THE NEW YORK TIMES, SUNDAY, AUGUST 4, 2002
Birth of a Writer
Bernard Otterman did not write a Holocaust memoir. After all, he was only 2 1/2 when World War II broke out. He was 8 when he was liberated with his mother, Dina, in January 1945 by Russian troops near the Radom concentration camp in Poland. He was too young to have been responsible, he said, for his own survival.
Mr. Otterman, 65, of Old Westbury, was the only child survivor of that Nazi labor camp. ''I survived because of the courage and foresight and work of my parents,'' Mr. Otterman said ''To that extent I am like a second-generation person, here because they survived. I'm in that funny group of survivor and also second-generation child.''
To explore the meaning of the Holocaust, Mr. Otterman turned to creative writing. His first collection of short stories, ''Golem of Auschwitz: Stories'' (Slovo-Word Publishing House, New York, 2001), weave compelling tales that contain glimmers from his own experience. The stories are set in the correct historical context, but the characters are imaginary. And to also reach a Russian audience, the book was published in Russian on one side of the page, English on the other. Though Mr. Otterman once spoke Polish, he does not read Russian.
''Holocaust and fiction, it's not really a proper genre,'' Mr. Otterman said. ''Like me, most of the stories are really tangentially involved in the Holocaust.''
Mr. Otterman emigrated from Germany in 1951 and earned a Ph.d. in engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He was the chairman of the department of engineering and computer science at Hofstra University until 1979, then joined his parents' real estate business. Nearly a decade ago, he began writing.
''I wrote poetry for the first five or six years,'' he said. ''Poetry is harder to write, but it is less of a commitment of your time.'' But when the phrase ''black grass'' popped into his mind, he was unable to turn the feelings it generated into a poem and wrote a short story instead. ''Black Grass,'' an allegory, is the last story in the book. It won first prize in a competition at Clark College in Washington State and spurred Mr. Otterman to continue with fiction. In 1999, another of his stories, ''Kaddish,'' won first prize in a Nassau Community College short story contest.
While his fiction is pungent yet unsettling, his own experiences are inherently compelling. He escaped the Lodz ghetto with his parents, was captured and interned. He was left to his own devices while his parents worked in a weapons factory. While the Germans were dismantling the Radom camp in June 1944, they held a ''final selection,'' Mr. Otterman recalled. Men were put on one side; women and children on the other and marched to a train bound for Auschwitz.
When a Nazi guard turned his head, Mr. Otterman and his mother ducked behind a bush. ''It was very iffy,'' Mr. Otterman recalled. ''The actual success of the escape, you would have to call it a miracle. It wasn't a planned thing.'' His father, David, boarded the train. He was later liberated from a satellite camp near Dachau.
Mr. Otterman said the experience of writing about the Holocaust made him feel sad. He is at peace with his own experiences. But he wants to ensure that the Holocaust not be forgotten.
''I write about it because I want to know, if I had been an adult during those periods of time, how would I have managed?'' he said. ''How would I have done things? By writing about it, I sort of placed myself back in time, not as a child, but as an adult and see how I would have done.''