“I am so weary that my pen can no longer write,” Andre Schwarz-Bart exclaims at the most harrowing moment of “The Last of the Just,” the essential novel of the Holocaust. “Yes, at times one’s heart could break in sorrow. . . .”
Schwarz-Bart’s words came to mind as I read “Stella” by Peter Wyden, a book about one remarkable woman whose shocking story of survival was nearly lost in the vast horror of the Holocaust. Over and over again, the moral horror story that Wyden tells prompted me to put the book aside, and even now I find myself struggling to put these words on paper.
Stella Goldschlag was a greifer --literally, a “catcher"--who managed to survive the Holocaust within the very heart of the Third Reich by searching out and betraying her fellow Jews. Armed with a revolver issued by the Gestapo, and making good use of her “Aryan” beauty and her sexual guile, Stella saved her own life by sending others to the gas chambers.
Peter Wyden, a schoolmate of Stella’s when both were growing up in Berlin during the 1930s, knows that we will be tempted to regard the woman known by her victims as “the blonde poison” with revulsion. But the author, who is still smitten with Stella, refuses to allow us to comfort ourselves with such an easy moral judgment. Rather, he insists on exploring why Stella chose betrayal as a means of survival.
Wyden concedes that Stella was a vain woman, all too concerned with her beauty and sexual allure, and contemptuous of her fellow Jews. “They hated me like the plague,” says Stella, “because I was blond and pretty.” Even as a teen-ager, when she read the racier passages of “All Quiet on the Western Front” to her friends, she was regarded as something exotic but dangerous.
“We were all Eves,” one classmate told Wyden, “and she was the serpent.”
Stranded in the Third Reich, doomed to deportation and death, Stella agreed to serve her Nazi captors in exchange for her life. But Wyden works hard to persuade us to regard Stella as a victim, not a villain. As Wyden points out, she was hardly the only Jew to collaborate with the Nazis in tending the machinery of genocide. And he insists that Jews like Stella were abandoned to their fate because of the cowardice and hypocrisy of the Western democracies.
“If Franklin Roosevelt and his Administration had been more merciful about the visa quota,” Wyden allows, referring to Stella’s ambitions to become a jazz singer, “Stella might have sung Cole Porter for Benny Goodman instead of hunting Jews for (the Gestapo).”
No matter how hard he tries, though, Wyden cannot acquit Stella of her worst crimes. She haunted the streets and boulevards of wartime Berlin in search of the secret Jews--"U-boats,” as they called themselves--who tried to save themselves from deportation by blending into the “Aryan” population. When she flushed her quarry, a pointed finger was enough to condemn them to death. She would even show up at the cemetery for the burial of the “Aryan” spouse in a mixed marriage.
“When such Gentiles died, their Jewish partners would automatically lose immunity from deportation,” Wyden explains. “She made arrests at the cemetery or followed her prey to nab them on the way home.”
“Stella” distinguishes itself as a work of historical scholarship: Wyden’s account of the Gestapo’s secret unit of “catchers"--code-named “Jewish Scouting Service"--is a previously untold chapter of the Holocaust. At the same time, Wyden manages to capture the sweep of the Holocaust in all of its horrifying and heartbreaking detail. From Kristallnacht to the Wannsee Conference to the crematoria of Auschwitz, there is hardly a note of sorrow that Wyden does not sound or a scene of terror that he does not paint in telling Stella’s grotesque story.
But “Stella” is also a kind of love story, and Wyden’s book is excruciating to read precisely because it is so blunt and yet so penetrating. Wyden tracks “the blonde ghost” through the blind alleys of history and memory and nightmare, and he finally catches up with Stella in the West Germany town where she still lives. Suddenly, we are face-to-face with the beguiling woman, and Wyden forces us to ask ourselves what we really see: Eve or Lillith, the betrayed or the betrayer, the victim or the villain?
And, no matter what we see, the heart breaks in sorrow.