BookBrowse Reviews The Fighter by Jean-Jacques Greif

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The Fighter

by Jean-Jacques Greif

The Fighter by Jean-Jacques Greif X
The Fighter by Jean-Jacques Greif
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    Sep 2006, 288 pages

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Based on the memoir of his family friend, Jean-Jacques Greif has taken the facts and turned them into a gripping novel about life and death in Auschwitz. Teens & Adults

From the book jacket: Moshe Wisniak grew up malnourished and fatherless outside Warsaw at a time when Jews and Poles lived in poverty and violence. When Moshe's brothers emigrate to Paris in the 1930s, it means a new life for the whole family, who follow soon after. A decent job, a lovely young wife, and a hobby as an amateur boxer vastly improve Moshe’s prospects until the day he is rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. There he is tortured, starved, and most shockingly, asked to entertain Nazi soldiers by boxing against dying prisoners.

Moshe wants to survive without killing his comrades, but how? Based on the memoir of his family friend, Jean-Jacques Greif has taken the facts and turned them into a gripping novel about life and death in Auschwitz.

Comment:  Jean-Jacques Greif's first novel to be translated into English is a powerful tale of survival of the fittest in one of the most merciless environments ever dreamed up by humanity.  It is based on the life of Maurice Garbarz, a Polish-Jew who was a friend of Greif's father. Greif's father, also a Polish-Jew and camp survivor, died in 1999 at the age of 94 but Maurice was still alive as of May 2006.   Moshe/Maurice tells of a life where guards kill without a thought, merely for the sport of it, squashing prisoners as if they are no better than flies; beating them without mercy just for the fun of it, and pitting them against each other as if they're fighting dogs, while meanwhile working them, quite literally, to death.

Earlier this year, The Boy In The Stripped Pajamas (a story about a German boy who befriends a boy within Auschwitz) got a lot of press attention. The Fighter is an entirely different type of book - it's a tough, raw, graphic read that has more in common with Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel than the somewhat disingenuous The Boy In The Stripped Pajamas (click here for BookBrowse's review of The Boy, which includes background about Auschwitz).

One reviewer takes offence to some of the gruesome details asking "must we know what it was really like to sift through the piles of corpses, and see eyes that have jumped out of their sockets?"  In response to her, I would answer, yes, we must, because to whitewash reality is to hide from it, and we owe it to those who have died, or are dying in similar atrocities today, to at least face up to the realities, even if only in print.

Greif says that he does not write for a particular age group, but The Fighter has proved popular in France (where it was first released) as a book to accompany the study of World War II during the first year of High School.  Apparently, it hits the mark with young people as in 2000, shortly after it was released in France, it won the five main literary prizes given by students that year!

Many of Greif's books are set in times of war, but he says they are not about war per se but about people facing moral dilemmas - which tend to become more cut and dried during times of war.

"If you want to know about the French Revolution, there are many books of history that give you an account. If you want to know how people behaved in these best and worst of times, you can read A Tale of two Cities. The author’s talent is such that you’ll become one of the characters and go through the Revolution yourself. That’s the power of the novel.  So what is added in my book, I hope, is that you’ll go to Auschwitz yourself—as opposed to what happens if you read the definitive book about the Holocaust, Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews."

About Jean-Jacques Greif
French journalist and writer, Jean-Jacques Greif was born in Paris in 1944, six months after his father was deported to a concentration camp.  His parents were both from Eastern Galicia, a province which was then part of Poland but is now located in the Ukraine.  His father emigrated in 1925, his mother in 1938.

As a journalist he has worked for more than thirty years for Marie Claire magazine.  He first published work was a documentary book for children about computers (1986); for much of the following years he wrote how-to books about  the Macintosh computer and its software (at least 20 in French, and 7 in English - he is fluent in both and translated The Fighter himself).  His first novel for teens was published in 1996; about 16 more books, for both teens and adults, have been published since. His subjects include Beethoven; Mozart; Einstein; Joan of Arc; Marilyn Monroe; and various unknown heroes, such as his father and mother, both former members of the French Résistance.  His mother "vanished" for six months into a secret Gestapo jail. His father was denounced and spent about a year in Auschwitz. 

"When I was two or three, I hid under the kitchen table while my father and his friend Pierrot compared Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The last time I saw both of them together, Pierrot in his eighties and my father past ninety, they still compared Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Before I had heard about Snow White and Cinderella, I knew that mothers promised their babies a good shower after three days in the cattle car and that poisoned gas rained down instead of water." - Jean-Jacques Greif.

This review first ran in the December 6, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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