Four Scraps of Bread

By Magda Hollander-Lafon

University of Notre Dame Press | 2016 | 124 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Magda Hollander-Lafon

This slim volume first published in France in 2012 and just recently translated into English is a memorial to the millions who lost their lives in the Holocaust. Hollander-Lafon was a Hungarian Jewish teenager when she suffered internment at Auschwitz,-Birkenau and subsequently, the Ravensbruck, Zillertal, Mittelbau-Dora concentration and labor camps.

As is the case with many survivors, she was loath for years to speak of her ordeal. Clearly, even now, six decades later, the reader senses how difficult it is for her to revisit wartime memories. Over the years she has struggled to find a language suitable for conveying the abject horror of her experience while somehow hinting at the few life-giving moments of compassion and luck that enabled her to emerge the only survivor of her family. Of the 437,403 deported from Hungary, 350,000 were murdered on arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Rather than recount her tale in a linear fashion, Hollander-Lafon has chosen to give us an impressionistic portrayal of life in the camps and immediately thereafter. In very short chapters, in bits of poetry, she captures a moment indelibly sketched in her mind: the time she wished she wanted to change places with the German shepherd dogs, the time the old woman selflessly gave her some moldy bread which allowed her to go on living another day, the time the good German guard took her aside and massaged her feet when she was almost unconscious from the pain, and the time a fellow deportee spoke to her, “saw” her as a person, not just another lice-ridden starving, thirsty, crippled excuse for a human being competing for a crust of bread or a drop of water.

Torture took many forms: the Germans amused themselves by forcing internees outside at odd hours and in the middle of the night for endless roll calls, forced marches, barefoot races.

The prisoners were often naked, shoeless, nearly comatose. To fall, to show any weakness, to get sick meant certain death at the next “selection” of those destined for the gas chambers. Nazi guards and the sonderkommandos they recruited from among the victims to assist them, starve, torture and torment Hollander-Lafon and her fellows for their own amusement.

Grasping the reality of a typical day through Hollander-Lafon’s eyes, we see what enormous mental and physical strength was required to keep on plodding through each hellish day.

In the midst of such incalculable suffering, the author stays strong, determined to survive. She’s a mere sixteen years old, and from one day to the next, an orphan. Others in the camps tell her she must survive and bear witness someday to what she has experienced, to all who have fallen; she must speak for them.

We learn from the text and introductory and closing remarks that the author was hospitalized with pneumonia after Liberation, settled in Belgium where she studied, and eventually married. She has four children and ten grandchildren. Trained as a pediatric psychologist, she has been involved for years in presenting programs on the Holocaust to French schoolchildren.

The images Hollander-Lafon sketches in Four Scraps of Bread are often brutally evocative:

My memory opens up, painfully, at the sound of
Persistent calls. I am emerging from the
Long tunnel where I have lain low.
Thousands of faces disappeared
Without knowing why. They call out to me
Without knowing why. They call out to me
They are full of distress
Blazing with hunger
Snuffed out by thirst
The tense look of a friend whose flesh bore the
Marks of a dog’s bite
With each step, she was losing her life.
The overwhelmed look of another woman beaten
To death.
Hundreds of fading looks, exhausted from long
Hours of roll calls.
On thousands of lost faces, the dejection of a life
Terminated too soon.
Trucks come and go down their long lanes of
Filled with lives, packed tight, their eyes looking into the distance.
Holding out their emaciated hands, clinging onto
Life with wasted screams.
The smokestack crackles.     
The sky is low, gray and yellow.
We breathe in their ashes as the wind blows them away.
Thirty years later
I tremble as I push through the thick wall of my
So that all of those looks begging for hope
Do not vanish
Into the dust.

The second half of the book turns away from these scenes to focus on the author’s spiritual awakening, her gradual transformation from a thoroughly secular Jew to a “baptized Jew” who finds strength in her belief in Jesus.

The book loses momentum as her somewhat vague professions of the faith which has helped to sustain her in her post-Holocaust existence are expressed in a series of rather vague homilies. She gives no clue in the text as to the direction of her post-war life. We must depend on the attached translator’s note and the historical commentary by two French professors to round out the picture.

The first half of the book put me in mind of last year’s Best Foreign Language Film, a fellow Hungarian’s film about Auschwitz, Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul. The cinematography is very much like the techniques used in Four Scraps of Bread: the moviegoer is allowed a very narrow field of vision, witnessing everything through the eyes of the main character, Saul. We hear what Saul hears without seeing the people talking around him, without knowing who is crying out, who is getting beaten or gassed or shot.

Thumps, screams, whimpers. This limited perspective is very effective, mimicking one person’s limited view and understanding of what is transpiring around him, and much more frightening than a clear view would be, as it forces our imaginations to fill in the blanks and place ourselves within the scene.

So it is with this book. We must draw on our own experiences, and must use our hearts to place ourselves within the setting and the action. The author does not tell us how to feel. She gives us but a hint of what she and the others suffered: the lice always chewing on their flesh, the cold, the heat, the dizzying starvation, the senseless routines, the avoidance of emotional ties to others, the difficulty remembering that you are a human being, innocent, and deserving of a better fate.

She trusts us to feel the pain. And, to remember.

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