The Street Sweeper

The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman

“Tell everyone what happened here. Tell everyone what happened here.”  This refrain echoes throughout this harrowing novel by Elliot Perlman.  There are many plot threads in this book , but the main one tells the story of the Sonderkommando revolt at Auschwitz/ Birkenau in October 1944.  Auschwitz was the most notorious of the Nazi Death Camps.  The Sonderkommando or Special command units, were Jewish prisoners who were forced to work at the grisly task of burning corpses of those already murdered by the Nazis in the Gas Chambers. 

When the unfortunate Jews are first transported to Auschwitz they are separated into two groups by Nazi Doctors.  The healthy ones go to the right and are put to work until they die.  The unhealthy ones are directed to the left and are immediately sent to the Gas Chambers.

The story is told through two of the main characters.  Lamont Williams is a black ex-convict  hospital intern who befriends Henryk Mandelbrot, a Jewish Holocaust Survivor who tells him of his role in the Sonderkommando Revolt before he dies of cancer at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.  Mr. Mandelbrot has never told anyone about the events of October 1944.

Adam Zignelik is a failing history professor at Columbia University.  He needs a research project for his work but also to help him get over the break-up of his marriage.  He finds such a project in the discarded recordings and writings of Henry Border a polish immigrant Psychologist who discovers a unique way to record people’s experiences.  Border hears of the events surrounding the war against the Jews by the Nazis, and decides to go over to Europe and record the memories of Holocaust survivors who have survived in the Displaced Persons Camps after the war.  It is here that Henry discovers the story of the Revolt which is later corroborated by the statements of Mr Mandelbrot.

Both of these main characters are people living in the present who are touched by the ghosts of the past.  The book recounts the heroic struggle of the Jewish prisoners to fight back against the demonic SS guards, who could kill them and replace them at any time. “This book has some grand themes and deals with memory, love, guilt, heroism, the extremes of racism and unexpected kindness, spans the twentieth century to the present, and spans the globe from New York to Chicago to Auschwitz.” (excerpted from the book jacket)

This is a novel to read with reverence and respect.


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