“Hell’s Traces: One Murder, Two Families, Thirty-Five Holocaust Memorials” by Victor Ripp. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 200 pages. $25.
As Jews of a certain age, haven’t many of us thought that were it not for the grace of God or our grandparents’ or parents’ courage in leaving their homes that the Nazi killing machine may have gotten us?
Why did we live and our relatives die?
For Victor Ripp, the poignancy was even more pronounced. Not long after he and his family escaped the Nazis and headed for New Jersey, his cousin Alexandre, who was about his age, 3, was arrested by the police in Paris and murdered in Auschwitz.
Alexandre was a member of his father’s family, the Ripps. While the author and his immediate family escaped, 11 Ripps were murdered.
On the other hand, his mother’s family, the Kahans, escaped to the safety of Palestine and the United States.
To make sense of “the different destinies of the Kahans and the Ripps,” Victor Ripp decided to visit Holocaust memorials, for memorials are supposed to “bring history closer,” he writes.
As a human being — and especially as a fellow Jew — I’m sympathetic to the author’s plight and would support him in whatever endeavor he would pursue, including visiting Holocaust memorials, to help him understand the Shoah’s impact on his family. As a reader, not so much.
After all, readers need to be convinced of the credibility of an author’s ideas, and I remain unpersuaded that visiting memorials in Vienna or Hamburg or Budapest would help him understand much about his family and their fate.
Yet Ripp is extremely perceptive about the two families, as well as Holocaust memorials, and he writes fascinating accounts of both.
His mother’s family, the Kahans, were wealthy Russian Jews who came to Germany in the 1920s as refugees from the Soviet regime. Living in Germany when Hitler came to power, they decided as a group — they were 30 people — to leave for Paris.
Unlike many other Russian refugees, who were waiting for the Communist regime to collapse, the Kahans spoke German, liked the country and were integrated into German economic life. But they were rejected by German Jews and gentiles alike.
“All of which put the Kahans inside German society and also outside,” Ripp writes. “This made them different from German Jews. The resonant image here is of those German Jews who won the Iron Cross fighting for the Fatherland in World War I, letting them believe they were more German than the Germans, and then were surprised when they were shuffled off to the killing camps. The Kahans were not like that. They were in the life of Germany but not of the life.”
They knew when it was time to leave Paris as well. Again, they were comfortable in the French capital but not wedded to it.
The Ripps, on the other hand, had been poor. In Paris, they began to prosper and didn’t want to leave. Apparently, the Kahans understood that their prosperity knew no geographical limits; the Ripps were not so sure.
The author argues that it would be an “exaggeration” to say the Ripps’ lack of money was the reason they died in the Holocaust “but it could be said that money was at least partially why the
And, from what Ripp describes, the Ripp family was plagued by a paucity of leadership. When the Kahans met in 1933 after Hitler came to power, some family members did not want to emigrate.
But his grand uncles did. “When they said it was time to go, everyone fell in line,” he writes.
Unfortunately, the Ripps lacked such authoritative leaders.
His comments on the memorials he visited also are often incisive.
Sometimes, politics may pervert the meaning of memorials, Ripp opines. He points to a Holocaust memorial, the Monument to Ghetto Heroes, in Poland. “In the years following the war, the government used the memorial to showcase its pro-Moscow allegiance. The Jewish nature of the Ghetto Uprising was elided, the proletariat’s battle with fascism emphasized.”
When something like that happens, one may “reject what is in front of one’s eyes and instead make do with an invisible ceremony enacted in one’s head.”
In Vienna, he sees the memorial on Judenplatz — from afar, “an elegant box” — which on closer inspection he determines was harmonious, “as much a sculpture as it was a memorial” and “beautiful.”
He writes: “Even as I came to that judgment, I knew that it was problematic. Should a Holocaust memorial, which honors those who died in mud and squalor be beautiful?”
But as he was leaving, Ripp saw an attractive women being photographed, using the memorial as a backdrop. “My uncertainty about beautiful Holocaust memorials was dispelled. I was reminded that beauty is our culture’s currency, and it can be spent however, even frivolously.”
After visiting five countries and 31 memorials, Ripp finally arrives in Paris, where his cousin Alexandre began his ill-fated journey.
There, he finds a memorial to the 15 preschoolers — including Alexandre — who were transported to their deaths. For him, seeing his cousin’s name inscribed in the memorial seemed to bring a sense of closure to his odyssey.
At that moment, I was glad he had brought me along for the journey.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.