the African continent, in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, South America, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, the Middle East and countless other places. Sadly, we know the statistics of New York and Washington. But do we really comprehend the stark reality?…
No connection between those places and events? Wrong! The connection is lack of understanding, ignorance of history as well as other people's culture and faith and also a dismal lack of tolerance amongst humans, between the various ethnic, cultural, political and religious groups and even within some families, tribes and small communities. Perhaps on that photograph I smiled out of sheer relief of having survived and in the hope that events like that would never happen again. I was wrong. There was nothing to smile about then. There is nothing to smile about now.
The motivation to write my story was a complex one. Consequently the format - an autobiography that reads like a novel - only crystallised as the writing progressed. It took me 10 years to research and to write it, using family archives containing letters, documents, photographs, many of which were dated accurately, as well as reading contemporary newspapers, almanacs, history books, and Nazi documents, in order to verify chronology as accurately as humanly possible and to organise my own recall into a coherent story. In addition I interviewed surviving relatives and used family anecdotes. I fictionalised nothing other than some of the dialogues, which by nature of the functioning of long term memory and the inevitable distortion of verbal anecdotes cannot be recalled accurately. Whilst not one single character in the story is fictional, I cannot pretend that I remembered every single name of the minor characters accurately, likewise not every single minor episode could be fitted in the correct chronology; therefore I exercised some poetic licence here and there. I tried my very best not to detract from the veracity of the story. It was only as the story progressed and the composition was nearing completion when the idea of publishing it as an autobiographical novel started to take shape. A good friend edited my writing as I progressed, giving me invaluable help and advice, mainly relating to correct English grammar. Other friends reading parts of the story gave me encouragement and nudged me to publish it. Initially I resisted. It was just my story. I was not going to give in to vanity. I needed a valid motive. After all: "Why an autobiography by a person who achieved nothing in life, who is completely unknown to all except a few acquaintances and relatives?"…
If it were just my story, I would have left it at that. It was at this stage that I started to recognise that it was not just my story after all. My very survival during those horrendous times depended on so many people. So many of those I knew and loved never made it. Finally I realised that there was a very good motive, a very valid reason that I should publish and promote the story. I have a great debt to those who made my survival possible and a humble obligation to those who did not survive. I also have a responsibility, I believe, to bring it to the attention of a wider audience that the Holocaust is still with us. It is happening today. It never ended. We live in the past, present and future all at the same time. Our character and often our lives are shaped by events in our early years, over which we have little or no control. Take heed. Learn from the past, do not ignore the present, because without the past and present there can be no future.
The author of this story is inconsequential. The story, on the other hand, may teach a valid lesson to those willing to learn. I desperately wish to preserve the memory of all those, who contributed to and made it possible for me to survive to tell their story. I learned a great deal from every single one of them and owe them an enormous debt. I believe that, after all, I owe a small gratitude to the child too, who made it possible for the man eventually to emerge from within, to recognise his roots, his origin, his mistakes and his debt to all those around him. But beyond a sense of gratitude towards all who helped me and the sense of obligation towards those who did not survive - in the wake of all the events which followed on from that single mindless act of terrorism on the 11th of September 2001 - a renewed and different sense of duty also emerged from within. It was acts of terror, intolerance and hatred that lead to the Holocaust I witnessed and survived. It is acts of terror, intolerance and hatred that lie behind events presently unfolding all over the globe and in the Middle East in particular. Santayana was absolutely correct when he stated: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We are well and truly on the way of repeating the past now. Terror, intolerance and hatred are with us again and that is precisely what feeds terror, intolerance and hatred in turn. The past can teach us lessons that can open our eyes to the mistakes and horrors we are busily engaged in committing today. Perhaps the story I am telling from the past, can open a few eyes. Perhaps those few, whose eyes have opened, can teach others to open their eyes in turn. The more eyes opened the more chances we have to learn tolerance. Perhaps learning tolerance is the way forward to avoid the horrors of the past haunting us and to help prevent the Holocausts of the future. That is the purpose of my autobiographical novel. That is the reason why, I believe, it deserves to be read. Please read it.
© P. J. Oszmann (Revised 29 April 2003)