- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Contemporary memoirs can be tedious. There are books upon books by celebrities and politicians who make a fair bit of money hiring writers to produce self-aggrandizing volumes which end up in the discount section of bookstores after a few months. Not so with "An Uncommon Friendship: From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust." Here is an authentic, poignant account of two very different lives during the Nazi regime, with all the horrors, small triumphs and unexpected kindnesses distilled into a compelling, tightly woven tale.

Two boys roughly the same age live through World War II. Bernie is a Hungarian Jew, who survives the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps. Fritz is a German American, whose father becomes a Nazi officer. Decades later, their paths cross in white suburban California, both having built warm families and successful careers. They strike up a friendship, initially superficial, based upon the finer things in life.

Over the course of a decade their friendship deepened to the point that it was no longer possible to ignore the past delicately, and the two friends somewhat naively decided to embark upon a joint memoir. The result is this book, which is a testament of their childhoods, their American rebirth and their lasting bond across the divide of the Holocaust. The process, however, proved to be far more difficult than they expected. Both had constructed massive walls around the war, especially Bernie. As they tentatively began to speak about those taboo years, the full weight of suppressed experiences broke through to the present.

Fritz writes, "As Bernie recalls this part of his story, it takes on an inexorable, breathtaking progression, a 'no exit' inevitability … I become aware of the ticking of a clock. I listen for birds outside to offset the tight grip Bernie's recall has on me. But there is no escape. The death machine has been conjured up in his living room. No time has passed since Auschwitz."

The result is a powerful joint memoir of two boyhoods irrevocably altered by World War II. Sophisticated prose it is not. But this does not matter - from the moment one begins reading, it is difficult to put the book down.

Bernie grew up in Tab, Hungary, in a comfortable but strict Orthodox household. The Christian majority was generally hostile to the Jewish population, but this was not enough to prevent Jews from doing well or practicing their religion. The sheltered village life was interrupted with the Nazi takeover in the spring of 1944. Within three months Bernie and his family were forced onto a train for Auschwitz. The rest of his family perished.

Fritz, born in California, returned to his father's village of Kleinheubach, Germany, before the war. His family, including uncles and paternal grandparents, scraped by during the Depression. His father was a musician without defined political tendencies, who took advantage of employment with the Nazi Party for professional and financial betterment. Fritz candidly describes the years under the Nazis, the coercion and control that they quickly exerted upon all facets of life.

Life for Bernie in the concentration camps was a daily, even hourly battle for survival. A piece of bread, getting the runs. An arbitrary decision by a soldier, a sympathetic guard, could make the difference between life and death. Life for Fritz during this same time was difficult, though in no way comparable to Bernie's hell. As the war progressed, scarcity, hunger and cold became the norm in Kleinheubach.

The book weaves the accounts of each man in a seamless manner. The melodrama has been left out, it seems deliberately, but the suffering nevertheless is palpable. "When we reached the end of the war in our stories, Bernie remarked to me, smiling, 'I could tell who would survive and who wouldn't.' The way he looked at me suggested that I would not have been among the survivors."

The end of the war spelled liberation. Fritz was 14, Bernie was 13. Both eventually made their way to the United States. Bernie's passage was singularly amazing. Ending up in a Jewish refugee camp in Modena, Italy, he and the other scruffy boys sought food and tips from American soldiers by performing odd jobs. One GI befriended him. This man was Charles Merrill, Jr., the son of Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill Lynch. He eventually brought Bernie to America and took him into his patrician world.

The entire memoir is narrated by Fritz, to whom Bernie entrusted the recreation of his life. In the few words Bernie directly utters, he tells the reader, "Each survivor has a different way of coping … My way has been to pretend that all the horror of the past happened to someone else. Having Fritz tell my story in the third person is part of this same coping mechanism."

After descending into hell and back, the two friends experienced a reconciliation on several levels, each with his own past, the past of the other, and between their two "peoples." Their intention was not to analyze the past, but to invoke it in order to integrate it into what Bernie calls the "mosaic of the whole."


Shaazka Beyerle is a writer living in Maryland.

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