by Wendy Holden
It’s cheating slightly to review this book when I haven’t quite finished reading it. But I have been dipping into it, reading chapters back and forth for a few weeks now. I can’t seem to make myself read this book from beginning to end, and perhaps I will take it back to the library without reading all of it.
Why doesn’t the book hold my attention? It is, after all, a harrowing true story, told in a way that makes it accessible even to a reader who may be Holocaust-weary. Am I allowed even to suggest such a thing? My own mother-in-law was a refugee from Nazi Austria. Her fate may easily have been that of the people in this story, and this was indeed the fate of some her close relatives – aunts, cousins.
The author tells the stories of three Jewish women from Eastern Europe – Priska, Rachel and Anka – each of whom gave birth within the last weeks of the Second World War, either in or on their way to a concentration camp. Miraculously, all three women and their babies survived, and the personal stories that the author has pieced together have been largely transmitted via these babies, now in their seventies. None of the women was aware of the existence of the other two, even though they followed a common itinerary from Auschwitz II – Birkenau, to Freiberg and finally Mauthausen, before the last of these camps was liberated by American troops.
Perhaps because the women themselves are not telling their own stories, I found it harder to ‘get inside’ their experience. But really, perhaps it is just hard when the brutality and deprivation are such as most of us, thankfully, will never experience ourselves.
Prism is from present-day Slovakia, Rachel from Poland and Anka from what is now the Czech Republic. The book starts with a chapter devoted to each, telling of their early life, family, marriage, the ongoing and escalating persecution of these women, their families and thousands of others, and their eventual deportation from the ghettos of Lodz and Warsaw to Auschwitz. There follows a chapter each on the different detention centres, as well as their last transport from Freiburg to Mauthausen. At the end of the book we learn of what happened to each of these women after their liberation, as they returned (or not) to their home towns, searched for their husbands and family members, and rebuilt their lives in exile.
The personal stories are moving, and the conditions these women faced are vividly imagined and told. The author has evidently done her research very well. Some of the phrases and incidents attributed to the women do smack of “family lore” but I suppose this is inevitable – and it makes them and their families somehow more human. I felt that the author was inclined to make sweeping and not always accurate assessments – unnecessary in my view, when the facts speak for themselves. For example:
p.305 “They are … inevitably defined to be the last-ever survivors of the Holocaust” – no, they may be the youngest but not necessarily the last to survive.
p.322 “Britain, France and Canada took in thousands …” Palestine and the US are also mentioned, but Polish Jews were “unwelcome anywhere else in the world”. I’m not sure about this – what about Australia? Something I need to research some more, perhaps.
This is not a book I would have chosen to read, and as such, it was a good book group choice. Still not sure whether I will bring myself to finish reading it.