Posts Tagged ‘holocaust remembrance week’

Marta could see her reflection in the parlour window.  Her hair was dark and curly; she had a dimple in the middle of her left cheek that seemed to drive her innocence home.  Pavel got up from his chair, and he stood next to her for a moment, looking down at the town square.  There was a woman trying to cram an enormous valise into the boot of a Tatra, and several more detachments of Czech soldiers.  A young girl cried openly as she watched a uniformed back retreat across the square.  Her man going off to fight.  She held a single rose in her hand, the petals pointed toward the ground like a magic wand that had lost its power.  And Marta felt suddenly the same helpless dread.  The fog inside her lifted and the old familiar feeling came back.  Things were about to happen, she knew.  Things she would be powerless to stop.

(from Far to Go, page 13 in the ARC)

As I turned the last page and brushed away a few tears, I realized how deeply affected I was by Alison Pick’s newest novel, Far to Go.  I was hooked from the first page, and I found it hard to pull myself away from it for all those necessary tasks — work, housekeeping, and even sleep.  Far to Go is one of those novels that you read holding your breath; you know the bottom is going to fall out from under you at some point, but you just can’t stop reading.

In Far to Go, Pick tells the story of a Jewish family and their Gentile governess, Marta,  just before the outbreak of World War II from Marta’s point of view.  After the annexation of Austria, Hitler sets his sights on Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, where Marta lives with Paval and Anneliese Bauer and their son, Pepik.  Marta doesn’t have a family, and despite being a servant, she loves Pepik as if he was her own, and she feels like part of the Bauer family.  Paval tells Marta his concerns about the Nazis taking his country, and Marta carries Anneliese’s darkest secret — and the two women are bound together, given that Anneliese suspects Marta is having an affair with Ernst, the Sudeten German who manages Paval’s factory.

When the Nazis take the Sudetenland and things for the Jews begin to change for the worse, Ernst tells Marta that she has to take sides, and even though she does things she later regrets that change the course of a family’s history, Marta’s loyalty remains with the Bauers — the only real family she has ever known.  Through Marta’s eyes, we see the Bauers relocate to Prague, and after the Nazi occupation of the city, scramble to escape the country.  We feel her desire to be loved and accepted as part of the family, her fears of abandonment, her guilt, and her confusion about the swiftly changing world under Hitler.

Along with the narrative from Marta’s point of view, Pick includes letters from the Bauers and others that reveal pieces of their story and a present-day narrative from the point of view of a narrator whose identity is revealed toward the end and sheds new light on the events that occurred in 1938-39 and the fate of the main characters.  Through this narrator, Pick also tells the story of the Kindertransport, in which families in England, Scotland, and elsewhere took in Jewish children to protect them from the evils being perpetrated in their native countries.

Pick’s writing is tight, beautifully conveying emotion in few words.  I became so involved in the lives of her characters, and as I watched their world fall apart, I felt a deep sadness in my chest.  It’s amazing how writing can hit you so hard, but even though Far to Go is fiction, I kept thinking about all the Jewish families who actually lived through what the Bauers and Marta experienced — people losing their family businesses, being forced to choose whether to keep their children close or send them away, not knowing who to trust.

Far to Go is a powerful novel about a painful part of our world’s history.  It’s about loyalty and family, love and loss, betrayal and guilt.  It’s about how a single action can change everything.  Most importantly, it’s about remembering and makes you wonder how many survivors of the Holocaust — especially children — had to piece together the story of their families and even their own existence before the war from letters and scant memories.  Pick’s novel is one that will stay with me for a long time and definitely will make my “best of” list for 2011.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to participate in the blog tour for Far to Go. To follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Far to Go from HarperCollins for review purposes. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I have learned so much about history since I started reading, and those who have been following my blog know that I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction about WWII and the Holocaust.  In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Week and the week-long event being hosted by The Introverted Reader, I thought I’d highlight the most moving and powerful books I’ve read about the Holocaust.

Reading about the horrors of the Holocaust is difficult for all readers and might be too much for some to bear, but I continually find myself fascinated and moved (often to tears) by the survivors’ testimonies.  How these people endured so much and managed to live through all the loss and the physical and emotional trauma I do not know, but I think it’s important that their stories are remembered — especially as time passes and these events move farther into the past.  Even fictional books about the Holocaust can prompt people to do some research and learn more about what really happened.  It is heartbreaking to think that there are still places in the world where groups of people are persecuted for their religious beliefs or any number of other things, and it still boggles my mind that tragedies like the Holocaust and other instances of genocide occurred in the first place.  I don’t think we’ll ever truly understand how it came to be that millions of people were killed at the hands of a bunch of madmen, but it is important that we don’t forget those who lost their lives, those who lost their entire families, and those who managed to survive against the odds.

In no particular order, here are some of the best books I’ve read about the Holocaust, with excerpts from my reviews.

Night by Elie Wiesel

Wiesel’s words are so simple, yet so powerful and heartbreaking.  He goes on to describe the struggles he and his father endured every day for months and months at the hands of the Nazis — how they marched in the snow with barely any clothes or shoes, how they watched a son kill his father over a crust of bread, how he watched his half-dead father be beaten by an SS officer.

Wiesel’s recollections of his experiences during the Holocaust are vivid and haunting.  His words are heavy with darkness, desolation, and the loss of faith in the midst of evil.  Night is a book that stays with you long after you turn the last page with a heavy heart.  If you only read one Holocaust memoir in your lifetime, let it be this one.

Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust by Allan Zullo and Mara Bovsun

Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust is a heavy book, one that stays with you for days after finishing it.  My heart broke for these children, for their lost families, their lost innocence.  It’s probably best to read one story here and there, rather than read them all at once like I did.  I applaud Zullo and Bovsun for presenting the facts to young readers (ages 9-12) without sugar-coating them.  They don’t provide a graphic account of events, but they don’t hesitate to say, for instance, that a Jew was shot and killed by the Nazis for something as senseless as not being able to quickly produce the pass that will allow him out of the ghetto to work.

Despite the honest, heart-wrenching account of the horrors these children witnessed in concentration camps, in hiding, or on the run with the resistance, Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust is hopeful.  They are survivors, after all, and Zullo and Bovsun emphasize that they had the strength and smarts necessary to stay alive in the most horrendous conditions imaginable.

Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie with Rita Lurie

The book is broken into three parts, with the first part told by Rita Lurie and covering the years 1937 to 1960.  Rita details the two years (1942-1944) that she and her family spent in the attic of a farmhouse in Poland hiding from the Nazis.  She was just five years old when her family went into hiding, and there were about a dozen people in the cramped attic — her parents, her older sister, her younger brother, her aunt, numerous uncles, and a few cousins.  It’s hard to explain how much this part of the book affected me.  Can you imagine being 5 years old and not allowed to talk, other than an occasional whisper?  Can you imagine not being allowed to go outside and play or never seeing the outside world (except through a crack in the wall) for two whole years?  Can you imagine surviving only on tiny scraps of food, watching first your brother and then your mother die, and eventually emerging from the attic unable to walk but being forced to move through a field with soldiers fighting on either side of you?  No, I bet you can’t, but I’m sure you can imagine the many tears I cried while reading Rita’s story.  She brings you into the attic with them, and you can feel the tension, the fear, the hunger, and the pain.

The Year of Goodbyes by Debbie Levy

After Jutta’s poesiealbum ends, Levy lets readers know what happened to her mother when she came to America, offers some family photos, and explains how an article she wrote for the Washington Post eventually led to a reunion with a handful of her former classmates.  While Jutta’s family was fortunate to have left Europe before the war started, many of the girls and relatives whose words and artwork grace the pages of the poesiealbum were not so lucky.  From the records of Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Levy learned the fate of some of the young girls and includes this information at the end.  Although the book is just over 100 pages long and written almost entirely in verse, it packs a punch.  These girls in 1938 were about the same age as my daughter is now, but their carefree childhoods — and in many instances, their lives — ended so abruptly at the hands of madmen.  Pondering this brought tears to my eyes.

Heidegger’s Glasses by Thaisa Frank

Fast forward about 25 years to a mine converted into the Compound of Scribes, complete with a cobblestone street and a simulated sky that changes from light to dark and back again with each passing day.  Adolph Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and other Nazis had a fascination with the occult, consulted astrologers and the astral plane, and used this knowledge in their war strategies.  To conceal all knowledge of the Final Solution, the Jews who were taken to concentration camps were forced to write letters to their loved ones to say they were okay and request that they join them.  By the time the letters reached their destination, the sender was most likely dead, and the recipients may have been relocated or killed as well.  The Compound of Scribes was part of a secret operation to answer the letters written to those whose lives ended in the concentration camps.  The scribes were Jews pulled out of deportation lines or saved from the gas chambers by their ability to speak various languages, as each letter was to be answered in the language in which it was written in order to appease the dead.

Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel

Quotes from the twins are inserted into a biography of Mengele, showing parallels as well as distinct differences in the lives of the twins and the life of the Nazi doctor. Mengele lived a privileged life, and he was well known and well liked in the town of Günzburg. The twins also had happy lives with their families before the war, but when the war ended, the twins were forced to pick up the pieces of their broken lives without their parents, children, or other relatives and sometimes without their twin siblings. Not only did they lose their loved ones at the hands of the Nazis, but they also were left with horrible memories of the experiments they endured.

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

When Hannah opens the door as part of the Passover ritual to symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she opens the door to the past.  In fact, she travels back in time to a Polish village in 1942, where she is a young girl named Chaya living with her aunt and uncle.  On the way to her uncle’s wedding, Chaya and a group of villagers are rounded up by the Nazis and told that they will be relocated.  Hannah realizes that she has been somehow transported to the past, and she remembers all that she’d been told about the Holocaust.  Despite her attempts to warn everyone, which just causes them to either look at her like she’s crazy or panic or both, Hannah/Chaya and the others are taken to a concentration camp and put to work.

The Devil’s Arithmetic is a beautifully written, heartbreaking novel for middle grade readers that emphasizes the importance of remembering.  It is obvious that Yolen performed extensive research to write about the inner workings of a concentration camp, and the book is packed with so many interesting details and compelling characters that despite the heavy content, it was difficult to put down.  Told from the point of view of Hannah, readers see the horrors of the camps from the eyes of a child and more importantly, the eyes of a child who knows the outcome of World War II and the fate of millions of Jews and lacks the power to change the course of history.

10 Days: Anne Frank by David Colbert

In telling the Franks’ story, Colbert focuses on what they might have been feeling. For instance, Otto is shown contemplating his decision not to send his daughters, Anne and Margot, to live with a cousin in England when he had the chance. Colbert also details the laws imposed by the Nazis to prevent the Jews from living normal lives. They weren’t allowed to own bikes or ride in cars, and they couldn’t go to the movies or stay out past dark. They were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothing to identify themselves as Jews, and to add insult to injury, they had to pay “four cents and one clothes ration coupon” (page 25) for each star.

Anne and her family were in hiding when she wrote in her diary on July 15, 1944, “…in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” This quote stuck out to me, showed a bit of hope in a bleak situation. However, it was written before she experienced the horrors of the concentration camps, and I wonder what her post-war diaries would have said had she survived.

What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany by Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband

This is not the kind of book that you can read in one sitting — and not just because of the chapters where the survey data is analyzed in great details.  Even when the interviewees are giving just the facts about their experiences, whether Holocaust survivor or a non-Jew traumatized by witnessing the massacre of thousands of Jews, it is hard to understand that something like that actually happened and heartbreaking to imagine yourself in their shoes.  Johnson and Reuband include a variety of experiences to show how living in different cities or having the support of German neighbors, friends, or co-workers led to different outcomes.  What We Knew aims to show both sides of the story by including the experiences of Germans during the war and by focusing on “ordinary” Germans, not those considered “hard-core Nazis.”

A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy by Thomas Buergenthal

Buergenthal experienced so much pain and loss and witnessed many horrors and murders when he was just a child, not much older than my daughter is now. It broke my heart to read his stories of the ghetto (including memories of a German man who would walk the streets of the ghetto and shoot random residents in the back of the head), the concentration camps, and the death transport. He was hungry and tired and always needing to stay alert to avoid the gas chambers, and no matter how much he attributes his survival to luck, a lot of it had to do with perseverance, inner strength, and the desire to live. The fact that he was so young when the war began means he didn’t have a normal childhood and knew nothing but hardships, which is sad yet contributed to his survival as well. There was a passage in the book where he mentions that his mother lost the best years of her life to the camps, yet because he was so young, he was able to begin a new life after the war. Another passage that struck me was his determination to break the cycle of hatred, noting that living in Germany after the war helped him to not hate all Germans because of what the Nazis did — but friends who settled in other countries after the war were not able to overcome their hatred.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen, is Jewish, and when her parents flee the city to avoid “relocation,” Annemarie’s family takes Ellen in. A late-night visit from the Germans looking for Ellen’s family brings memories of Annemarie’s older sister to the surface. Lise died several years prior, and her death is a mystery to Annemarie, whose family remains friendly with Lise’s fiance Peter, a member of the resistance. When Annemarie’s mother takes the three girls to her fisherman brother in an effort to protect Ellen, things heat up, and Annemarie must find the courage to complete a dangerous mission to keep her best friend alive.

When my daughter put Number the Stars aside for a different summer reading book, I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a quick read for an adult, as it’s a middle-grade book spanning less than 140 pages. Lowry is a talented writer, and I can see why this book won the Newbery. Her characters are compelling and real, and there is plenty of tension and suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat. Since Annemarie is just a year older than my daughter, I kept wondering how my daughter would react in Annemarie’s shoes. It was interesting to view the war through the eyes of a child — a child who might not think herself brave normally but is willing to go the extra mile when it counts. Many heroes during wartime are ordinary men, women, and children.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah’s Key is a heartbreaking novel that centers on a real but little known incident that occurred in France during World War II.  The Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup on July 16, 1942, involved thousands of Jewish families being taken from their homes and housed for days in disgusting, degrading conditions in the Paris stadium before they were taken to the Auschwitz gas chambers.  More than 4,000 Jewish children ages 2 to 12 were killed.  The roundup is a stain on France’s history, mainly because the French police — not the Nazis — pulled these families from their homes, and many of the children who perished were born in France.

Tatiana de Rosnay brings this tragedy to life in the story of Sarah, a 10-year-old girl who on the very first page is faced with the police pounding on the door.  Her father, hoping to escape arrest, is not at home, but later joins Sarah and her mother.  Sarah, assuming that she and her parents will be home in a matter of hours, tries to protect her younger brother by locking him in their secret hiding place — a concealed cupboard in their bedroom wall — with nothing but a flashlight, cushions, toys, books, and a flask of water.  Sarah’s parents know what is happening, the fate that likely awaits them, and their desperate and failed attempts to return to their home to rescue the boy broke my heart.  Weeks later, Sarah manages to escape the camp and is determined to make her way back to Paris and to her brother…but will it be too late?

Memory by Philippe Grimbert

Memory is dubbed a novel, but as the narrator shares the same name as the author and ultimately the same profession — a psychoanalyst — it is uncertain how much truth there is to the story. The narrator was born after World War II to French Jews who survived the Nazi Occupation by fleeing to a rural area outside the demarcation line and changed their name from Grinberg to Grimbert to disguise their Jewish roots. He knows he has an older brother who is dead but never mentioned, and he invents an imaginary brother to take his place. As a teenager, he learns that his parents have been hiding the truth about their past, and this is where the Holocaust story comes in to play. Because he is told his parents’ story by a neighbor and close friend and cannot approach his parents about what he’s learned, he doesn’t know what his parents were doing, thinking, and feeling during the war. So he fills in the gaps, and the memory he invents ultimately becomes his truth.

Originally written in French and published with the title Secret, Memory was translated by Polly McLean. I was worried that the book might lose something in the translation, but the prose flowed beautifully and wrapped me up in a heartbreaking story of love and loss that would not let go.

The Seventh Well by Fred Wander

The narrator provides little glimpses of his own journey from camp to camp, but the focus is always on the others. Their stories are heartbreaking, but Wander infuses the narrative with glimmers of hope. The narrator learns something from each of the men, and he carries it with him.

It’s impossible for me to do this book justice. Wander’s storytelling, though it jumps around, draws you in. The narrative is harsh and painful, but that’s to be expected. I was blown away by The Seventh Well, by the images Wander presents; the sociological aspects of the story (the hierarchy of the inmates as Jews, political prisoners, etc.); and the fact that the prisoners recited poetry, sang opera, discussed philosophy and literature, and tried to keep their minds alive when the rest of their bodies were dying.

What books have you read about the Holocaust that most affected you?  Please leave your recommendations of must-read Holocaust books in the comments.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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For the sake of those who say today that they didn’t know anything about it — a large part of the population did know about it.  Perhaps [they didn’t know] that it was quite as brutal as it was in reality.  But they knew that there were concentration camps.  They knew that Jews were kept there.  And later, word got around that they were gassed.  It wasn’t for nothing that it was said in those years, “Take care, otherwise you’ll go up the chimney.”  That was a familiar figure of speech.  It circulated everywhere in Germany.  [An expression like] “otherwise, you’ll go through the chimney” doesn’t come about by chance. 

(from What We Knew, page 259)

I have read a lot of fiction and non-fiction about the Holocaust, much of it from the point of view of the Jewish survivors.  But I’ve long been curious about what “ordinary” Germans had to say about life under the Third Reich, especially since my mother’s parents and her older brother were Germans living in Germany during that time.  When my daughter, knowing my desire to learn as much as I can about Europe during World War II, bought me this book for Christmas, I started it right away but have only just finished it.

In What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany, Eric Johnson, a history professor at Central Michigan University, and Karl-Heinz Reuband, a sociology professor at the University of Düsseldorf, conducted written surveys of German Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and non-Jews who lived in Nazi Germany beginning in 1993.  They also conducted in-depth interviews with nearly 200 of the survey respondents, 40 of which make up the bulk of the book.

The Jewish survivors’ testimonies are featured first, and Johnson and Reuband talked with Jews who fled Germany prior to Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass,” in November 1938, Jews who left Germany after Kristallnahct, Jews who were deported from Germany during the war,  and Jews who went into hiding.  The second section features the testimonies of “ordinary” Germans and are divided into the following sections:  those who said they knew little about the mass murder of the Jews, those who heard about the mass murder, and those who witnessed or participated in some way in the mass murder.  The final chapters detail the survey results and attempt to determine how much Jews and non-Jews knew about the mass murder of the Jews during the war.

What We Knew is a fascinating, detailed analysis of how much people knew about the the Nazi regime’s supposedly top secret plans to exterminate the Jews, what life was like for Jews and non-Jews in the Third Reich, and whether fear played a major role in the actions of both groups of people.  I applaud Johnson and Reuband for undertaking such an extensive project and completing it while the survivors and the others they interviewed were still alive to detail their experiences.  Rather than just throw out the statistics, Johnson and Reuband first provide an oral history, allowing readers to hear what transpired directly from the mouths of those who lived it.

This is not the kind of book that you can read in one sitting — and not just because of the chapters where the survey data is analyzed in great details.  Even when the interviewees are giving just the facts about their experiences, whether Holocaust survivor or a non-Jew traumatized by witnessing the massacre of thousands of Jews, it is hard to understand that something like that actually happened and heartbreaking to imagine yourself in their shoes.  Johnson and Reuband include a variety of experiences to show how living in different cities or having the support of German neighbors, friends, or co-workers led to different outcomes.  What We Knew aims to show both sides of the story by including the experiences of Germans during the war and by focusing on “ordinary” Germans, not those considered “hard-core Nazis.”

Johnson and Reuband discuss how and when Jews and non-Jews learned about the mass murder, and point out that even if someone had heard about it, they might not have believed it.  Many Germans watched as Jews from their neighborhood were deported, but they may not have known that they were traveling to their deaths.  Many German Jews were very patriotic, and they did not want to believe that their country was turning against them.  Moreover, many Germans supported Hitler’s regime, not for its anti-Semitic policies, but because it ended the rampant unemployment after World War I, improved the highway system, and provided monetary support to struggling families.  Johnson and Reuband also used the surveys to determine whether Jews and non-Jews lived in fear of the Gestapo, what kinds of anti-Nazi activities the “ordinary” Germans were involved in, how the Jews viewed relationships with non-Jews before and during the war, and how all of these things differed by city, age, and for the Jews, whether they left Germany before the war or eventually were sent to concentration camps, among other things.

What We Knew doesn’t aim to point fingers or lay blame, but simply to compare and contrast the lives and experiences of Jews and non-Jews in Nazi Germany to better our understanding of life during the Third Reich, explain how National Socialism rose to popularity, and ensure that the survivors’ testimonies are forever etched into our minds.

Disclosure: I received my copy of What We Knew as a gift. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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