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Embodying the Imagery of Jewish Identity and Resistance an analysis of the imagery in wodzislawski's /my revenge/ by Elizabeth Sheri bouse

Nazi Germany is famously known for their war crimes during World War II. Among the most heinous of those crimes was the Holocaust, in which the aim was to enslave and eventually completely eradicate the Jewish people. The written imagery in Heniek Wodzislawski’s notebook in My Revenge will be analyzed to reveal how—though uprooted from the physical traditions of their religion—the Jewish people embody their religious identity which they in turn use as a symbol of resistance.

Two possible analyses are present in the body-oriented imagery in Heniek Wodzislawski’s notes: a brief secular reading, and a more contextual reading. These analyses are focused upon the rectangular formation formed by the group of Jewish men and the possible meaning which may be drawn from the formation. After the Jews were driven from the Jewish Ghetto, the men who were ordered to gather in the marketplace took it upon themselves to form an open-ended rectangle. This might strike the reader as odd, as people tend to gather in more organic formation such as a cluster or semi-circle, therefore the unusual formation of a rectangle begs exploration. Initial reaction to such a formation might be to imagine that a physical or psychological strategy of resistance is being employed by the Jewish men; a few of those present were actually a part of the resistance (My Revenge, 86). Their names and faces, however, were unknown to the Germans. With this in mind, it is possible that the rectangle formation is a statement against their oppressors. If so, we can examine a map of the described scene to determine what message is being projected, if any at all. A map was created based on the setting’s physical description; the map includes the placement and organization of the people present in relation to the rectangular formation.

In the Market, the Jewish men were ordered to gather in the small marketplace (My Revenge, 84). They “were organized in groups of five, creating three sides of a rectangle” (86). A secular interpretation of the image might make connections to strategies of resistance or potential combat. This interpretation can be supported by the Germans’ continued concern of a Jewish resistance uprising (92, 97). The women were collected into a tight group at the exit of the Jewish Ghetto, and were under guard by armed soldiers. As the women were unarmed and posed little threat compared to the Jewish men, the only reason to place them under armed guard would be as a form of hostage or leverage to prevent a riot from the resistance. One possible maneuver that resembles the Jewish men’s formation is the double-envelopment maneuver, commonly used in wartime, including in WWII (Schlesser, 2005).

Jewish formation compared to military tactic the double-envelopment maneuver (maneuver in blue, enemy in red).

The image of the double-envelope formation would have been familiar to the military and Gestapo officials that stood before the men; not only would they have encountered in it analyzing military tactics, but it had also been used by Adolph Hitler in his 1940 victory at the Fall of France (Schlesser, 2005). Although this maneuver was used on a large scale over a wide terrain, and would likely not be employed by the unarmed Jewish men, the image itself stands as a sign of resistance as it mirrors Hitler’s double-envelope maneuver. A possible Jewish riot or uprising would have been especially present in German minds after they sorted the Jewish people into groups based upon their usefulness—those who could not be utilized were taken to the cemetery for execution.

Prior to their forced departures, the abducted Jewish people cried “Shema Israel!” and “Friends, avenge us!” (89). The call for vengeance was made more impactful as the remaining Jewish people witnessed the deaths of several of those who tried to escape.

The cars turned to Warszawska Street and after a moment, gunshots were heard. They were aimed at people who were jumping off the truck, which was speeding away. … Almost no one reached the cemetery. The road was riddled with bodies (My Revenge, 89).

Although the men left standing in the marketplace were unarmed and helpless, the image of fervent eyes, clenched fists, and tears would have left the impression that most of the Jewish people sought revenge on the Nazi Germans.

The second interpretation of the men’s rectangle formation rises from the invocation of God. Despite the clear image of revenge that is painted, it is not the Jewish people themselves that will strike against the Nazi Germans but God. The invocation of “Shema Israel” creates a separate image of revenge which is deeply rooted in the Jewish faith. As the first prayer learned as a child and the last words uttered before death, it is the most important prayer in Judaism; its full prayer being “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Simmons, 2002). It is both a declaration of faith and a beseechment to God for protection. The prayer is also a part of daily life, and is religiously spoken or thought of by Jewish person each time they pass the mezuzah, which is a small rectangular box containing a scroll of the prayer that is affixed to each doorframe in their house. For the Jewish people, “Shema Israel” conjures thoughts of God and images of the rectangular mezuzah, as well as the rectangular passageway of their home.

A mezuzah (scroll container holding Torah scriptures) affixed to the doorpost of a home.

Keeping in mind the Shema Israel prayer and the mezuzah, examining again the rectangular formation of the Jewish men reveals a different intention than physical resistance, but rather religious and spiritual resistance. Here, though helpless in body, the Jewish people are strong in faith and identity.

Form comparison of formation and mezuzah.

The men maintain the rectangle formation as their innocent friends and loved ones are forced out of their homes and to their deaths. In the context of the scene, the formation can be visually read as a mezuzah, especially with "evil" and danger existing in and around their home, the Jewish Ghetto. The formation allows those who may have been forced to hastily leave their home without reciting the prayer to say it one last time before they are taken from the Ghetto. The prayer not only helps safeguard them against misfortune, but prepares their soul for their passage into death. Most significant to human formation of the mezuzah is that it stands opposite of the main Nazi powers present in the Marketplace. The separation of the two groups symbolize the unity of the Jewish people through their identity and religion, and the inability for evil to penetrate their spiritual ranks.

Throughout history the Jewish people have often been forced to adapt their sacred practices while under oppressive circumstances. Crypto-Jews practicing in secret often carried the mezuzah with them in their pocket, and say the Shema Israel prayer quietly as they left their home (Tuchfeld, 2013). In Heniek Wodzislawski’s account, the Jewish people could not take any possessions with them: therefore, through their symbolic formation the Jewish people themselves became the mezuzah that they were no longer allowed to possess.

Blood of the lamb painted on the doorposts and lintel to identify Jewish households so that God would know to "passover" them when he smote the firstborn of Egypt.

The rectangular religious imagery can be traced back to the origin of the Passover. Not only does this hold extreme significance to Jewish identity and relationship with God, invoking this imagery in the face of the Nazi Germans means the declaration of Jewish innocence and Nazi malevolence by equating the Nazis to a group that will be smote by God.

  • And they shall take of the blood and they shall put it on the two mezuzoth (doorposts) and on the lintel... For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians, and when He seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door, and He will not allow the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite [you]. (Exodus 12:7, 23) (Chabad.org).
Comparison of the Jewish men's formation and the doorposts and lintel painted in lamb's blood.

Through the religious imagery of the men's rectangle formation, in conjunction with the spilled blood of innocent Jewish people, they symbolically create the mezuzoth (doorposts) and lintel that is painted with lamb’s blood. Through this unifying image the Jewish people project a silent plea to God that when "the destroyer" comes to smite the Nazi enemy, it might passover them; and that God might ensure a future for the Jewish people as was promised in the Torah “... so that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children… (Deuteronomy XI, 21)” (Chabad.org).

Despite the tremendous amount of individual Jewish deaths at the hands of Nazi Germany, the Jewish people persevered to see the wrath of God punish the Germans. Although in Heniek Wodzislawski’s account he did not witness the deliverance of the Jewish people, the protection of the mezuzah--carried through the physical embodiment of Jewish faith and identity--allowed for some measure of revenge against the Germans; that revenge was the survival of the Jewish people, their identities, and traditions despite extreme Nazi efforts at genocide.

Sources

"What Is a Mezuzah?" Chabad.org. Lubavitch World Headquarters, n.d. Web. 31 July 2017. <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/256915/jewish/What-Is-a-Mezuzah.htm>.

Poltorak, Alexander, Dr. "The Protective Power of Mezuzah." Chabad.org. Lubavitch World Headquarters, n.d. Web. 30 July 2017. <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/310889/jewish/The-Protective-Power-of-Mezuzah.htm>.

Schlesser, Steven. "The Last Man of The Nineteenth Century." The Soldier, the Builder & the Diplomat. Seattle: Cune, 2005. 89-90. Print.

Simmons, Shraga, Rabbi. "Prayer & Blessings: Shema Yisrael." Aish.com Your Life, Your Judaism. Aish.com, 8 June 2002. Web. 31 July 2017. <http://www.aish.com/jl/m/pb/48954656.html>.

Tuchfeld, Michael. "Portugal's Talking Stones." ESRAmagazine Sept.-Oct. 2013: n. pag. The Institute for Marrano-Anusim Studies. Web. 30 July 2017. <http://www.casa-shalom.com/Portugals_Talking_Stones.pdf>.

Completed by Elizabeth Sheri Bouse as coursework in Dr. Susan Garza's ENGL 5369, Topics & Genres in Rhetoric and Composition Visual Rhetoric: Memorial Spaces.

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