Category Archives: Holocaust History

Review: Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary

Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, The First Complete Edition is extremely intense.  I read this book straight through in one sitting (for the third time), and can’t say enough about it.

From her diary that begins when she was thirteen years old…through just before her execution, to her poems and letters, the book is an extremely compelling read.  The book also contains tributes by parachutists and some memoirs written by Hannah’s mother, Catherine Senesh.  Catherine was in the same prison as Hannah, at one point in time, and they had fleeting conversations and glances at each other.  Hannah, according to her diary, was always aware of how her decisions would affect her mother, and she adored and loved her mother without a doubt, but her (Hannah’s) passion for what she desired and believed in stayed in the forefront.

We watch the years unfold through Hannah’s diary, and see how she has matured…from young teen, to a mature young women with definite ideals, opinions and pride in being a Jew.  Her writings show a young woman torn between choices, sometimes questioning her choice, but always coming to the conclusion that she had made the correct one, for herself. Although, in her diary, she often stated that she did not like the synagogue atmosphere, the required prayers, she did believe in God, and Jewish life was what encompassed her dreams and goals and was what kept her passionate throughout her short life.  She lived for Israel, for the Zionist movement. Israel and the Zionist goal was her ultimate dream, and she was determined to move there.

When Hannah made “Aliyah”, moved to Israel, she was young and hopeful, filled with strength, ideals and dreams, and when she died, she was still young and hopeful, full of strength, ideals and dreams, some realized, but most of them not realized. Hannah was strong willed, courageous and true to her emotional and mental fortitude until the end very end, until the last minute.  Even her captors could not believe the courage she exhibited throughout her capture and up until she perished.  She was executed without a blindfold, by choice so her executioners could see her eyes, and she looked up towards the skies, and died a hero.  Her life is immortalized within Israel.

Hannah joined the military, trained and took parachute lessons as part of her training.  She volunteered for a rescue mission to Europe during World War II in order to help rescue Jews, and was eventually captured, tortured and executed in Budapest by a firing squad.

Poignant, beautifully written, Hannah’s life is a testament to her faith, ideals, strength, fortitude and determination to live life as she wanted to.

It is difficult to articulate how Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, the First Complete Edition affected me, as I am still filled with the emotions swirling within my mind and my heart from the powerful memoir.  That one so young, so well-defined with her journal and poetry, could live such a short life, yet impact so many throughout the years since, is a testament to her very essence.

Hannah Senesh’s life was not in vain, as she continues to teach others, each day, even in death.  Her spirit lives on to inspire many, Jews and non Jews, alike.

As an aside: The Jewish High Holy Days are near. Each year I read a few books, mainly biographies and non-fiction, relating to Judaism, Jewish individuals, the Holocaust, and/or Jewish Life. Some I read anew, and some I read again. It is my way of remembering Jewish history and all of the individuals who contributed to the welfare of the Jews.

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Review: On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War, by Bernard Wasserstein, is a compelling and intense study of the European Jews before their massive obliteration during World War II.

The non-fictional account spans every corner of Jewry, from the basic beggar to the wealthy, from the Orthodox to the non-practicing, from the intermarriages to the pure marriages, and from the varied social structures, both eastern and western. Jews are defined in every aspect, and defined in every location in Europe and Eastern Europe.

Ignorance is presented to be otherwise, according to Wasserstein’s extensive research and documentation. Many Jews did have an inkling as to what was occurring under their noses. They did understand the seriousness of the events unfolding in the social stratum of their lives.

But, understanding and removing one’s self from precarious and dangerous situations are not necessarily possible. Social structures, religious beliefs, family ties, homelands, separations, financial aspects, and the forces imposed on the Jews by the Nazis don’t always allow for escape. The influences were more than immense.

Wasserstein is brilliant in depicting the lives of the Jews, their family ties, friendships, joys, lows, fears, and all of their daily living arrangements. The revelations are intense and filled with sorrow and, yet, a sense of meaningfulness and purpose of life unfolds within the pages.

You may ask “Why”. But, before you do, try to consider the adverse and horrific situations thrust on the Jews. Try to analyze things with an open mind, not rose-colored lenses. It is not as simple as many try to make it. Knowing and leaving are two different issues. Knowing doesn’t necessarily give you the tools to move forward. In fact, knowing can make it more difficult for a person. They might choose to deal with it by suppressing their knowledge, and by trying to live life with what they have and with what is not foreign to them.

No stone is left unturned within the harrowing accounts presented by Wasserstein in On the Eve. It is almost 500 pages long, and not an easy read. Yet, the impressions, presentations and word visuals are told with sensitivity to the situations and even with a bit of humor here and there. He is not harsh toward the Jews in his revelations, but, in my opinion, tries to state the truth, the facts, with clarifying seriousness. He writes with an awareness of others, and his responses reflect prose that demonstrates his insight. The historical factor is incredible, and opened this reader’s eyes to varying degrees on the perspectives focused on.

Wasserstein is brilliant in his prose, his magnificent rendering of the European Jews is masterful in so many aspects. We, who have had ancestors from Europe will gain insight into the mindsets of those who encountered the horrific events of pre World War II and the Holocaust. The book is a work of humaneness and a work of art. It is a work of historical necessity.

I highly recommend On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War, by Bernard Wasserstein to every one. I feel it belongs in every library, whether public, university, high school or personal library. It is a book with extreme historical value.

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Review: Behind Enemy Lines

Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany, by Marthe Cohn is a compelling memoir. I was on the edge of my seat, reading her book. Cohn’s book is not only intense, but is illuminating and inspiring, as we watch her grow to adulthood.

From Cohn’s childhood experiences fleeing and moving from one place to another in order to avoid the Nazis, to her getting a nursing degree and eventually to joining the French Army and becoming a spy, her life is a testament to her willpower, and also to her inner and physical strength. We feel all of her emotions: the fear, the heartbreak, the devastation of loss, the heart-wrenching familial deportations. Determined to get her family out of harms way was at the forefront of her mind, and every waking moment was spent working towards that endeavor.

From documents forged by a sympathetic Frenchman, to a farmer in the countryside who helped her family to cross the border (and her family in turn helped others to cross), to the fact she had blonde hair and could pass as Aryan, Cohn took advantage of every opportunity given to her in order to save her family. Her memoir reads like an intriguing novel, yet is is a factual life accounting, and I read it straight through.

Cohn was not tall, she was tiny and under five feet, yet her perseverance and persistence are the traits that helped her to try to make a change during the time of Nazi occupation in France. She defied all the odds, and she succeeded on several levels, impressing everyone around her. She and most of her immediate family were able to survive the German occupation of France, which is incredible.

“When, at the age of eighty, Cohn was awarded France’s highest military honor, the Médaille Militaire, not even her children knew to what extent this modest woman had faced death daily while helping defeat the Nazi empire. At its heart, this remarkable memoir is the tale of an ordinary human being who, under extraordinary circumstances, became the hero her country needed her to be.”

Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany is an amazing memoir about an incredible individual and her family. It is a must read memoir, and that Marthe Cohn penned the book and had it published when she was 82-years old is a gift to all of us, Jewish or otherwise. The historical value of her work is beyond words, and her life’s accomplishments and deeds needed to be told, and need to be read. I am the wiser after having read her incredible story, and I am grateful to Marthe Cohn for the invaluable treasure and legacy she has given me and all of humankind.

I reread this book, recently, for a book club.

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Aharon Appelfeld’s Books

I am an avid reader of Aharon Appelfeld’s books. I find them to be a fascinating look into the mindsets of those who seem to have a naive sense of things to come, and/or things that are occurring around them.

Some of Aharon Appelfeld’s books that I have read are:

Badenheim 1939

Suddenly, Love: A Novel

The Story of a Life: A Memoir

Blooms of Darkness: A Novel

The Iron Tracks: A Novel

Tzili: The Story of a Life

All Whom I Have Loved: A Novel

Until the Dawn’s Light: A Novel

Laish: A Novel

Aharon Appelfeld brings the reader illuminating gems within his novels. His stories are told with magnificent prose and word-imagery.  The impact is not normally light and airy, but one that is often disturbing, and on the fringes of horrific events to come.  He has a point to make within the pages of his novels, and the concepts and depictions resound and echo through the heart of pain and extreme adversity.  He beckons the reader to ponder humanity and the human condition.

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Review: The Heavens Are Empty

Avrom Bendavid-Val has written a concise, compelling and historically relevant book, regarding the town of Trochenbrod, Ukraine, with his compelling book, The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod.

The town/village had one street about two miles long. It was an agricultural town, and, so, behind the houses and/or shop fronts, were acres of land, owned by Jews. Those Jews had managed to carve out a living for themselves, and live totally unburdened by “gentiles”. From leather goods and tanning, to produce and milk, the Jewish community fended for themselves, and managed to live decently.

The entire town was made up of Jewish individuals, except for one or two adults. This was amazing, in and of itself. Those adults were the ones who lit the lights during Shabbat, took care of the ovens, did the things that the Jews, due to religious traditions and beliefs, were not permitted to do on Shabbat and on the Sabbath.

The street was constantly filled with “mud”, as the reader is informed throughout the pages of witness statements. It was almost comical how often “mud” is mentioned. It left a deep impression, decades later, on those who had lived there, in more ways than one. It also left an impression on me.

From documents and data, to witness statements, the foundation of Trochenbrod is detailed with information that needed to be told. It is a poignant story, often heart-wrenching, yet one that is an important story in the realm of history.

For those of you that wish to understand the history of what once was, and no longer is, The Heavens Are Empty is the perfect book to educate yourself regarding the events that unfolded. Not only were the events horrific and filled with contempt and the murderous rage of thousands of Jews, but they led to the obliteration of Trochenbrod off of the face of the planet, literally.

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Review: The Invisible Bridge

If you want to read an incredible epic novel, one that is stunning in its presentation, then The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer is a novel for you. The Invisible Bridge is a saga, and a difficult book to review, due to its epic quality and the fact it is well over 600 pages long. The haunting historical novel begins in 1937 and takes the reader through the end of World War II. The story is told through a unique perspective, that of a Hungarian Jew named Andras Levi.

Andras has gone to Paris to study architecture, where the opportunities are greater, leaving behind his family in Hungary. He has two brothers, Tibor and M, and they are very close. The familial bonds are extremely strong. While in Paris, Andras meets an older woman named Klara who is also a Hungarian Jew, with a teen-aged daughter. Her background is a bit mysterious and the reasons for her being in Paris are not immediately evident. An affair begins between the two of them, which eventually turns to love and romance.

Due to circumstances and the antisemitism prevalent against Jews in France, Andras is forced to return to Hungary. He is eventually conscripted into the work labor program. That is where the more horrendous part of The Invisible Bridge begins to transform itself into an historically intense story of wartime horror. Orringer leaves nothing to the imagination, and the word imagery is stunningly detailed. She includes every minute detail into The Invisible Bridge, and the reader’s senses are filled with the sights, sounds, scents, tastes and touches of daily life. Life in the work labor camps is depicted with depth and strong visuals. The adverse conditions (that is putting it mildly), and the atrocities are told so strongly that the reader feels as if this is a personal family memoir and saga, as opposed to being a novel.

As The Invisible Bridge progresses, the reader watches the relationship between Andras and Klara develop. The reader sees Andras growth as he turns into an emotionally mature man, not only thinking of himself, but of Klara and his family that he has left behind. He is willing to sacrifice his life, sacrifice anything for her safety and the safety of his family. And, Klara in return, is willing to do the same, always cognizant of the fact that Andras’ safety is in danger. Each partner is concerned with the other.

That is the beauty of The Invisible Bridge. Love transpires and evolves within the harshest of circumstances. Love flows from one event to the next, never diminishing, but growing stronger. As the hours and days move forward, Andras’ thoughts of Klara are what continue to give him the motivation to find a way to survive the horrendous nightmares set before him.

I became totally involved in the book and the characters who felt very real. I wanted to know more about them, and wanted to continue to learn more regarding their daily situations. There is so much more to The Invisible Bridge than what I have written, but to include more details would reveal too much of the story line. You need to read it for yourself, and inhale the depth of the saga.

Orringer has researched the events that transpired in Hungary during World War II to the utmost of standards, perfection and reality. The events, described so brilliantly, give the reader insight into the little known aspects of what transpired in Hungary during World War II. There isn’t much information on that subject. What we read, as far as the events and audacious circumstances, did occur. She did not white wash anything, yet she wrote magnificent details with beautiful and superlative prose.

Julie Orringer’s brilliant writing illuminates the pages with intensity and sensitivity. The reader can discern that her heart and soul were within the words, lines, paragraphs and pages of The Invisible Bridge. It is a beautifully written historical novel that pays tribute to not only the Hungarian Jews, but to familial ties and relationships. It is a metaphor for love and war, yearning and loss, strength and survival under the most adverse of conditions. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

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Review: Dora Bruder

Dora Bruder, by Patrick Modiano (translated by Joanna Kilmartin), is a book that was an intriguing and compelling read for me.

From Modiano’s first spark of interest in Dora Bruder’s life, to his final analysis, the story line is structured much like a detective story, and an ongoing investigation that he becomes obsessed with. His interest in her life began when he read about her in an old newspaper from 1941.

Dora Bruder was Jewish, and she was 15-years old at the time, and had literally disappeared off the face of the streets of Paris. Her parents placed an in the newspaper “Paris Soir”, which ran in the personal column on New Years Eve, 1941. “Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, height 1 m 55, oval-shaped face, gray-brown eyes, gray sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes.”

Once Modiano sees that notice, he begins to investigate every document, every crevice, every bit of information he can gather on her. His ten-year investigation leads him down streets he once lived on, down avenues he walked many times before, and into buildings and archives in order to garner as much information as possible. He speaks with people, from all walks of life. He is unable to let go of her, and his need to know sets him on a journey that also includes his own depictions of self-discovery.

Dora Bruder is short on pages, less than 140 pages, but it is filled with depth and intensity. Modiano’s quest for Dora Bruder, is also a quest for the answers to his own childhood, one that was filled with troublesome events, due to his Jewish father’s collaborations during the Holocaust. Within the realm of his difficult childhood, we see similarities between them, such as loss of a happy childhood, loss of a stable environment while growing up, and the loss associated with negative memories.

Modiano’s memories abound within the framework, as his research continually evokes thoughts of his own losses and life events. In essence, although the book is a novel, it is sustained by amazing facts and data. One might say it is a cross between fiction and memoir, due to the fact that Modiano’s life, itself, fills the pages through his reflecting upon his past.

For me, Dora Bruder, was masterfully written by Patrick Modiano. He had me deeply focused on the pains of loss, and how the past follows us throughout our life. His dedication to interviewing, dedication to research, documentation, and his physical involvement in walking the streets of Paris in order to gain more information is something to applaud him for.

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