By – May 24, 2024

In the face of mass suf­fer­ing, what would I do?

This dilem­ma is at the heart of Tony Bernard’s riv­et­ing new book, The Ghost Tat­too.

When we first meet Bernard’s father, Hen­ry Bieryan­s­ki Bernard, he is a suc­cess­ful gen­er­al prac­ti­tion­er, with occa­sion­al sour moods and strange behav­iors, in a mid­dle-class sub­urb of Syd­ney, Aus­tralia. Bernard knows his father sur­vived a con­cen­tra­tion camp because his tat­tooed num­ber is clear­ly vis­i­ble on his arm. Though Hen­ry rarely talks about his grue­some expe­ri­ences dur­ing the war, as Bernard grows old­er, he real­izes that his father is haunt­ed by mem­o­ries of that time.

In 1970, Hen­ry went to Darm­stadt, Ger­many to tes­ti­fy as a wit­ness in a war crimes tri­bunal of Nazis. Bernard was unsure why his father was called to this par­tic­u­lar tri­al or against whom he was testifying.

Lat­er, Bernard trav­eled with his father to his home­town shtetl of Tomaszów, Poland. He learned that before the war, one-third of the town was Jew­ish, yet today there are no Jews. They also vis­it­ed Tre­blin­ka, where his grand­moth­er is buried, and Auschwitz. Yet Bernard still didn’t under­stand what was gnaw­ing at his father. 

Only when Hen­ry approach­es his elder years does he reveal his true sto­ry, with a great out­pour­ing of grief and regret. As Bernard writes, Hav­ing spent half a cen­tu­ry hold­ing his silence, he spent the final quar­ter-cen­tu­ry of his life in a great hur­ry to tell his sto­ry in as much detail as he pos­si­bly could before he left us.”

Bernard wit­ness­es his father in a wrestling match with his con­science.” The skilled author peels back the many lay­ers of his father’s sto­ry slow­ly and metic­u­lous­ly, like lay­ers of onion skin, lead­ing the read­er to the core of his bit­ter discovery.

When the Nazis occu­py Tomaszów, Henry’s moth­er tried to save her two sons by giv­ing them forged doc­u­ments and her dia­mond ear­rings for food and bribes. Know­ing his life depend­ed on it, Hen­ry assid­u­ous­ly stored her dia­mond in his mouth, his under­wear, and oth­er secret places. His moth­er was deport­ed to Tre­blin­ka, a camp whose sole pur­pose was exter­mi­na­tion. Hen­ry, his girl­friend Hali­na, and his broth­er were sent to Bliżyn, a labor camp. When the Nazis found the forged doc­u­ments, Hen­ry was arrest­ed, beat­en, and threat­ened with exe­cu­tion. As the Rus­sians advanced, Bliżyn was evac­u­at­ed, and Hen­ry was sent to Auschwitz and even­tu­al­ly to Dachau. 

Dur­ing the last weeks of the war, when the Amer­i­cans start­ed bomb­ing, Hen­ry saw the slow dis­in­te­gra­tion of the Nazi state.” He was lib­er­at­ed by the Amer­i­cans on April, 27, 1945 and made his way to Australia.

As Bernard accom­pa­nies his father to the sites of his father’s child­hood and impris­on­ment, he real­izes that these were not sen­ti­men­tal jour­neys … they were steady descents into silence, mis­ery and pro­found unre­solved grief.” 

When Bernard final­ly pieces togeth­er his family’s his­to­ry in Tomaszów, he begins to under­stand father’s undis­closed shame. In 1941, twen­ty-year-old Hen­ry, at his father’s request, joined the Jüdis­ch­er Ord­nungs­di­enst (the Jew­ish Order Ser­vice), the Jew­ish ghet­to police. They were respon­si­ble for main­tain­ing order in the com­mu­ni­ty and enforc­ing Nazi orders, like impos­ing cur­few and sup­ply­ing and escort­ing one thou­sand labor­ers a day to the Ger­mans. Hav­ing wit­nessed many atroc­i­ties, Hen­ry won­ders whether he was com­plic­it in oppres­sion and tor­ture — or was he in some small way able to ease the bur­dens of even one or two people? 

Now aware of his father’s choic­es dur­ing the war, Bernard real­izes that to the end of the war and beyond, he had to keep on pre­tend­ing he was some­one he was not.”

When Hen­ry final­ly asks his son to share his chill­ing sto­ry, he explains, The Holo­caust taught me that you just do not know how a per­son will react until they face the kind of sit­u­a­tions we faced. Some peo­ple will give you the shirt off their back while oth­ers would steal food from a baby.” 

Because so lit­tle is known about the actions — much less the inner thoughts — of the Jew­ish police in Poland dur­ing the Holo­caust, Tony Bernard’s book is a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to Shoah lit­er­a­ture. Though it is painful to read, it helps us under­stand how and why well-mean­ing peo­ple make ago­niz­ing, often dan­ger­ous choic­es. Sure­ly this pro­vides some guide­posts for us today. 

Elaine Elin­son is coau­thor of the award-win­ning Wher­ev­er There’s a Fight: How Run­away Slaves, Suf­frag­ists, Immi­grants, Strik­ers, and Poets Shaped Civ­il Lib­er­ties in Cal­i­for­nia.

Discussion Questions

The Ghost Tat­too by Tony Bernard is a fas­ci­nat­ing, mov­ing, and high­ly engag­ing mem­oir by a son about his father, who kept secret for many years his most dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ences of the Holocaust.

This book is based on the exten­sive writ­ten and oral tes­ti­mo­ny of Tony’s father, Hen­ry, who sur­vived Auschwitz and oth­er camps and even­tu­al­ly set­tled in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia and became a beloved physi­cian. The sto­ry evolves in the way the author’s under­stand­ing of his father’s expe­ri­ence evolved: slow­ly, with clues here and there. We come to dis­cov­er, as Tony did after many years and sev­er­al vis­its to Poland with his father and uncle, his father’s hid­den truth: that he was a mem­ber of the Jew­ish Order Ser­vice in his Pol­ish home­town — the Jew­ish Police — and, as such, was faced every day with choice­less choic­es. Hen­ry was clear­ly a vic­tim of these cir­cum­stances, but he car­ried guilt over his role for a life­time, affect­ing his mar­riages and children.

This rarely explored aspect of the Holo­caust and its after­math offers read­ers a glimpse into the psy­che of a Jew forced into the role of sub­ju­gat­ing his own neigh­bors. The author also explores the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of such dilem­mas and their painful, life­long effects on both sur­vivor and family.