In the cities and small towns of Europe, I’m always aware of a painful history, hidden among the streets and houses. The book “Clara’s War,” by Clara Kramer, recounts how 16 members of her extended family survived World War II by crouching in a four-foot-high crawl space under the home of a man who was a drunkard, serial adulterer, and notorious anti-Semite. Valentin Beck’s wife Julia had been their housekeeper before the war. Jews and Christians had lived in harmony in the idyllic little town of Zolkiew, Poland for over 300 years.
But Hitler changed all that. When the Nazis began murdering the 5,000 Jews of the town, Beck offered to shelter the extended family. He, his wife and their teenage daughter risked their own lives for over 18 months, bringing in food and water and hauling out buckets of waste. They entertained Nazis, police, and army personnel at raucous parties just above the heads of the family. For the final few months of the war, they were forced to allow a succession of Nazis to take over their own bedroom. During these times, the families below had to sit perfectly still, sometimes for days at a time, until the visitors left the house.
Ironically, the house had belonged to one of the families until they were forced to leave; the Becks asked for and received the house as their own. Mr. Beck started sheltering the family tentatively because his wife knew and loved them. He was quite a rebel, refusing to bow to the inhumanity around him. As the savagery in the world outside increased, Valentin Beck became more and more daring in his protection of the families. He came to love and respect them. He provided them with the items they needed for their own religious ceremonies, and invited them upstairs whenever he could.
Clara was a teenager at the time. Mr. Beck brought her books to read and a series of composition books to write in. She filled four of them with a harrowing account of tedium mixed with hairsbreadth escapes, using a single blue pencil the entire time. When the Russians moved closer and closer to the town, most of the ethnic Germans like the Becks fled. The Becks stayed at their own peril to shelter their visitors in the crawl space, until it was too late for them to escape. They were about to be shot as German spies. Clara, newly liberated, ventured into the Russian headquarters and got an officer to read the diary. That saved the lives of the Becks. A tree was planted in Israel in their honor.
In her eighties, Clara turned her journal into the book, with the help of a professional writer. The twists and turns of events make the book a page-turner. It would make a wonderful movie. There is savagery, but also extreme courage and tenderness. The book is a good companion to “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It gives a visceral feeling for what actually went on all over Europe.
At the end of the war, only 50 of the 5,000 Jews of Zolkiew were alive, all of them having been somehow sheltered as Clara’s family was. They all soon left; there was nothing left for them there. But to this day, the occupant of the house with the bunker below shows it to any visitors who ask.
A review of the book from the Daily Telegraph is at
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/3673099/Facing-up-to-the-Fuhrer.html. The book is available from Amazon.
Join me next time for more explorations into the sometimes-joyful, sometimes-sorrowful, always-fascinating history of Europe.