Tag Archives: Non-Fiction

The Black Seasons, by Michal Glowinski

The Black Seasons by Michal Glowinski is a poignant rendering of portions of Glowinski’s childhood memories from the Warsaw Ghetto to his life while hiding from the Nazis, to being rescued by Catholic nuns and becoming a Holocaust Survivor.

The word drifted into my ears as people around me deliberated: will they lock us in the ghetto or not? I didn’t know what this word meant, yet I realized that it was connected with moving; I sensed that it was something adults were speaking of with fear, but to me it seemed that moving would be an interesting adventure.”

Glowinski writes with visual descriptives so vivid and clear that one can almost feel them and inhale the scents of ghetto life. The struggles of daily existence within the confines allocated to the Jewish people is written with deep clarity. The Black Seasons might seem disjointed at times, but that is due to the fact that events are remembered in that fashion. Can one fault Glowinski for writing in such a manner? No! One is transported by the word-paintings, and the canvas and back drop are not a pretty.

The Black Seasons is painterly, the horror well-articulated by Glowinski, and he documents his accounts of fear and anxiety in fragments, remembered through a young boy’s pieces of visual and emotional memory. Glowinski brings us insight into the human condition of the Jewish family unit during the Holocaust. Glowinski illuminates within us the fact that life is fragile. Combining the transition from childhood to adulthood, Michal Glowinski manages to transport us through history and time, effectively, brilliantly and with skillful writing. I highly recommend The Black Seasons. It belongs in every school library, college and university library, and on your own book shelf.

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Four Girls From Berlin

Four Girls From Berlin: A True Story of Friendship That Defied the Holocaust, by Marianne Meyerhoff, is a beautiful memoir of courage and friendship under horrendous circumstances. The story is about Lotte Meyerhoff who was a German Jew, and was the author’s mother. It is an affecting story of how she survived the Holocaust. She was the only member of her family to survive.

Lotte’s story begins when she boarded the S.S. St. Louis, bound for Cuba from Germany, in 1937. She left behind family members, and her three best friends, Ilonka, Erica and Ursula. She was sailing to be reunited with her husband, who had traveled there before her. There were 937 Jewish refugees aboard the ship, seeking freedom. The ship was forced to return to return to Europe, as Cuba refused entry of the ship, and other countries, including the United States, denied the ship entry.

Lotte was eventually smuggled out of a Dutch detention camp, and arrived in Cuba to reunite with her husband. From there she made her way to California, with her daughter, Marianne. While growing up, the subject of Lotte’s past is never discussed, and Meyerhoff’s curiosity never diminishes. She feels that she is without family, and doesn’t understand why. Lotte remains adamantly silent regarding her past, which only fuels Meyerhoff’s curiosity.

Lotte divorces her husband, when he comes to California to inform her he loves another woman. 

One day the unbelievable happened. A large container arrives at their home in Hollywood, California. Lotte feared opening it after seeing where it was sent from.  She was in shock.   She eventually opened it, and to her surprise it contained family heirlooms such as candlesticks, family photographs, important documents and letters.

Her three closest German, Christian girlfriends, had risked their own lives to smuggle them out of her home. They kept the items hidden, and after the war ended located Lotte’s address, and sent her the precious items They were the only remnants left of her family and her life in Germany. The items open up sealed wounds and force her to somewhat confront her past. Through Meyerhoff’s persistent questioning, bits and pieces of Lotte’s life slip out. Meyerhoff is more or less able to piece together some of her mother’s past, and the price she paid for her freedom.

As the years go by, Meyerhoff, feels a deep sense of loss and incompleteness.  She decides to travel to Germany to meet her mother’s three friends. It is a sojourn for her into her mother’s past. She longs to find a sense of family and of self. Lotte would not go with her. We follow Meyerhoff finally meet two of the friends that so loyally helped hide her mother’s family possessions (one lives in another country and can’t travel to meet her). They are married with families of their own. They take Meyerhoff into their homes as if she is their own daughter. Trust and love develop between them, and new friendships begin, that last through the years.

Within the pages, we are not only shown how the four friends survived the war in their own way, but shown how the three friends held the legacy of Lotte’s life in their hands, minds and hearts. Four Girls From Berlin is filled with some the family photographs that were shipped to Lotte. It puts a face to the past, the past we should never forget.

I won’t delve into the story any further as it will ruin it for those of you interested in reading it. It is a story told through an unusual perspective, through not only Meyerhoff, but through her mother’s courageous and unfailing friends. Meyerhoff is given first hand accounts of Lotte’s childhood, of her marriage and eventual decision to board the S.S. St. Louis. There are those humane individuals who will stop at nothing in order to salvage precious pieces of life for their friends.

Four Girls From Berlin is excellent in showing how love and friendship knows no boundaries, even during war time. It is poignant, forthright.   Meyerhoff comes to understand her mother’s pain and why she couldn’t bring herself to speak of the past, why she closed the door to her past.  You can go home again, even when home is a place of shadows and tragedy.  Four Girls From Berlin is an inspiring book, one that illuminates through the darkness of Holocaust history with glimmers of courage and hope.  The book is a metaphor for friendship, love, loss and yearning.  Marianne Meyerhoff’s book transcends religion, bridging the humanity of friendships that last through the decades, and carry on into new generations.

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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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Does the Soul Survive?

Does the Soul Survive?” (A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives & Living With Purpose) is Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz’s extremely thought-provoking book. We travel with him on his steps towards awareness.

Does the Soul Survive? is a compilation of experiences from firsthand accounts that were told to him by others, from experiences his own wife had, to his own experiences with a friend who is dying, and other experience of his own, the book will leave you considering the role that the “afterlife” and the role that “past lives” play in your current life.

Through Rabbi Spitz’s own observations and his participation with individuals (both living and dying), he has documented events that border on the conscious and subconscious levels of these individuals. Their souls are brought forth. Through his exploration of whether immortality of the soul is actual, his writing is stimulating, yet written with sensitivity to the issues within Judaism, regarding eternal life. Rabbi Spitz manages to combine emotions, subconscious thinking, spiritual beliefs and logic within the pages.

He doesn’t force his opinion or his finding on anyone, but rather gently tries to evoke us to consider his information with an open mind, and not with a narrow one. The pages are filled with inspiration and purpose. For him, the end result would be for each reader to search for meaning, both in Judaism and daily life. He realizes the problems within the theory of soul-survival, yet, in my opinion Elie Kaplan Spitz has achieved his goal with his insightful, and inspiring Does the Soul Survive?.

“Elegantly written . . . Rabbi Elie Spitz’s ‘journey’ will inspire its readers to follow his example and search for what is meaningful in Jewish life and learning.”…Elie Wiesel

I personally own and have read this book. Does the Soul Survive? was given to me by a friend in 2004, during the period when my mother was dying.  After his wife had died, it had been given to him by a friend. After reading the book, I returned it to him, and bought my own copy.

~~Book Diva

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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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Legends of Our Time, by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel is the narrator in “Legends of Our Time” an amazing book of stories and essays, written through doubt, through clarity, through knowledge, through self-analyzing, through questioning God, and through events before, during and after the Holocaust. His experiences are compelling in their insights, and his assessments are filled with overwhelming acuteness.

Nothing had changed. The house was the same, the street was the same, the world was the same, God was the same. Only the jews had disappeared.”

These were the poignant and haunting thoughts that Wiesel had, upon returning to Sighet, Romania, as he walked through the streets of his hometown. What he saw was almost unbearable to witness, as Wiesel remembers what once was.

Wiesel’s characters are given life eternal through his vivid and poignant writing. Each story is filled with spiritual illumination and learnings. Each situation brings Wiesel insight, revealed through each person,and/or vision. Heroes are acknowledged and become eternal impressions in the continuum of time, and in Wiesel’s mind and spirit.

Legends of Our Time” expands our minds, as to the acts performed by individuals before, during and after World War II. “Legends of Our Time” is a testament to those who interacted or had contact (whether knowingly or unknowingly) with Wiesel during his life, sometimes selflessly, sometimes not so selflessly. Each person made their impression on his emotions and on his life, whether positively or negatively, and at times his perceptions on the person changed slightly. He was often in disagreement with the individual, but at times came away from his experience understanding how they came to their own decisions.

Wiesel is brilliant in his writing, his thought processes are vivid, his word images are filled with clarity. The overwhelming burden of suffering before and after the Holocaust is apparent in every story and essay within the pages of Legends of Our Time. Wiesel’s book is testimony to the suffering, and the will and strength of mankind, and an eternal testament to humanity, in all its degrees. Wiesel’s “Legends of Our Time” is a testament to Elie Wiesel, himself, and his continuing quest/search for answers.

I personally own and have read this book.

~~~Book Diva

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