Tag Archives: Shoah

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors, General, Literature/Fiction

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors, General, Non-Fiction

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under General

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under General

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.
~~~~~~

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors, General, Literature/Fiction

Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels is more than a novel based on the Holocaust, it is a poetically-rendered geological metaphor for the power of loss and love, memory and place. Human history is woven within the bogs and peat of the past and present, as both are intertwined within the beautifully written stories.

Yes, stories. Fugitive Pieces has two narrators…one for the first two-thirds of the book, one for the last third. The transition from one narrator (Jakob) to the next (Ben) might seem awkward for some, but I found it to be a brilliant method of bringing two men from two different generations together within the whole of the novel. The layers of their lives read like an archaeological dig, through the muck and mire of the Holocaust.

Our first narrator, Jakob, witnessed the horror of war at a young age, listening from within a cupboard, as his parents were being murdered and his sister being taken away by the Nazis. “The burst door.  Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts.  Noises never heard before, torn from my father’s mouth.  Then silence.“  In order to survive, he becomes a fugitive of sorts, and he hides himself in the bogs and peat of the forest, burying himself underground, burying pieces of his past with him. He is like an organism, living for a day here, a day there within the bog, surviving as an organism or parasite, living off of the peat. Along comes Athos, a Greek geologist, who finds Jakob barely able to breathe, and brings Jakob to live with him in Greece. Athos is like a father to Jakob, and raises him like he is his own son.

Yet, all the fatherly affection and love can’t bring Jakob peace from the emotional past he is fleeing. He is like a piece of wood loosened from a desk, separated from the entirety. He dreams of his sister, Bella, in order to survive. He must have some hope, and she is his inspiration. Jakob physically matures into a young man. He becomes a poet, a writer, a translator, trying to find his way in a world of loss and sadness. He is stuck in that layer of time that has yet to be dug out.

Meanwhile, Ben looks to Jakob as a mentor. He too is a survivor. A survivor of his parents (Holocaust Survivors) and their daily nightmares, fears and eccentricities.

Michaels writes with flair and frankness, beauty and poignancy, and weaves the novel with brilliance.  Her naming each chapter is a definite foreshadowing of events and illuminations to follow.  I find her title to the book to be very revealing, if taken literally.  The transitory factor is ephemral, as parts of the whole are often short-lived, and characters, like Bella,  Jakob and Ben are fugacious and unable to blossom to their full potential. Jakob is much like an organism in the geological scheme of things, in the sense he can’t let go of the past. Ben is in the same emotional situation within his family unit. Both of them have trouble with relationships, each relationship a small piece of the stepping stone to fulfillment and contentment.
Fugitive Pieces is an important story, not for historical fact, not for Holocaust history, but for its layers of humanity, humaneness, and the bogs of emotional pain and dust that are eventually swept away through time and love.

~~Book Diva

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors, General, Literature/Fiction