‘My father understood the human soul’: remembering the Jewish-Romanian author whose Holocaust stories continue to inspire compassion

‘My father understood the human soul’: remembering the Jewish-Romanian author whose Holocaust stories continue to inspire compassion

Surviving the Holocaust and escaping communist Romania, Ludovic Bruckstein continued to rebuild his life by writing short stories inspired by the people he met. After three decades, his novellas have finally been published in English. Here, his son reflects on his father’s courage and compassion.

17 October 2019

“I am here to recover my father’s soul,” says Freddy Bruckstein, the first English translation of his father’s work in his hands. We are at the book launch of The Trap, a pair of novellas by Ludovic Bruckstein, first published in Romanian in 1989 — a year after the writer’s death.

The first novella loosely echoes the author’s experience of the Holocaust, as well as his disenchantment with communism.

“My father belongs to a generation that, as [the Nobel prize-winning Polish writer] Czeslaw Milosz described so accurately, cannot ‘summarise in a few words the story of their existence,’” says Freddy. “‘Their lives have been complicated by the course of history’”.

The Bruckstein Family in 1925. Image: Freddy Bruckstein's family archive.

Tell us about your father’s literary work.

He wrote in both Yidish and Romanian. Altogether, he wrote over 20 plays: he used to go to the local court to see why people were driven to crime. One of his plays based on a court case, Land and Brothers, depicted a peasant killing his brother over a piece of land. Someone later told him that this play had convinced them to join collectivisation. My father would comment jokingly, “See, what I have done?” You never know how literary works will be interpreted. In the late 1960s, he started to write short stories too, and it’s there that I think he’s most talented.

The Trap draws heavily on your father’s wartime experiences. You mentioned earlier that your father and his brother were the only family members to survive the Holocaust…

Yes, their parents and their two sisters died as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz, but my father and his brother didn’t know. My father stayed in Auschwitz for a week and then he was transferred to a labour camp, where he repaired the train tracks destroyed by the American bombs. He was injured and survived thanks to a doctor from Amsterdam. Many people died in labour camps. I once asked him if he’d ever thought about death while he was there. “No,” he told me, “I only thought about one thing — how to survive.”

I once asked him if he’d ever thought about death while he was in the labour camp. “No,” he told me, “I only thought about one thing — how to survive”

My father was liberated by the Soviet Army. They had been walking on a death march and spent the night in a barn. The next morning, someone shouted that the SS guards had disappeared — but none of them found the courage to move. They thought that they might get shot. And then they saw a soldier coming from afar. He was wearing the red star and had a Kalashnikov, just like you see in war films. “What are you doing here?” the soldier asked. One of them, who spoke Russian, explained that they were slaves, prisoners… He told them, “Now we’ve liberated you, go your own ways.” A lot of people were so hungry that they went into the villages nearby and started eating like crazy, and they died because of it.

My father too went into a village, took four books in German, which he spoke fluently, also ate a bit too much and got ill with typhus as a result. A woman from Budapest looked after him, made him soup, cared for him. She was one of these miracles. He then got better and left for Sighet by train, hoping to find his family. But only his brother had returned.

Your father grew up in the town of Sighet, but he wasn’t the only author to be born there: Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel lived there at the same time. They were even on the same train to Auschwitz. What was their life like there for the pair of them?

There was this real fabric of life there in Sighet [where my father grew up]. People lived together, and they lived well. They didn’t all love each other and it wasn’t always an idyll but they worked together, they did business together… It was peaceful. That’s what my father describes in his books. When the war came, this world suddenly got shattered. Jewish people had an entirely tragic destiny. But everyone else suffered as well, including Romanians.

People lived together, and they lived well

My father and Elie Wiesel knew each other very well and he visited us in Sighet twice after he’d left for America. But my father was very different from Elie Wiesel. Wiesel was the kind of person who would ask, “how could this happen? “Where has God been?” and so on. My father was a realist. He understood the human soul and tried to find the answer within us, not somewhere outside ourselves.

What was your father’s experience after the war? Did he stay in communist Romania because of his left leaning ideas?

Actually before the war, my father had right-leaning ideas. The war made him move to the left. At the beginning, he told himself, alright, we’re building communism now, and communism is a good thing. He went to Bucharest and wrote The Night Shift, and gave it to the State Jewish Theatre. But there, a writer told him that he needed to add an introduction that followed the party line. He didn’t like that (although he did add it). He later became one of the editors of the Romanian Writers’ Union newspaper, but he started receiving political directions there as well. He knew that this wasn’t communism. He thought that communism was meant to be free and beautiful. So, he isolated himself, returning to his hometown, where he became an art school headmaster and dedicated himself to the classics.

My father understood the human soul and tried to find the answer within us, not somewhere outside ourselves

He wanted to leave for Israel, like his brother had done in 1945. He dreamed of living in a kibbutz, like a real communist. But he got stuck in Romania after the borders got shut down. Until his death, however, he said that the communist ideal was a good one — except that you can’t build communism with human beings.

Was he ever able to join a kibbutz? Did he live that dream?

We moved to Israel in 1972. He was already too old to join a kibbutz, so he worked for an investment and development company. He continued to write for the 400,000 Romanian speakers in Israel. Even though he was expelled from everywhere in Romania after emigrating, he remained a member of the Romanian Writers’ Union and kept receiving their Happy New Year messages until the end of his life.

He only had one problem, which was that he was writing in two minor languages: Yiddish and Romanian. He wanted to be translated into a major language, which is why I am so moved to see his book in English today.

My father was the kind of person who would sit in a restaurant and would start talking to you. He was very honest and interested in people. He would ask where you’re from, what you do, what you studied, where you live, what you like, what you’re interested in. Little by little, people opened their hearts to him. Because they understood that he was full of compassion and understanding. And so, he received a lot of stories, which he then translated into literature. I miss him everyday.

You can order a copy of The Trap here.

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