Many people are called heroes, and for various reasons. Usually we think of a hero as someone who has performed some extraordinary thing, some feat that common people cannot perform. Mendel Balberyszski simply lived his life, as best as he could under the circumstances, and yet he was a hero.
“Stronger than Iron” tells the story of the destruction of the Jewish population of Vilna (Vilnius), capital of modern-day Lithuania, by the Nazi occupiers during World War Two. It is an eyewitness account of the events that occurred to Balberyszski and his family between 22 June, 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, until the liberation in 1945 of the Estonian concentration camp to which the few surviving souls from Vilna were deported to.
Balberyszski’s account is important both from a historical perspective and from a personal one. His detailed account of the setting up of the German administration, the workings of the Judenrat and the conditions of lives of the Jews in the ghettos, provide a historical document of great importance. But more importantly, in my opinion, are the personal feelings that Balberyszski shares with his readers as he tells of life in the two Vilna ghettos and then in the concentration camp. Much has been said about the impossibility for our generation to grasp the enormity of the Holocaust, but I felt that Balberyszski’s account succeeded in conveying some of the horrors that his generation had to witness.
What struck me most about Balberyszski’s account is the prosaic nature, almost banal in its mundaneness, of how he and others have cheated death time and again. He describes the raids of the Nazis and their barbaric Lithuanian collaborators in the ghettos, raids that ended only when a pre-determined number of Jews were rounded up to be taken to their deaths – hundreds and even thousands at a time. He describes the hiding places that Jews found or built in order to survive these raids, sometimes lasting several days. And yet he and other survived by simply being in the right place at the right time, by turning a corner seconds before the killers arrived, or by having the right amount of money or an expensive watch or even a pair of gloves to buy them another day of life.
And throughout this ordeal Jews found ways to help other Jews. Balberyszski recounts simple stories of how people gave him and his family shelter or clothes or some food, even though they were risking their own lives by doing so. He does not shy away from telling us how some Jews were unable to rise above their immediate personal needs, but it is apparent this was the exception rather than the rule.
This is the reason Balberyszski and his fellow Jews are heroes. In the darkest period in the history of humanity, when the Nazis and their collaborators sought to dehumanize an entire people, most Jews stood firm and risked their lives to help others. This book is testimony to such heroes.