They Are Still Alive is a memoir by Philip Pressel. It is a recounting of his years as a young boy in Europe during WWII and his subsequent years growing up in America.
Really, anybody's life story is interesting if told well but Pressel's story is especially interesting because he came from a Jewish family from Belgium that had the misfortune of living during Hitler's reign of terror. Pressel's parents fled Belgium to live in France where they made a meager living while trying to escape capture from not only the Nazi's but the French police who acquiesced to the Germans in trying to round up Jews.
In order to protect their son, Pressel's parents entrusted him to a local French Catholic family who cared for Philip while his parents went underground. Pressel does an excellent job of describing the hardship he and his family went through as well as the generosity of his French foster parents as they all tried to survive those nightmarish times.
After the war, Pressel's family immigrated to the United States where his dad got a job as a translator for the United Nations. This portion of the book serves as a good example of how children thrived and succeeded in getting an education through the public schools despite being foreign, poor, a minority and not being able to speak the language.
I first attended the Arrandale Elementary School and, by necessity, learned English very quickly....In Europe, I had practiced speaking and reading English with my parents. Now I was forced to use my English and really learn it so I could keep up with my studies and socialize. ...I must have had a strong French accent, but it eventually disappeared as I became more “American.” It is amazing how being forced to speak and read English helps people learn the language quickly! Now, in my older years, I disapprove of teaching children in their native language instead of in English. (pg.88, 89)
The rest of the book is a chronology of Pressel's life in America. He got an engineering degree, got married, had kids, worked and pretty much lived a normal life. In his seventies he finally returned to France and was reunited with the family who took care of him there.
Pressel includes letters of his parents that were written during the war years. They can be quite heart rending as they describe their predicament and plea with family members and government officials in America to allow them to immigrate, something that the Allied countries seemed to be stubborn in preventing many desperate Jewish families from doing.
The most interesting aspect of the book for me, beside Pressel's personal account of surviving Hitler's regime (which most of his extended family did not) is the great detail he goes into in describing all the Jewish customs, traditions and holidays.
For my educational benefit, my parents joined Temple Israel, the Conservative synagogue in Great Neck. …
….We (celebrated) Hanukah at home. I lit the candles and she (his mother) made the traditional latkes, potato pancakes. For the New Year holiday Rosh Hashana, we would normally have dinner at her sister Sonia's house and Maman would make her carp dish. On Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, she fasted....
On passover, a holiday celebrating Moses leading the Jews from Egypt, we attended the Seder at Aunt Ruth's house..Ruth's husband was Orthodox and ran the service very strictly. He would sit at the head of the table in a white robe, leaning on some pillows. He made sure to recite each word on the Haggadah..... (pg 92,93)
Pressel describes breaking the Matzo and hiding one piece and how he and his cousins would contrive to steal it for presents, since the Seder couldn't be complete without both halves of the Matzo.
Both his parents came from Orthodox Jewish families in Europe, were great Zionists and zealous in preserving their Jewish culture and identity. Nevertheless, Pressel and his family didn't believe in God.
They were not at all religious and the war certainly had a tremendous negative effect on their faith, especially on my father. The loss of his family hit him hard and he lost any belief in God he may have ever had.
…..Maman told me of her own disbelief, but she always felt it was important to realize and be proud we were Jewish. She stressed being supportive of Jewish causes and Israel, even if we were not observant or true believers. (pg. 92)
As far as his own belief is concerned, Pressel has this to say:
..starting at age 8 I learned about being Jewish. Later I observed others...go through the rituals in the synagogue and prayers for various occasions... As I matured I could not understand why so many prayers were read or recited in a language (Hebrew) I could not understand...My parents did not actively practice religion but still wanted me to learn and be proud of my heritage. My father rarely went to synagogue, but he was a secular Zionist of the highest order.....
.....as I matured, I kept saying to myself 'If there really was a God, why did he let the Holocaust happen? …..'Why did God let my son die?... why did God let my father die so young? The more of life that went on, the less I believed in a God...
...What I enjoy the most is the traditional music during the Jewish service. My basic belief is that man created God, not the other way around, in order for people 'in power' to help control populations...(pg177,178)
Pressel's beliefs struck me as especially poignant since I have been studying the book of Isaiah and particularly Chapters 58 and 59:
Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out. They seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God..Why have we fasted, they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?
Yet on your day of fasting you do as you please...Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife.....you cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high..(Is. 58:1-4)
Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from you God. (Is 59:1,2)
In other words, empty ritual, ritual practiced for the sake of tradition and preserving one's cultural identity is not God's original intention in proscribing these feast days and festivals to the Jewish people. It was to show them the way to unite with their God. One can't misuse religious practises by ignoring the One who handed them down to you. It renders them obsolete. It also renders the practitioner helpless and lost. Traditions never saved anyone from disaster only God's Redeemer can do that.
The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, He was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so His own arm worked salvation for Him and His own righteousness sustained Him...
The Redeemer will come to Zion to those In Jacob who repent of their sins. (Is 59:15-20)
I think many Jewish people, like Pressel, believe that Messiah is going to come and save them from their oppressors. He is. But first He is going to save them from their own sinful selves. Not only Jewish people but all of us.
I wish Pressel and others like him knew of God's plan of redemption for the world so they could see WWII and all human suffering as something that is coming to an end because one day God is coming to claim His own.
And it won't be practitioners of traditions that have lost sight of the One who has preserved the Jewish race since His covenant with Abraham.
In my next post, I am going to review a biography of someone who didn't survive the Holocaust, yet his conclusions about God were very different from Pressel's.
I received a complimentary copy of They Are Still Alive as a member of the
Dorrance Publishing Book Review Team. Visit dorrancebookstore.com
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