Book Review: Upon the Head of the Goat by Aranka Siegal

About a year ago, I was honored to hear Aranka Siegal speak. She is a Holocaust survivor, and though her family begged her not to go to the speaking engagement (because of her age and the difficulties of travel), she insisted on going. When she found out she would be speaking to an auditorium full of teachers, she thought it was important to spread her message in the hopes that we would share it with today’s youth.

Last year, I read and reviewed a book about her childhood before the German invasion. (You can read the review here.)

The book Upon the Head of the Goat is subtitled, “A Childhood in Hungary, 1939-1944.” It details Aranka’s life (she goes by “Piri” in the books) from a summer living with her grandmother in the countryside to her return to the city. She watches as the Germans and Russians invade, and eventually she is taken to the ghetto to await the train that will take her away.

Without considering the Holocaust: the book provides a good taste of what life used to be like. I admire how resourceful Piri’s mother is, always finding ways of making or stretching food, always concerned for the well-being and cleanliness of her family. Without thinking about the Holocaust, I enjoyed being transported to a different time and place, and it made me think about all the modern conveniences we have—and possibly how they have made us ungrateful, as we take much for granted.

After hearing Ms. Siegal speak, however, I couldn’t get out of my mind all the stories she told us about life in the concentration camp—details that don’t appear in this book (the book ends just as she is taken away). Knowing what she would have to endure after the story in the book ends made reading it more emotional for me. For instance, in the Jewish ghetto, Piri finally finds a boyfriend, and she looks forward to all the rites of passage of being a young woman—things she’d looked forward to watching her older sisters and relatives. But even as she’s recounting these things, she tells us that she knew deep down that she would not experience them.

One sad example repeated in the book and in Ms. Siegal’s talk to us was about the bread dough. Her mother kept a can of bread dough, and each week she would use it to make new dough, but she would always keep a piece of it in the can. She’d use the little bit of dough to start next week’s bread–sort of like friendship bread. It was a chunk of dough she’d inherited from her own mother, and she would give each daughter a chunk of dough when they started families of their own. In such a way, the family would be making the “same” bread for hundreds of years.

But at one point in the story, after everything is taken away, and it’s clear the Jews will be rounded up, Piri’s mother loses hope and cooks all of the bread dough. She realizes that there is no reason to save it: the family will not have a normal life after this point.

And she is right.

This was particularly horrifying for me to process. There should always be hope, but the way the Nazis orchestrated the slow nudge toward the concentration camps made it impossible to keep any. Equally sad is how Piri is unable to find the faith that her grandmother held to—she cannot understand how a benevolent god would allow such atrocities to happen.

One quote struck me particularly. At the point in the story in which Piri and her family are in the Jewish ghetto awaiting the train to take them to the concentration camp, a family friend arrives. He was of privileged status, and it was thought he would not be carted away like the rest of the Jews. Everyone is surprised and shocked when he arrives. When asked whether it was better in another location, the friend answered, “Conditions for the Jews were the same everywhere, and the rest of the people took no interest because of their own fears and their own problems of survival.”

The whole thing reminded me—rightly so—of the novel 1984. The way the people were kept frightened by constant fighting, tired and afraid by constantly-changing “laws” and food rations… it all serves to make people feel powerless and small and—well, not quite human.

At the end of the book, right before the arrival of the trains, a small group of resistance fighters has managed to buy guns from Hungarian peasants. Piri discusses this with them:

“No two people can agree on any one plan. In a way, it is futile to attempt anything. We are such a small handful of men… we would be outnumbered ten to one, and the rest of their battalion is…a phone call away… Whatever plan we finally decide upon, it won’t get us very far.”

“Then why do anything?” I pleaded.

“Because a man just can’t stand by and let his family suffer without making some kind of attempt to protect them.”

Even during that discussion, it doesn’t seem like they truly understand the horrors that await. Piri, Aranka Siegal, has a spark in her. When I heard her speak, she made it clear that people in general are too complacent: they will follow orders that take away their freedoms if the orders are given slowly and gradually enough. While in the Jewish ghetto, she and her friends accept the curfew bell, taking it for granted and obeying it without much thought. It becomes almost automatic. When the trains finally, arrive, Siegal admits, “Watching all those people following so readily the German orders to leave their lives behind, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if we were not so obedient.”

The book is an important read. It’s important to see how persecution of the Jews came slowly. It started off with minor rules and inconveniences, and it was nudged along slowly so that at the end, neighbors of the Jews felt badly, saying they never expected things to go so far. It reminds me about that parable about boiling a frog in water—do it slowly enough, and the frog will sit there until its own death. Even some of the Jews cooperated with the Germans at first—out of hope, perhaps, or fear. But in the end, they faced the same fate as the rest. This was one of the things Ms. Siegal emphasized in her speech to us: if we notice something that doesn’t seem right, we shouldn’t go along with it in an effort to be polite or to keep the peace. If we notice something that doesn’t seem right, we should speak up right away. If more people had done so, perhaps Hitler would have been kept in check. She was adamant about our need to constantly check our rights and make sure they were not being impeded.

It’s important that we read all kinds of history to see how things happen—how dictators rise to power, how prejudice gets started, how hatred catches fire. Perhaps if we read and learn enough, and think about it rationally enough, we will be strong enough to prevent the next great human tragedy.

I hope that I never live to see a time when humanity completely loses hope. In literature and film, we’ve interwoven the idea of hope despite all obstacles. Tom Joad and Casey in The Grapes of Wrath strive to improve humanity with all they have. But Orwell, living through World War II, saw it differently, and in 1984 he painted a grim picture of a future without hope because it was taken away in a slow, methodical progression.

I pray we never come to that.