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Saving the Fragments

by Isabella Leitner

Introduction by Howard Fast

Both Isabella Leitner and I have spent all of our lives in the twentieth century. Since I am somewhat older than Mrs. Leitner, my life touches World War I, and it can be said that in all the history of the planet Earth, there has been no period so mindlessly cruel as this twentieth century, so devastating in its disregard for human life and for every symbol of morality that man has painfully acquired through the ages. World Wars I and II took more lives than all the wars preceding them in four thousand years of recorded history. Such acts as the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the avalanche of death loosed in Vietnam, were matched by lesser but no less monstrous acts – for example, the hundred thousand or more put to death by Idi Amin, the forty thousand victims of the death squads in El Salvador, over a million men, women, and children cut down by the lunatic death squads of Indonesia, the endless murders of both body and soul in South Africa – and currently the murderous religious mania of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

One could go on and on, filling page after page with the infamies indulged in by our so-called modern civilization; nor could one contend that such practices of the twentieth century are confined to the more backward nations of the earth. Hardly the case: the West has indeed taught the more backward nations this manner of "civilization." Most of the showy technical achievements of this century rest on a solid basis of death, and a new generation is currently being taught by TV screens and computers that mercy and compassion are as antiquated as the horse and buggy, and that even the extinction of the human race is permissible.

Where, then, against this depressing background, does an Isabella Leitner fit in? To me, her very existence is an affirmation of life, a song of hope, a clear bright flame that defies the murderers of mankind. She is the antithesis of all the hatred and destruction that we have lived through.

Above all, Mrs. Leitner is an innocent. And what exactly is an innocent? Above all and quite naturally, an innocent is one untouched by guilt. An innocent is one uncorrupted by malice, evil, or hatred, one who is without guile and who seeks to harm no other. A young girl, most fittingly described by the above definition, was taken from her home by a brutal aggressor, thrust into a concentration camp under the power of the unspeakable Dr. Mengele, exposed to horrors that words cannot describe, tortured, used, and starved. She was fortunate enough to survive.

But the fact that Isabella Leitner survived is the lesser part of her personal miracle; the greater part is that she survived – not as a destroyed soul, not as a person utterly crushed by suffering, but as a wonderful, open woman whose delight in life is so pure and enchanting that it becomes a song of victory over the mindless, the hate-filled, and the destroyers.

There have been many other books about the Holocaust, books that attempted to put into words the unthinkable, to define, explain, or bear witness to a crime unequaled in all the history of the human race. This is as it should be. As long as mankind exists, the Holocaust must be remembered, and every attempt to define it and recall it should be cherished, no matter how painful.

But in this litany, Mrs. Leitner has created something unique, the memory of an innocent who, among all that is awful, managed to find, wherever she turned, acts of love. So is mankind redeemed. So am I deeply in debt to Mrs. Leitner, for without these acts of love, hope would be impossible.

This little book is a fragment – as memories are fragments. Isabella Leitner does not attempt to analyze, to explain, to create historical patterns. She cannot; she was a young girl, beloved and innocent, and all she sees and remembers is recalled through the eyes of a young girl.

But the innocence is not without a knife-like edge of wisdom. To be innocent and foolish would prove nothing and teach nothing. To be innocent and naive would negate the validity of responses, but to be cynical would destroy innocence. When, after her hideous experience, Isabella's father asks her to pray to God, she rejects this. She has found in man something truer than the myth of a personal god who savors the smell of burning flesh for reasons beyond our understanding. If there is a God for Isabella, it is something far beyond her father's understanding, something defined only by love and compassion and tied entirely into the lives of men and women who are not Nazis. This is her wisdom. You do not define or judge the human race by the Nazis. People remain people, and there is something lovely and tender in her comprehension of people and their needs.

The liberating Russian soldiers are people. They have acts of kindness and compassion, yet so long without women, they are ready to grab anyone in a skirt, child or adult – and in the next breath Isabella remembers the wonderful Russian woman on the train, her great bubbling pot of food, and her need to feed anyone who is hungry. She loves all who love. This is her path back into the arms of the human race, and the medley of people of all races who fought and were victimized by the Nazis yet survived fills her with endless delight. Only the Nazi is separate in her mind. For him, there is neither pity nor any shred of tolerance; he must be remembered for all time as the face of evil.

So go with Isabella on this fragmented, life-giving journey of hers, from the time the Russians liberated her and her companions to her arrival in a new world. Even as it took her from the horrors of the crematorium into freedom, it will take you, the reader, into a new place of compassion. These fragments are a preachment, a sermon on the wonder and goodness and value of life. All is possible if men and women deal in trust and love. With hatred and suspicion, all will perish. This is the essence and teaching of Isabella's fragments of memory.