cover image The Cap: The Price of a Life

The Cap: The Price of a Life

Roman Frister. Grove Press, $25 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1659-8

Staggering in its honesty, Frister's memoir of his life in Poland as it was shaped by WWII has been deservedly praised in the international press. The book, ably translated from Hebrew, sparked controversy in Israel for its bleak assessment of the moral ambiguity of some Jews' responses to the oppression of the Holocaust. Frister's shocking opening image evokes how the camps dehumanized the prisoners: ""no one thought of tomorrow. We lived by the minute, the secret of our modest happiness being the ability to plod like cattle around our pen, oblivious of the slaughterhouse."" The author, a prominent journalist who emigrated to Israel in 1957 when in his late 20s, jarringly plunges into what he views as the war's complete moral vacuum. In his experience, captor and captive alike were stripped of their humanity by the constant presence of death. Survival was the only imperative, and countless passages of his book are so shocking they are nearly beyond belief. At the Plaszow concentration camp, he looks on as notorious Gestapo officer Wilhelm Kunde crushes Frister's mother's skull with a pistol butt. Watching his louse-ridden father die at a work camp infirmary, he can only long hungrily for the half-loaf of bread hidden under the man's straw mattress. The precise depiction and abundance of detail yield a taut and compulsively readable narrative that makes fresh again horrors that have become familiar. In the end, Frister's courage to plumb the ambiguity of his actions--which include coldly trading another prisoner's life for his own and, many years later, abandoning several of his children--leaves the reader awestruck. (Feb.)