Title: Just one life
Author: Zygfryd Atlas
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 1999
Location of Book: Makor Jewish Community Library, Melbourne
Cities/town/camps: Poland: Lwow, Zakopane, Ukraine: Kiev, Zytomir, Nikolayev, Romania: Galatz, Tecuci, Bucharest
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative
Zygfryd Atlas's autobiography, Just One Life, is a lengthy work (294 pages) that describes the years of his life from his birth in Poland until his graduation from medical school in Melbourne in 1954. Pages 1-33 of Just One Life describe Atlas's childhood and adolescent years in Lvov, Poland. Pages 34-69 tell of the outbreak of World War II, and the Soviet occupation of Lvov. The German invasion of Lvov, and life in the early days of German occupation are related on pages 70-121. Pages 122-171 describe Atlas's escape to the Ukraine and the period that he spent there. The period of time that Atlas spent disguised as a German officer is narrated on pages 172-224. Finally Atlas's years in Romania, Italy, and Australia after the war are described on pages 225-294. Between pages 136 and 137 there are a series of photos and documents.
Zygfryd Atlas was born 1920 in Lvov, Poland. His family, though Jewish, were culturally quite Polish and were very secular. They spoke Polish in their home and attended synagogue only on High Holidays. Atlas and his siblings also learnt German and French from a very young age, and it was his fluency in languages (as well as his 'Aryan' looks) that helped Atlas to survive the war. As a youth, Atlas did not experience much anti-Semitism from his peers. Rather, when he did experience it, it usually came from his elders, including teachers and sports coaches.
Not long after Atlas finished high school in 1939, World War II began and Lvov came under Soviet occupation. During this period, Atlas managed to avoid the harsh life suffered by some by being appointed to a prominent position as a university instructor. He was able to do this largely because of his sporting abilities. In mid-1941 the Germans invaded Lvov, and able bodied Poles were taken to work for them. Atlas went to work for the Germans as a cleaner at one of their bases, and around the same time, joined the Polish Underground. His position at a German base allowed him to steal weapons and perform acts of sabotage.
In October 1942, the Lvov Ghetto was closed off from the rest of the city. Atlas, with his fluent Polish and German, and 'non-Jewish' appearance, remained outside of the ghetto, disguising himself as a non-Jew, and, later, as a German officer. Atlas's story is intricate and complex; he uses all sorts of manipulations in order to remain alive, unsuspected, and employed. His disguise as a German and his connections with the Underground take Atlas to Kiev, Zotomir and Nikolayev in the Ukraine. Later he returns to Zakopane in Poland, and finally he finds himself in Romania.
At the end of the war Atlas, now playing the part of a Polish refugee, is in Romania when liberation comes, at the hands of the Russians, in late August of 1944. Even after liberation, however, he does not stay out of trouble. Indeed, he finds his false documents under question for the first time when he is arrested under suspicion of being a German deserter! After spending some time in Romania, Altas makes his way to Italy, where he begins his medical studies, and then to Melbourne in August 1946, to be reunited with his sister, Nusia. Always having wanted to study medicine, he finally was able to graduate as a doctor in Australia, in 1954.
Atlas's story is intricate, involved, and detailed. He tells his stories candidly, even when they are decidedly personal in nature. Though the book was published late in his life (1999) his ability to recollect events and people suggest that perhaps he made use of material that he had written at a time closer to the war. His narration is descriptive, including even trivial details that help to bring the events he describes to life. He peppers his writing with political and historical background, in order to provide some context for his own story. Published professionally, Atlas's story is tragic yet fast-paced and, at times, exciting.