Cover image for On burning ground : a son's memoir
On burning ground : a son's memoir
Skakun, Michael.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
235 pages : portraits ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Corporate Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DS135.B38 S58 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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For as long as I can remember, I have been the confidant of a man's conscience... begins this memoir, in which a son recounts how his Jewish-Polish father had to disguise himself as a Christian and join the Nazi SS to save his own life. Weaving philosophical logic throughout his father's horrific wartime story, Skakun tells a personal, yet epic, account of war and bloodshed, of unspeakable cruelty and unnameable crimes.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Using distinct avenues of inquiry, these memoirists render such extraordinary accounts of their parents' fates that all Holocaust collections should well consider them. Levendel attempts a Proustian recovery of his memory, followed by an excavation of archives to fix the responsibilities for his mother's disappearance. An eight-year-old by 1944, he recalls in tactile detail the encroachment of Vichy France's anti-Semitic policies. Remembering his Avignon neighbors in their gradated shades of kindness and hostility and anguished by his vanished mother, Levendel carried on his life until he recently decided to research the Vichy archives, against some bureaucratic resistance. In the documents he discovered the paradoxes and opportunisms of Vichy distilled into his mother's single case: a denouncing neighbor, a sail-trimming official, and a gangster, all of whom had a hand in deporting his mother to Auschwitz. Some readers might find Levendel harsh in places--there are numerous anti-Catholic comments--but ample reasons underlie his anger. Skakun, who worked for many years with critic Alfred Kazin, opts for a literary construction of his father's incredible survival story. A rabbinical student in the Polish-Lithuanian borderland, Joseph Skakun eluded the initial Nazi dragnets that consumed his relatives and his town's Jewish population. Alone, he discovered a talent for adopting false identities, a strategy dependent on his ability to pass linguistically and visually as "Aryan." The son artfully evokes his father's internal tension in conducting these masquerades, in which one careless word or action meant exposure and death. Eventually Skakun maneuvered himself into Germany as a forced laborer and then into the Waffen SS. Infused with moral anguish about these subterfuges, the Skakun story can deeply impress readers with its hero's moral resourcefulness. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Distinguished both by outstanding writing and a profound sense of moral complexity, this son's memoir of his father's incredible survival stands out among Holocaust memoirs. In 1941, when the Nazi noose tightened around Navaredok, Poland, Joseph Skakun, a young Talmudic scholar, tried to save his mother from death by hiding her in a basement. After his efforts failed and the Jews were rounded up, Joseph escaped into the forest and fled to Vilna, where he managed to borrow a birth certificate from Stefan Osmanov, an acquaintance who was a Muslim Tatar. Because he was blue-eyed and blond, Joseph was able to assume Osmanov's identity. "But here father, thrown back on his own slight resources, secretly crafted a new identity out of whole clothÄcreated a mask so tight-fitting that it became nearly one with his life." Joseph quickly learned the rudiments of Islam, and, since Muslims were also circumcised, he was accepted into the German foreign labor program in Berlin. Assigned to farm work, Joseph tried to keep to himself but was drawn into village social life. When a fellow laborer became suspicious, Joseph enlisted in the SS out of desperation. Fortunately, the war ended before he was mobilizedÄthus, according to the author, his father was saved from truly collaborating with Hitler. Skakun, an editor and translator who has served as a special consultant to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial council, offers an unusual and gripping account of resourcefulness, narrow escapes and "moral improvisation." B&w photos not seen by PW. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In Russian, as the author points out, skakun means "to jump," which is apropos since his father needed to jump into various identities in order to avoid several massacres. Joseph Skakun was a rather sheltered Lithuanian yeshiva student who was forced to use his wits, fair features, and language skills to survive the calamities that befell his family and town at the hands of the Nazis. After escaping from the local ghetto and making his way to Vilna, Skakun eventually volunteered for forced labor in Germany after assuming the identity of a Polish Tatar whose family had befriended him. To protect his false identity further, he even enlisted in the Waffen-SS, but fortunately the war ended before he was drafted into service. A fascinating story that explores the moral quandaries that Jews of the time faced; recommended for public and academic libraries with large Holocaust collections.ÄJohn A. Drobnicki, York Coll. Lib., CUNY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.