Before the war the small town of Gdow, the nearest large community to my grandfather's farm, had a sizeable number of Jews living in it. My father used to talk about them; they ran some of the shops and inns, they traded with his parents, he went to school with them (they gave him their chicken sandwiches and he gave them his pork kielbasa ones). One of these Jews, a trader called Samuel, often came round to the farm and would chat with my grandparents. He would make complimentary comments about my grandmother's Bigos, hinting at being given a bowl. She would joke with him and warn him that the Rabbi would have something to say if he knew he was eating pork... and he would joke back. When the Germans came Samuel came to see my grandfather and asked him to help him. My grandfather said, "I can hide you for three days but no longer, if the Germans find out then they'll not only kill me but my wife and children as well." Samuel replied that he would not impose himself on his good friends but would find another way of surviving.
He didn't. He and all the Jews of Gdow; shopkeepers, innkeepers, tradesmen, schoolfriends, ended up in Belzec and were turned into ashes, bones and dust.
This book is about something that is almost taken for granted throughout. It is not really about the courage it took to survive in the sewers of Lvov because survival is not about courage, more about determination to live despite all the hazards. This book is about the courage of one man, Leopold Socha. To put your life in danger for others is a brave choice, but to put the lives of those you love at risk... that takes a kind of courage few people actually exhibit - yet so many in Poland did in that nightmare time. Socha may not have started with saintly aspirations but there can be no doubt that saint he became.
I was inspired to read "In the Sewers of Lvov" after watching Agnieszka Holland's "In Darkness" (it's the original book that the film is based on - "The Girl in the Green Sweater" is a more recent 'compilation' of reminiscences written partly by the small girl who survived). It's a very easy read and gives us a reasonable picture of what life was like for the individuals who hid in the sewers as well as in the ghetto and the concentration camp, Janowska, nearby. It's not intellectually demanding since, I believe, it was written for the general audience. I was quite surprised at how much the film reflects the book yet, whilst there is little new in the book (having seen the film), I still enjoyed it and still found it fascinating.
It's surprising how little of the dirt and smell, even danger, comes across. The small group of Jews helped by Socha had obviously grown so used to the horrible circumstances in which they found themselves. It's only really towards the end, when outsiders become involved, that that one becomes aware of the dirt and smell and conditions they had to endure. Most of the story, based on the written reminiscences of the leader of the group, Ignacy Chiger, and interviews with other survivors, deals with their day-to-day survival, the relationships within the group, the arguments. Whilst there are deaths they are largely almost incidental... this story is about life... and the courage of that one special man who found safe havens and brought them food, Socha.
The moment that really stands out for me is that one when the dirty, hunched, almost blind group finally come to the surface. People stand around amazed, stunned. The little boy is frightened and wants to go back down. Socha stands there proudly. "This is my work," he says, "These are my Jews." How many of us can ever hope to have that courage and that pride?
And the final chapter, the one dealing with the aftermath is new stuff to those who have seen the film, apart, that is, from that final tragedy and those disgraceful words...