Blacklisted since 1962, Maltz’s ‘A Tale of One January’ finally published in U.S.
Women in the barracks of the newly liberated Auschwitz concentration camp, January 1945. Still photograph from the Soviet film of the liberation of Auschwitz, taken by the film unit of the First Ukrainian Front. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park (Public Domain).

In Albert Maltz’s newly republished novel about certain events that took place in January 1945, six escapees from Auschwitz—two women and four men, each from a different background and country—struggle to find and redefine themselves in their euphoria at being free, even as transient German and Soviet troops are still moving about the vicinity of the abandoned factory in which they are hidden.

The release of joy, the rediscovery of breathing free, can only be compared to the profound spirituality of the “Prisoners’ Chorus” from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio.

At the same time, A Tale of One January is an important entry into the historiography of World War II and the contest over its most defining character. Nowadays, in many circles, the whole era is frequently subsumed under the rubric of “the Holocaust.” It’s a label that both expands and contracts the essence of the period. More on this below.

In an interview with scholar Patrick Chura, an Albert Maltz specialist, Chura says of A Tale of One January, “Yes, such an immensely interesting novel, a unique collaboration between a Jewish-American writer and a Holocaust survivor. It is Maltz’s final novel and maybe his most unfairly treated work of fiction…. Though Maltz [1908-1985] was a gifted artist who proved himself in multiple genres, he always said that the writing of novels was his highest priority. This was the art he wanted to be remembered for, his most passionate self-expression.

A sketch of Albert Maltz.

“…the real events that inspired the story have gone largely undocumented, but they are as important as the novel itself. In 1960, while Maltz was living in Mexico City to distance himself from FBI harassment, he met Dounia Wasserstrom, a Ukrainian Jew born in Zhytomyr. She had been a political prisoner in Auschwitz, where she worked as an interpreter for the S.S. In January of 1945, when the Russian armies were approaching Auschwitz, the prisoners remaining there were marched out under guard for an unknown destination. During the first day of the march Dounia and a close friend of hers escaped.

“In Mexico, Wasserstrom came to know Maltz and trusted him well enough to share with him, in several interviews, a detailed account of her Holocaust ordeal. The notes from these interviews form the basis of A Tale of One January. And while Maltz accurately related an important Holocaust testimony, he also altered certain facts, transforming the story of ‘Dounia’s Escape’ into literary art.”

Maltz completed A Tale of One January in 1962, but the blacklist was still in effect and no American publisher would touch it. Eventually, Calder and Boyars published it in the UK in 1967, and it was never available in the U.S. until now.

Others of Maltz’s fictional works will also be republished shortly: A Long Day in a Short Life, set in a Washington, D.C., jail, addresses institutional racism in the American justice system. Two more of his works, The Cross and the Arrow and The Journey of Simon McKeever, will also appear, and Prof. Chura will again write the introductions to those.

The six individuals, including herself, whose experiences Dounia Wasserstrom recounted to Maltz have been given new names in the novel. The men include Norbert, a German; Jurek, a Pole; Otto, an Austrian; and Andrey, a Soviet Russian. All had been interned at Auschwitz for different political reasons and for various lengths of time. None are Jewish.

The two women are Lini, a Dutch Jew; and Claire, a blonde French anti-fascist fluent in several languages who had served as a clerk in an Auschwitz office. The most fragile of them all, she is the one whose physical survival is most in question. Claire is modeled on Maltz’s interview subject, Dounia Wasserstrom, whom Maltz converted from a dark-haired Jew from Ukraine into a Gentile cosmopolitan, blue-eyed Frenchwoman.

In his Introduction to A Tale of One January, Chura recalls how in his 1944 novel The Cross and the Arrow, Maltz portrayed a whole cast of characters enduring the effects of Nazism without including a single Jew, defying “representational expectations to assert overarching messages about what makes us human.”

Scholars of Soviet and Eastern European history will recall the many instances when, in the interest of proletarian, patriotic internationalism, victims of Nazi crimes had so often been memorialized as “Soviet citizens,” even where, in cases such as the infamous massacre at Babi Yar, outside of Kiev, the thousands of human beings tossed into trenches were almost all Jews. Was Soviet socialism so incapable of recognizing the special animus Nazism held against the Jewish people to ignore the specificity of its targeting? Did the Soviet attempt to eradicate the pernicious influence of religion also serve to erase the cultural, historical memory of a whole ethnic group? Was this simply the old Russian anti-semitism in its new Soviet dress?

Yet, the Soviets might self-assuredly answer, what nation on Earth did more in World War II to rescue Jews, and suffer more for it, than the USSR? Who thanks them for that?

The emergence of Holocaust consciousness is often traced in large part to the victory of Israeli forces over Arab nations in the 1967 war. Do you see? Israel and its supporters around the world seemed to be saying. No one ever came to our rescue when we lost six million, a third of our population, in the Holocaust, so our militant nationalism must become the new defining character of the only Jewish state in the world.

That perspective, however, relies on the standard formulation that in the first couple of decades following the war, Jewish survivors were encouraged to get on with their lives, put the past behind them, marry (or remarry), have children, and embrace their new identities in their new homes. Lini, for example, “wants to bring up her child so he won’t know she was in a camp. The word Auschwitz will never be spoken in her home—she even intends to have the tattoo removed from her arm.”

That paradigm, however, does not take account of the many memoirs survivors wrote about their experiences, a lot of them in Yiddish and many still untranslated, in the hope of preserving a record of the fascist atrocity. Nor does it reference the hundreds of “memory books” published in the post-war years, documents about cities, towns, communities, and shtetls that simply no longer existed on the map, with biographies, genealogies, photos of homes, town squares, and markets, sketches from memory. These were desperate attempts at recovering a permanent record of the crimes of fascism before it got lost, not so much a rebuke over how much the world hated the Jews.

As Claire asks, “How will the world ever know? How will those who never saw Auschwitz believe it happened?” And later, “For the rest of my life, I’ll talk about Auschwitz and Fascism. I’ll talk on street corners if I’m able. I’ll write articles and send them to newspapers. What did we suffer for to let people forget it?”

And the German Norbert—anticipating a new socialist Germany perhaps (that by the time Maltz was writing, had already, in the form of the German Democratic Republic been in existence since 1949)—chimes in: “Good for you! That’s my idea, too! To clean my country! To clean its heart, its mind, of Nazi dirt.”

For those on the left, and for those in the Soviet orbit who preferred their “nationalism in form, socialism in content,” the newly militaristic, defensive (and if we are honest, offensive) thinking seemed to feature nation (or ethnicity or religion) over class. In a multi-national country such as the USSR, with its 15 different republics, an out-of-control turn away from proletarian solidarity toward ethnic particularity, religious obscurantism, reemerging class and gender structures that socialism tried to suppress, could be existentially dangerous.

As an internationalist (whatever his position vis-à-vis the Communist movement might have been by the 1960s), Maltz was caught in this dilemma. From today’s perspective, he could be accused of deracinating Dounia and her story, appropriating her life for his own novelistic purposes, “canceling” her Jewishness. He pointedly underscores the Nazi policy to “kill Poles with education,” as Jurek expresses it, followed shortly by the Russian Andrey saying, “It was the plan for all Slavs. For my country, too.”

This contested terrain, between the universal and the particular, is among the oldest struggles in Jewish thought—and really for just about any people: What is the proper balance between what gives life meaning as a Jew (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc.), and as a human being? It’s a major reason why the founders of the American republic, as early as the 1770s, resolutely determined to keep church and state separate.

From Maltz’s point of view, the epic battle against fascism was not just a Jewish story, and not even primarily a Jewish one if the total numbers of the dead are counted (over 25 million in the USSR alone, for example). Perhaps he feared that if someday the tide might turn, and anti-Semitism reared up again in new forms, an ignorant public might once again blame the Jews and their friends for the ills of the world, and conclude that the Nazis were not so bad after all. His mission was to offer posterity as much clarity as he could about the far-reaching nature of repressive regimes and how to fight them, not to feature Jewish suffering.

Which doesn’t finally resolve the question of identifying the overwhelming majority of the dead at Babi Yar as Jews. But the “whatabouts” will surely turn their questioning eyes upon the accusers themselves: OK, what about the Palestinians? What about the Indigenous peoples of the world? The Roma? The slave trade?

The only unifying understanding of the world is finally, one might conclude, a non-particularistic humanism that encompasses all of this collective tragedy. Perhaps we need to reread the International Declaration of Human Rights and maybe give it a fresh tweak.

Meanwhile, back at the novel…

Though he liked to think of his fiction as the main work he’d want to be remembered for, the fact is that Maltz had rich, valuable experience as a film script writer. And the novel shows it.

Cover of the original British edition

A reader has no trouble picturing in their mind’s eye exactly how each scene he writes would appear on the big screen. The almost hour-by-hour progression of the narrative over the course of a week or ten days passes across the reader’s eyes like a period black-and-white film.

The camera focuses on each character as an individual: Where did they come from, how did they get caught up in the fascist maelstrom, what partners and children did they leave behind, how long had they been at Auschwitz, how did they manage to survive?

And then, little by little, they start interacting, their smallest gestures expressing trust, caring, solidarity, feeling. And lo and behold, starved for meaningful human touch and contact, even some long-suppressed desires for physical intimacy emerge: Andrey and Claire, Lini and Norbert, Jurek and Zosia (the nearby farmer’s daughter). Only Otto feels left out.

Maltz also appreciates the human soul stressed at times like these to their breaking point. “What was it about the human heart that made it need hope as the body needed water?”

And then, as liberation looms on the horizon, Claire thinks, “Just to be alive, that’s what it is. To be alive and free and on your way home.”

Maltz relates a moving story, each incident and each character a telling detail in an overall portrait of a world gone mad and slowly trying to heal. His method is Socialist Realism and he is one of America’s masters at the game.

And now, who will make the film Maltz no doubt always envisioned?

Ordering information can be found here. The new British edition (yes, with its UK spellings) is distributed in the U.S. by Bloomsbury.

Albert Maltz’s 1946 article in The New Masses about “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” is read aloud here.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.