Michael Skakun answered our questions about his book: “On Burning Ground”
Michael Skakun, author of “On Burning Ground”
In his book, On Burning Ground, Michael Skakun tells the story of his father, Joseph, a rabbinical student in the village of Navaredok in northern Poland. In 1941, when the German army approached the village, Joseph tried to save his mother from death by hiding her in a basement. After his efforts failed and the Jews were rounded up, Joseph escaped into the forest and fled to Vilna, where he managed to borrow a birth certificate from Stefan Osmanov, an acquaintance who was a Muslim Tatar. Joseph learned the rudiments of Islam, and, since Muslims were also circumcised, he was accepted into the German foreign labor program in Berlin. Michael Skakun answered our questions about his book.
Q. In the book, you write, "Islam seemed threaded with gold and to my Father far more valuable than all the riches of the world." Why was Islam so important to your father’s survival during World War II?
A. The shared rite of circumcision allowed my father, who was a young Polish rabbinical student, to adopt Islam as a life-saving solution at a time when everything conspired to destroy him. In the Bible, Abraham had circumcised both Isaac and Ishmael, a ritual that linked both of his children and their descendants across the gulfs of time and history. As my father became more acquainted with Islam, he became deeply respectful of this religion.
Q. What commonalities between Islam and Judaism did Joseph Skakun draw upon to outlive a war of annihilation?
A. He drew upon the strong belief in ethical monotheism, the purpose-driven life, the central role of prayer and charity, study and explication in ultimate redemption, as well as a persistent emphasis on place and memory that both faith traditions share.
Q. What were the relations between Polish Jews and Polish Muslims in the interwar period and how did they shape the social universe of Joseph Skakun?
A. Polish Tatars and Polish Jews lived for centuries side by side amicably. Commercial relations were frequent and friendly. In the marketplace of Novogrudek, Joseph Skakun's birthplace, Muslims traded with their fellow Jews and even at times spoke Yiddish. Each community honored the uniqueness and specificity of the other's tradition. The young Polish rabbinical student learned to admire the rites of Islam, especially the profound sentiment of respect expressed in burying the dead.
Q. What role did Muslims play in the Polish-Jewish imagination?
A. As a fellow minority faith, they afforded the Jews in interwar Poland a mirror in which to reflect, as well as a prism to refract, the image of their own role in society.
Q. What does this coming-of-age story under the most extreme circumstances tell us about the positive web of ties linking all three Abrahamic faiths?
A. Religion, at its best, makes the mind abundant. It enhances the resiliency of the human spirit and cross-fertilizes cultures. Had not Joseph Skakun been able to weave a cloth of many colors, based on the multi-hued threads of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, he would not have been able to survive.
The bedrock of belief all three faith traditions share provided him with the existential resources to outlive the most terrifying chapter of modern history.