Tag Archives: Holocaust/Genocide

First Desire, by Nancy Reisman

the-first-desire1 In First Desire by Nancy Reisman, we are given a set of characters who appear to be constantly yearning for acceptance and love, within the confines of the familial structure.

The Cohen family is composed of a tyrannical widower, Abe Cohen, and his five adult children, who seem to be stuck in a time warp, lost within the familial folds. The family unit is composed of four daughters (Jo, Sadie, Celia and Goldie) and one son (Irving). They are seemingly lifeless and unmotivated individuals, overpowered by loss, and by a dictatorial father.

All of them are still in mourning for their mother, and they are lost in a cycle of escaping the painful aspects of life. Their father, seems to be uncaring, and is a demanding and authoritarian individual, especially with his daughters. He escapes into a relationship with a women named Lillian Schumacher. Goldie can’t cope with the demands of her father, and the loss of her mother, and escapes by fleeing the house, leaving those behind to wonder about her, for years (not knowing whether she is dead or alive). Sadie questions her own sanity and the relationship with her husband, who only seems to want her company during times of sexual relations, and watches him become almost as tyrannical as her father. Jo is lost within her protective, obnoxious attitude, which is her form of escape. Celia escapes within her mind, which is sometimes coherent, but more often, not. Irving escapes into alcohol and gambling.

First Desire is adeptly written, and Nancy Reisman’s characters give us insight into depression, patriarchal pressures, and family interactions and dynamics, during the turbulent years that range from the late 1920s to 1950. They are believable individuals, and the climate of the decades is believable.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman is an amazing book on so many levels. From incredible word-images, to profound scenarios, Ackerman takes us on a journey through Warsaw, Poland, through the eyes of two zookeepers, Jan and Antonina Zabrinski. Jan was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina was his wife.

It is an incredible story of fortitude and strength, love of animals (large and tiny) and love of humanity. The Zabinskis felt that every organism, no matter how minute, was a part of the scheme of the earth and universe. This attitude prompted them to take the course of action that they did. The force involved in Jan and Antonina’s acts of human kindness are not only conceived out of circumstance, but out of their almost innate necessity to save Jewish individuals in WWII Warsaw. They were not Jewish, in fact Jan declared himself an atheist, and Antonina was a Catholic. They knew the risks they were taking, but chose to help others at the expense of not only their lives, but their young son’s life, and their newborn daughter’s life. Jan and Antonina had a deep respect and devotion to caring for life, in all of its forms, from the most minute insect, bit of algae or moss, to the largest of animals, including their favorite lynxes.

It was this devotion, their ideals and values for what constitutes life and its worth, and their moral code, which consumed their every thought and emotion during World War II. This innate passion for saving life, turned their villa and the zoo into a refuge, for animals that you wouldn’t expect to find in a zoo setting. This is true account is one of many unusual stories to come out of World War II.  Antonina played a large role while Jan was off at war, and when he was imprisoned, in continuing to keep the Jews and partisans hidden. Through journals, articles, and historical documentation, the author has written the Zabrinksi’s unique Holocaust story, from their extremely unusual perspective.

The author had access to Antonina’s diary, and has infused the pages with direct quotes from it. It was a barbarous time period, and the brutality and harshness is reflected quite well within the book. The word imagery is strong, and it is sometimes difficult to discern where Antonina began, and where Ackerman evokes her own telling. Nonetheless, the book is factual, within its poetic aspects. Some details are sweetened, mainly pertaining to the people, animals and their lives within the confines of the villa. The author infuses some of her own thoughts, blending them with Antonina’s (she, herself states this) The Holocaust itself, and atrocious events and occurrences are not sugared in any aspect. The entire family is portrayed in the book.

The zoo and the villa become a human menagerie, no let me say they become a menagerie for both humans and other life forms, tiny to huge. It was like a Noah’s Ark. Each with their own respective and unique personality, each with their own needs and strengths, adapting within unique surroundings and under difficult circumstances. All life forms in the villa live together in a carnival and tour de farce environment, yet live in harmony. The Zookeeper’s Wife chronicles human and animals, and their lives within the confines of the Holocaust and war-torn Poland like it has never been documented before.

The heroine’s actions are vividly demonstrated throughout the book, Antonina’s almost innate sense of not only caring for the animals in the zoo, but getting into their minds, and reading their thoughts, sparked her passion for the value of life, the worth of all animals, small to great, that encouraged her in her endeavors to shelter almost 300 Jews in the zoo, within the confines of barred cages, underground passages, huts, secret hiding places in her villa, etc. Any place she could conceive of as a dwelling for hiding Jews, became one. Any disguise thought of was utilized for the Jews, whether it be aunt, uncle, or other visiting relatives and friends, ruses were created.

Antonina’s story, taken from her journal is captivating, poignant, intriguing, humorous, tear-jerker material, and compelling as no other story you have read. Ackerman’s story, which surrounds Antonina’s, is poetic prose, a weaving of lives. She is often seems long-winded in her descriptions and word images, but once you get past them, you realize there is a purpose behind the prose. Ackerman wrote this way for a reason, and it isn’t necessarily apparent in the beginning.

The Zookeeper’s Wife often reads like a beautiful prose-poem, of breathtaking writing and astounding imagery seeping through the pages. Ackerman is brilliant in not only her prose, but also in the scientific aspect of the animal kingdom. She sometimes rambles on regarding various species (much like I have rambled in this review), but in the end, it is for a reason, and coincides with the humans and their own stories of survival. She compares and contrasts humans and their evolution with animals.

He was intrigued with being able to control the fate of producing animals with excellent traits, and animals of purity, through mating, reproducing, etc., until he produced the perfect example. He used eugenics in his experiments (breeding animals with specific traits). The love of magical and mythical animals enthralled the Nazis. Those animals were elevated in status.

Animals are almost humanized in the Nazi world, and of course the humans, the Jews, are thought of and treated as less than impure animals by the Nazis. Experiments performed on Jews were abundant. From brain surgery to agonizing and tortuous experiments, the Jews were tools utilized. One has to read carefully in order to perceive what Ackerman is trying to accomplish.

Jews, the Polish resistance, the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, and then the Warsaw uprising of 1944, we are given a look at Warsaw daily life during the Nazi occupation, both the willing “prisoner’s and caged humans, and the unwilling Jews in prison camps. Life in the ghetto is depicted frankly and truthfully. The horrid and unsanitary conditions are explored and painted.

The perspective is almost incomparable, and the historical facts and documentations are gleaned from newspapers, witness accounts, Survivor stories, scientific research, and from Antonina’s diary, her incredible diary.  Within the pages humor is reflected within living arrangements and lives inhabited within the confines. Man and animal live together, eat together, sleep together. Lives are saved by courageous and empathetic individuals.  At times the book can be difficult to follow, and I found myself rereading excerpts due to the fluidity.  Overall, Diane Ackerman weaves the tapestries together with excellence. Both the scientific and historic aspects work well together, and The Zookeeper’s Wife is brilliant in its illumination of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, their moral code, and their courage to save lives despite risking their own lives. The story binds the threads of an unusual perspective in this amazing Holocaust telling. What an accomplishment! Bravo!

Jan and Antonina Zabinski are honored by Yad Vashem’s The Righteous Among the Nations.

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The English Disease, by Joseph Skibell

The English Disease, by Joseph Skibell, is a story revolving around Charles Belski, a learned man who is a musicologist (one who studies the history and science of music). He has what is known as English Disease, which in today’s environment is known as depression or melancholia. The dilemmas in his life seem to stem inwardly from within himself, and are often self-imposed. He is a difficult, obnoxious, middle-aged man, with depression, and is extremely manipulative when interacting with those around him. He is a protagonist unlike any I have read, filled with a cynical perspective, yet wickedly funny. He is a depressed, non-practicing Jew, and is filled with guilt over the fact that he married a Catholic, a Gentile.

The differences between Belski and his wife, interplay throughout the novel. There is disagreement on how to raise their daughter, Franny. His wife and daughter try to open his eyes to the joy around him. He is a man in crisis, lost in faith, relying on medication to get him through the hours and days. Belski’s life appears to be a series of reluctant events, which do not include one small spark of happiness. Belski is schlepping through life struggling with his emotional being and his academic side. He is fixated with the past, yet at the same time it eventually evolves into a healing element for him.

“English melancholiacs used to tour the ruins of Antiquity as a cure for their depression, which was, in fact, at the time called the English Disease. It was thought that somehow the contemplation of actual ruins would make one’s own ruined life seem less hateful, and that these dilapidated but still beautiful structures might suggest to the sensitive melancholic the possibility of finding beauty in his own misery, indeed as essential to it.”

He travels to Poland on a conference with a colleague named Liebowitz, a person, who is almost like a sidekick of Belski’s. They visit Auschwitz. Belski’s constant reflections on the Holocaust, anti-semitism, the current social climate in Poland, and on his life overtake his thoughts. They feed his melancholic state.

It gives him power over others, the only form of power he has. Seemingly that depressive state is something that he enjoys being in, although he will tell you otherwise.

Skibell is brilliant in his writing and assessment of Jews, assimilated Jews, Jews marrying Gentiles, the Holocaust, Poland, and depression and melancholia. Skibell’s amazing descriptive observations make it seem as if he is inside the heads of others. He does it all with a dry wit, and you find yourself laughing out loud while reading the book. Who could perceive that writing a novel about a depressed person could be so humorous, and so poignant at the same time. Who knew?

He writes comically, on the neurotic struggle for assimilation, which really isn’t a struggle unique to Jews, but a struggle for all immigrants and first-generation Americans. Skibell incorporates those struggles and burdens within Belski’s journey to self-discovery. Skibell’s book is an excellent psychological character study. The English Disease is bizarrely funny with quirky characters, yet has strong serious undertones, and at times is heart-breaking. It is a metaphor for redemption, and for spiritual and marital contentment in an ever changing world.

The end is a surprise, and fulfilling. I wouldn’t have missed reading The English Disease for anything, as it is that good! Bravo to Joseph Skibell.

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Five Chimneys, by Olga Lengyel

Five Chimneys, by Olga Lengyel is an incredible and intense personal eyewitness accounting and Holocaust memoir. Five Chimneys was published in 1947, in English, two years after liberation, when Olga Lengyel’s mind and memories were still, fresh regarding the events she witnessed while a prisoner in Auschwitz.

The title, Five Chimneys, stems from the five crematorium chimneys at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It isn’t enough that she witnessed the horrendous atrocities, but she also lost her family there. They all were exterminated in the gas chambers…her husband, two children and her parents. Her husband was under orders to be deported to Auschwitz. Olga Lengyel was determined, and went to the authorities insisting that she and her children be deported with him, as she assumed that he would be put to work in a hospital, as he was a medical doctor. She did not believe any of the stories she was told, about the actual situtation, and thought they were exaggerations. Her parents decided to go with her and the children, and the entire family went together. Little did she know it would result in the death of everyone, but her.

Her memoir is often harsh and brutal, but so were the conditions she had to live under. Her writing is well-articulated, filled with extremely clear descriptives that make our skin crawl. She doesn’t seek sympathy, but rather wanted the realities and truth to be told. Olga Lengyel writes as if she is a reporter, with an unbiased-like mindset. As a survivor and a witness, she reports what she, herself, experienced, and what she saw. The facts and truth of the events are what motivated her to stay alive, when everyone she loved had been murdered. What Olga Lengyel witnessed and went through in Auschwitz, nobody should ever have to be a witness to, or have to endure.

From watching the crematorium workers load several bodies into the large ovens at once, to having to pile dead bodies atop one another…herself, to standing naked for hours in the freezing cold while waiting for roll call, to the beatings, to lack of food, and having to eliminate in a bucket…the same one used to eat in, and to the unbelievably horrific events that pregnant women went through, etc., the book is intense testimony to the brutality and inhumanity of man. It is also a testament to Olga Lengyel’s strength and courage during the extreme circumstances she endured (that is putting it mildly). Her motivation for survival was the necessity to bear witness to the atrocious inhumanity of the Nazi Germans.

Albert Einstein, himself, read Five Chimneys, and actually wrote a letter to Olga Lengyl. Part of that letter is included in the book.

…Thank you for your very frank, very well written book. You have done a real service by letting the ones who are now silent and most forgotten speak…

With best regards and wishes,

A. Einstein

The infusion of such atrocities, in great numbers, into one memoir is beyond belief, as Olga Lengyel manages to describe with graphic clarity the most minute detail of daily existence (if you can call it that) in the Women’s camp at Auschwitz. She leaves nothing to the imagination, and each atrocious act is written boldly, powerfully, concise and to the point, no stone left unturned. Five Chimneys is heart wrenching, horrific, and overwhelming. It is not for the weak of heart or weak of stomach. Olga Lengyel’s Five Chimneys describes the essence of man’s inhumanity, and is a memoir that should be read with that in mind, as her overpowering documentation of the nighmares she experienced and witnessed is not coated over, in any fashion. The book is extremely haunting.

Olag Lengyel died at the age of 90, in 2001. Olga Lengyel’s spirit and strength will survive through time, within the pages of her extraordinary memoir, Five Chimneys.

We must never forget the events of the Holocaust…

I personally own and have read this book.

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Messengers of God, by Elie Wiesel

Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends“, by Elie Wiesel, is a book that is filled with fantastic word-images and descriptions told from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor. The book deals with various characters of the Bible: Adam, Cain, Abel, Isaac, Joseph, Jacob, Esau, Moses, and Job, and how they obtain spiritual growth and move forward under harsh conditions.

Wiesel manages to infuse these Biblical individuals with traits and characteristics, giving them a sense of substance, whether it be superficial or sincere. He brings emotion and life into them, and a sense of spirituality. We see how the successive generations gain logic, insight and knowledge…both emotional and spiritual.

As the generations continue on from Adam and Eve, Wiesel gives the individuals emotional qualities, qualities he feels didn’t truly exist within Adam and Eve. He feels that they (Adam and Eve) didn’t have the history or the references in which to understand the immense responsibility they had, not only for their children, but for future generations. They did not, or would not trust entirely in God. They lacked in familial background and human role models, and we see the succeeding generations of individuals begin to develop more human-like emotional qualities, and the ability to reason within their daily setting.

We watch the characters grow, some gain weakness, and others gain strength. We see them learn right and wrong, and develop chaos and a sense of peace in their lives. Mainly, we see how the Biblical characters and their lives can be placed in a modern-day setting, through Wiesel’s brilliant writing, and his use of midrash, parables and sayings at the end of each chapter. We ponder their stories from Wiesel’s perspective.

Life holds many challenges and struggles for all of us, And Wiesel has shown us how some of our favorite Biblical individuals might have gained a sense of their humanity, and might have felt and thought about issues relevant to them and their world, trying to resolve them, whether rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly. We are witness as the story teller blends death and annihilation into the lives of the characters, and leaves them to ascertain how to begin again. The Holocaust is underlying, and ever present within the stories, including sacrificial aspects. Lessons are learned, and spirituality is gained, as each person’s humanness is exposed. Their lives live on, in the present, in order to teach us, to bring insight into the human condition and atrocities that continue to occur.

Elie Wiesel’s brilliant story telling in “Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends“, in my opinion, is a metaphor for right and wrong, good and evil, within a Holocaust type of situation, and how to begin life anew from such an adverse event.
~~~~~~

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Awake in the Dark, by Shira Nayman

Awake in the Dark, by Shira Nayman…I give it Five Stars!!

Reality is stranger than insanity. It is reality that defies comprehension.”
Shira Nayman’s intense stories are written with insight, courage, and brilliance. This amazingly written collection brings to life, the after-effects of the lives of the characters, all Survivors of the Holocaust.

The passage of time and place, does not necessarily lesson the pain, and in fact, the pain continues, not only within the soul of the Survivor, but also continues on through the generations, with the burdens, history, and guilt becoming a lagacy handed down to the children of the Survivors.

From a woman who returns to Germany, the place of her birth, and discovers the house of her childhood; to another woman, who has traveled through the light, through horrors and demeaning moments, and finally gives birth to a daughter; to a psychiatric patient who intuitively knows she has a connection with her psychiatrist, the stories unfold with intense darkness, sadness and poignancy.

Self-discovery, is found in every story. Secrets, once locked, are unlocked, lives saved, are not necessarily lives that have been lived happily, and we see how the past has formed and molded the mindsets of the Survivors and their children in the present. Secrets that were kept, have repercussions through their silence, superficial faces, put on, to keep out the pain, release the turmoil in ways never expected.
Nayman writes with boldness and courage, never willing to remove or leave out harsh words, to soften the story. We read the pain and emotion, feel it, head on, and are engulfed within the pages, unable to stop reading, and unable to forget the stories, long after we have finished reading them.

~~Book Diva

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