Tag Archives: Holocaust

“999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz,” by Heather Dune Macadam

Citadel, 480 pages. Hardcover $28.00. 

Aided by solid research, the author bears compassionate witness to unspeakable horror.

In recent years, an astonishing number of new books have provided insights about the utter darkness of the Holocaust, as well as the suffering and courage of its victims and survivors. Heather Dune Macadam’s 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitzdeserves a prominent place in this flowering of books that reshape our understanding through revelations and heartbreaking vignettes.

The author’s narrative, set in Slovakia and other crushed European countries, focuses on a program designed to destroy Jewish womanhood. The action begins in late March of 1942, when a roundup of Jewish females, announced in advance, gets underway. These women — mostly teenagers and young adults — were summoned to report to authorities and board an overcrowded train in the town of Poprad.

The screws had already begun tightening when the Slovak government implemented the Jewish Codex, a series of laws and regulations designed to cripple the country’s Jewish population. Their former rights quickly vanished.

Though pre-roundup escape plans were dangled before some, most of these tempting arrangements were hoaxes that did not pan out. Families were persuaded that the women would participate in a kind of government service for the Reich. They would work in factories and have an opportunity to be true patriots!

Macadam

Many of these female “draftees” came from the towns of Humenné and Prešov, both of which had sizable Jewish populations. And just in case they behaved irresponsibly while being shipped off, they would be policed by the Fascist Hlinka Guard, who would also beat up any interfering brothers and fathers, if required.

The women’s lives at Auschwitz do not turn out as expected. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  999: The Extraordinary Young Women

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“Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” by Debbie Cenziper

Hachette Books. 320 pages. Hardcover $28.00

A Pulitzer-worthy investigation of escaped war criminals.

When Adolf Hitler’s defeat in World War II was imminent, a great number of Nazi functionaries made their way to the United States and essentially hid in plain sight. They moved into American cities and suburbs, took on new identities, and successfully evaded any responsibility or punishment for their crimes. They obtained citizenship.

Though attempts were made to bring these war criminals to justice, most cases failed. Many plausible leads were never pursued. However, the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), in part by hiring capable and committed historians, as well as legal experts, slowly excavated the facts needed to turn the tide and bring such people to justice.

In Citizen 865, author Debbie Cenziper provides stunning insights into these Nazi hunters’ skill, accomplishments, and dedication. She retraces their steps, giving us two layers of investigation. We learn how these professionals went about their work, interpreted the law, and prevailed in their cases. We also learn quite a bit about how Cenziper did her own investigation of the investigators, making the case for our appreciation of their efforts.

To accomplish this, she provides capsule biographies of many key figures, illuminating their ambition, their frustrations, their sacrifices, their home life, their intelligence, and their courage. They are real people we get to know and like.

Debbie Cenziper

The title of the book refers to Jakob Reimer, one of the monsters who did what he was told and helped slaughter untold thousands of Jews in Trawniki, Poland, where, in the early 1940s, the Nazis set up a “school” for committing mass murder.

The book’s attention-getting opening focuses on the story of 19-year-old Feliks Wojcik and Lucyna Stryjewska, a few years younger. It is a story of overwhelming threats to their lives and communities. These characters are vividly drawn individuals scrambling to survive the Nazi programs built to annihilate them.

It is set in Lublin, a Polish town rich in Jewish history and institutions, but now without support for Jewish survival. The horrors of Feliks and Lucyna’s experiences bring them together, and readers are temporarily left wondering about their chances for a future, allowing the author to paint a different section of her broad canvas. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Citizen 865

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Inspired by actual events, this novel for all readers should become a young adult classic

My Real Name is Hanna, by Tara Lynn Masih. Mandel Vilar Press. 208 pages. Trade paperback with flap $16.95.

In her brilliant, poetic novel that reads like Holocaust testimony, Tara Masih presents a family’s horrifying journey to escape ultimate victimhood. In her early teens as the narrative begins, Hanna Slivka, as if keeping a diary, takes her future readers through the steps of her family’s struggle with Nazi oppression. 

In important ways a coming-of-age story, this novel begins by describing the situation for Jews in the small town (shtetele) of Kwasova as Nazi forces cross the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Kwasova is a community that had been Austrian and Polish; its residents can’t be sure of what it will become next. This is especially true of its Jewish community, which before Hitler’s tyranny could at least get along with its non-Jewish neighbors.

The attempt to relocate and/or annihilate the Jews begins with orders to brand them. Hannah’s father tells the family: “The SS issued orders to the Ukrainian police and the Jewish Council. Jews are now being ordered to register and to make their own armbands, a blue Mogen Dovid, our Jewish star, sewn on to a white background.”

As the status of even substantial Jewish families falls, the father, Abram, realizes that maintaining housing and obtaining food will soon become impossible. It is also clear that hiding in barns, which worked for a while, won’t work anymore: their fellow townspeople will betray them.

Money and cherished valuables are disappearing. Now the Jewish families of the town must somehow disappear as well. The victims, in public opinion and via effective propaganda, have been transformed into the cause of the war that is threatening all of Europe.

Through her teenage narrator, Ms. Masih shows the material and psychological effects of these circumstance on the members of this family and another family with which they make joint plans for survival. They need to act quickly before that are marched into ghettos or simply murdered “in plain sight” to underscore SS power.

There is a feature of their lives that is especially moving. Facing disaster, these Jewish families manage to observe their religion’s precepts and holy days. They hide the synagogues torah and other important items. Such dedication becomes a source of strength.

How does a family hide in a forest? After walking a great distance from Kwasova, the come across a run-down isolated forestry station that will become their home. It is built from logs, and the gaps are filled with moss. They had carried with them as much as they could; now her father Uncle Levi make a round trip to and from the town for much-needed tools and other supplies. Now they can modify the cabin to fit their needs. They clean, discover a small stream with clear water that will serve their need for hygiene and food preparation.

They must arrange their days to avoid detection of their lantern light and smoke from the fire, and of course they must find the wood to feed the fire.

In constant fear, the family members support one another and search for sustenance. They obtain nutrition from the wild vegetation. Sometimes they can scrounge a chicken, yet most of the time they are starving.

Tara Lynn Masih

Abram risks occasional trips to the shtetele for flour and kerosene. The snow drifts are a big obstacle, and he must avoid leaving tracks in the snow. Networking with others, he establishes a coded way of leaving messages on a tree. It’s a silent, secret language. It helps with a much-needed commodity – news about what’s going on in the world around and beyond them. News of Hitler’s war.

The people in this nomadic entourage of relatives represent a spectrum of age groups, but it is Hanna who holds our attention as she helps take care of her younger siblings and as she muses about building her relationship with Leon Stadnick, who is two years her senior. They pray to make it to their next birthdays. These children are growing up fast and taking on adult tasks and risks.

Fearing that the Germans will eventually find them in the forest, Abram decides to take advantage of news about habitable caves, the gypsum caves of Kwasova, where darkness is even “darker than dark.” Making a safe haven out of the caves is even more difficult and dangerous than living in the forest cabin, but it serves the group’s purposes as a place to survive the Holocaust, which in this case means until the Russians return to Kwasova and drive the Germans out. However, the eventual allied victory does not promote, politically or psychologically, a vision of return to the once familiar home territory. The Slivka family and some of those who hid out with them in the forest and the caves decide to build new identities and lives in the United States.

From beginning to end, the story told is one of a cooperative effort. The family is aided in many ways by some members of their Kwasova community. Among these people are the Cohan twins, Pavel and Jacob, who are always showing up with the news or goods that the Slivka’s need. Both early and late in the story, their dearest neighbor, Alla Petrovich, is of great support and encouragement to the family. She carries the “righteous Christian” role in the story, and her colored eggs seem to make miracles possible. On the other hand, few of the townspeople show any desire for the possible return of their former neighbors.

St. Augustine writer Tara Lynn Masih blends diligent research, blazing imagination, and sophisticated literary technique in this transformational narrative. Marketed as a Young Adult novel, it can engage and educate readers all across the age spectrum.

 

This novel can be richly explored with the help of an easily available Reader’s and Teachers Guide. Go to: http://taramasih.com/my-real-name-is-hanna-readers-guide.pdf

Here are some of the accolades that this superb novel has received:

Julia Ward Howe Award

Florida Book Award~Gold Medal

Foreword INDIES Award~Gold Medal

Skipping Stones Honor Award

Litsy Award Nominee

A Goodreads’ Best Book of the Month~YA

 

This review appears in the November 2019 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee). It was reprinted in several editions of Florida Weekly on November 20 and 21, 2019. Here is a link: Florida Weekly – My Real Name is Hanna

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Teenager’s diary reveals the world of a promising life cut short

Renia’s Diary: A Holocaust Journal, by Renia Spiegel, with Elisabeth Bellak and Sarah Durand. Translated from Polish by Anna Blasiak and Marta Dziurosz. Introduction by Deborah E. Lipstadt. St. Martin’s Press. 336 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

This book, a diary never meant for publication, is not what one would expect from something labeled as a Holocaust diary or journal. In it, young Renia gives very little attention to the immediate effects of Nazi aggression on a Jewish community. Most often, she seems barely aware of it. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that she is only intermittently aware of the establishment of a Ghetto near her grandparents’ home, where she has been living since being separated from her parents. She hears rumors that over time solidify. 

Most of her impressions of ongoing or expected destruction of Jewish communities seem second hand, and perhaps they most often were second hand – until the end.

Readers will wonder why they are not getting the kind of scenes that make up the bulk of first person Holocaust writings.

Deborah E. Lipstadt’s Introduction helps clarify the issue by making the important distinction between  diary and memoir. Diary writers are writing for themselves or for an alter ego. The diary is a companion (“dear diary”). Such journals are about the happenings and concerns of the immediate present.

Memoirs are retrospective. The writer knows the outcome of events initiated in the past and has processed the experiences after the immediate has become the remembered. Memoirs are meant to have an audience and they are written in anticipation of that audience.

Renia spent her time writing her observations, her primary concerns as a teenage girl in the last years of her well-designed secular schooling. Boys and possible relationships are on her mind, as are her female peers in the school. She writes about her moods, whom she likes, and whom she thinks does and does not understand her.

Foremost here is the student who becomes her committed boyfriend, Zygmunt. Her word portraits of this young man are astonishing, as are her records of their meetings and conversations. Parties, dances, and other standard teen activities are on Renia’s mind, as is her sense of how she is maturing physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Like most diary writers, she is talking to herself, addressing the diary directly as if it were a sympathetic friend: a true and loyal confidante.

The diary also records her concern about her mother’s situation, her longing for her mother to visit, and her high esteem for her absent mother. Many entries end with the author’s cry for help from her mother and from God. She needs them both desperately.

Renia’s diary is also, perhaps primarily, a collection of her poems, both recent and brand new. Her writerly aspirations drive her to produce more and more poems.in which she skillfully employs nature imagery to help explore her emotional life. The poems fall short of greatness, especially in that they are so repetitive of one another, but Renia is clearly a promising poet whose work could have grown in depth and sophistication if her life had not been cut short.

Meanwhile, she was trusted to run her school’s student newspaper.

While the last passages that Renia wrote do focus on the conditions of ghetto life, a fuller picture of that period and the family’s life before and after can be found in two additional sections of the book prepared by Renia’s younger sister. They are not journal material but a mix of memoir and research. Titled “Epilogue” and “Elizabeth’s Commentary,” These sections provide much-needed context that is otherwise missing from the journal proper. With these additions, the answers to questions that are not answered in journals or diaries like Renia’s are brought fully to light. It is here that readers receive the conditions of Holocaust life in Poland.

RENIA SPIEGEL was born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1924. She began her diary at the start of 1939, right before the invasion of Poland by the German and Soviet armies. In 1942, she was forced to move to a ghetto, but was smuggled out by her boyfriend and went into hiding with his parents. She was discovered by the Gestapo and murdered on July 30, 1942.

ELIZABETH BELLAK (née Ariana Spiegel), Renia’s sister, born in 1930, was a child actress once called “the Polish Shirley Temple.” In 1942 she and her mother fled to Warsaw, and then to Austria, finally arriving in New York City, where she lives today.

This review appears in the August 2019 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

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“The German Midwife: A Novel,” by Mandy Robotham

  • Avon. 352 pages. Trade paperback $15.99.

This story, narrated from behind Axis lines, captures the enduring strength of women.

Originally published in the U.K. as A Woman of War, the instant bestseller The German Midwife offers astonishing portraits of several women caught up in Hitler’s nightmarish aspirations. The circumstances that threaten the lives of these women (and of countless others) make this story at once an historical novel, a thriller, and a romance.

The narrator, a young nurse and midwife named Anke Hoff, finds herself in a Nazi work camp where she is essentially a prisoner. Though the timeline of the story starts in 1944, italicized flashbacks begin two years earlier, establishing an historical, professional, and familial context for understanding Anke. These sections also illuminate the deteriorating situation for people living under the Reich, whether they be citizens, despised minorities, or resistance sympathizers.

Anke is imprisoned for having provided birthing services for Jewish women despite a Nazi policy to end Jewish reproduction. Inside the camp, she shows leadership, compassion, and disdain for her country’s moral decline.

Robotham

Nonetheless, because she is the most skilled midwife available, she is selected — actually, ordered — to protect the Fuhrer’s child incubating in the womb of Fraulein Eva Braun. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda, will make sure that Anke performs her duties properly, as will the staff attending to Hitler’s mountain estate and headquarters. This child, especially if a boy, will insure the future of Hitler’s genetic line and racial vision.

Anke develops a liking for Eva, whom she considers an innocent young woman slavishly enamored of the devil. She develops much more than a liking for a handsome and considerate Nazi officer, Captain Deiter Stenz, who carries out important duties at the headquarters. She is perplexed by how a man she respects can be part of the Nazi mission. Readers will be similarly puzzled.

Suspense — and there is plenty of it — in this carefully developed narrative arises primarily from the ups and downs in Eva’s high-stakes pregnancy, the risks of Anke’s romantic dalliance, and the shadowy references to the progress of the war. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: German Midwife

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The traumas of our individual and collective pasts do not simply vanish

Review by Philip K. Jason

Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Trauma, by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Ph.D. Monkfish Book Publishing / Adam Kadmon Books. 240 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Here is one of the most valuable new books for 2019. Though it seems at first that it is aimed at health professionals and religious leaders, particularly of the Jewish faith, it has a much wider application. Someone in your family needs this book to help come to terms with the residual effects of complex trauma – trauma that is transmitted, sometimes within a particular ethnic group from generation to generation. 

Others need this book to understand the seemingly strange and often self-destructive behavior of loved ones, close friends, co-workers, and other victims of psychological trauma who suffer without even knowing why.

Rabbi Firestone’s book is intellectually challenging, spiritually rich, infinitely patient, and filled with healing optimism. It offers understanding, strategies for overcoming trauma, and accessible case histories of a varied group of trauma survivors whose paths and personalities will encourage all who seek  recovery and renewal.

The peculiar history of Jewish populations – a history weighted with pogroms, genocide, exclusion, and endless epochs of plain old anti-Semitism – receives startling, illuminating attention. Rabbi Firestone knows of what she speaks. Her discussions include slices of her own family history.

Significant here, beyond but yet entangled with the family dynamics, is the author’s withdrawal from Jewish life and identity and – some time later – her reconnection. Her discovery of the wisdom in Judaism’s fundamental texts opened channels of learning that eventually led to her studies and work as a psychotherapist and her emergence as an influential rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement.

Firestone

However, the value of this study is not limited to Jewish sufferers or Jewish families and communities.

One theme of the book is that we have, or can develop, the insights and tools to make our lives whole again if they were fractured by trauma. Another theme is that “intergenerational trauma” is a genuine, verifiable medical condition, and that it even has a significant physical dimension. Yet another theme is that such a condition must be attended to – it will not cure itself.

Rabbi Firestone’s exploration of this condition includes the introduction of recognizable behaviors (warning signs) and the professional vocabulary that assists in the understanding of trauma-induced or trauma-prolonged behaviors.

Other provocative explorations in this book include a productive revisioning of the stigmatizing label that the Jews are a “chosen people.” Similarly refreshing is Rabbi Firestone’s perspective on the troublesome biblical pronouncement about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children for generations. The understandings she suggests are a fine capstone to her tonic presentation exploring “intergenerational trauma.”

Of immense practical value is her construction of the seven “principles of Jewish cultural healing.”

A lively mind, a caring heart, and a love of Judaism’s profound soul make this a must have contribution to the literature of healing.

About the Author:

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Ph.D., is an author, Jungian psychotherapist, and founding rabbi of Congregation Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, Colorado. Ordained by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 1992, she is a leader in the international Jewish Renewal Movement and has served as co-chair of Rabbis for Human Rights, North America, which is now known as T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. She holds a doctorate in depth psychology from the Pacific Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California. She has written several other books, including With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith.

This review appears in the June 2019 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

 

 

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A war orphan’s journey from trauma to transcendence, with all the stops along the way

Review by Philip K. Jason

A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan, by Sylvia Ruth Gutmann. Epigraph Books. 318 pages. Hardcover $26.95, trade paperback $18.95.

This is one of the most heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting Holocaust narratives. While the Holocaust is mostly in the background of this personal memoir, it is the driving force of the author’s life – and of her parents’ death and the death of many other relatives. It is the story of living in a vacuum that created self-doubt, depression, and poor choices. Sylvia’s story is a highly complex story that is simply told in an open, friendly manner. It is a story of self-discovery and self-making. It is a story about victory after failures, humiliations, and destructive patterns of behavior. It is honest to its core. 

Three-year-old Sylvia’s parents managed to arrange for the young girl and her two older sisters to reach safety before the parents met their deaths at Auschwitz.  She reached the United States at the age of seven, along with her sisters Rita, then fourteen, and Susi, a year or so younger. The series of traumas that brought Sylvia to New York obliterated her memory and left her with emptiness, foreboding, and a sense of unworthiness. She is taken in by her Uncle Sam, who shows strong affection, and his wife Gerdy, who treats her terribly, amplifying the child’s sense of unworthiness. This couple has two sons, the older of which, Michel, becomes a life-long friend, but there are periods of hostility between these cousins.

Sylvia has no memories, and she has a struggle to access the English language necessary for her education. Her sense of her younger self comes from conversations with Rita, who serves a maternal role. Rita builds a sense of Sylvia’s past that is largely accurate, but many decades later, as an old woman, Sylvia discovers inaccuracies and fills in blanks that were outside of Rita’s knowledge.

During her school years, Sylvia gains solace from her sense of non-belonging by over-indulging in sweets, and her weight problem brings humiliation. Addictive behavior of various kinds shows up throughout much of her life, as do periods of self-control and achievement. Her choices in men seem to bode well at first, but too often end up being disasters, plunging her into despair. However, she finds employments that allow her a modest income. The yearning to free herself from poor choices and low self-esteem brings her to successful periods of professional therapy. And Rita is always available, if not in person, then over the phone, to console her.

Over time, Sylvia gains self-knowledge and strength. Her one positive marriage, with Milton, a very wealthy and caring man, helps her gain balance, but after his death, with no continuing support from his heirs, she is back in a panic situation for herself and her son David, whom she must often support even in his adulthood.

One of her more eccentric relationships is with a young man named Jannek, a Czech student studying in Germany. At sixty-two, Sylvia is about forty years older than her suitor, but she travels to Germany to live with him. It is in the country that still holds the secrets of her early childhood that Sylvia begins telling her story to various groups, people of all ages and backgrounds, and their positive responses create a mission that soon dominates her life. The feedback she gets even ameliorates her hostility to the German people.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann

While in Germany, she finds the place of her birth and meets individuals who knew her parents – and even knew the toddler Sylvia. Amazingly, she also meets the woman who so many years ago, at the age of nineteen, was entrusted by Sylvia’s mother with the fate of her three daughters.

While the historical and personal events, the few satisfying and frequent debilitating relationships, the kaleidoscopic moods, and hard-won insights of A Life Rebuilt are enough to draw readers to the book and its amazingly resilient author, it is Sylvia’s voice that is extraordinarily compelling. It is a voice like no other: sometimes frantic, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes fragile, sometimes strong, but always authentic and deeply revelatory. Over the decades, it shifts from being a voice of innocence to a voice of experience. It is a most remarkable and valuable voice. Hear it and you will be moved, enlightened, and changed.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann immigrated with her two older sisters to the United States in 1946, four years after the murder of her parents in Auschwitz. Sylvia is a former spokesperson on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York City. Every year she shares her story at numerous Holocaust remembrance and Wounded Warrior ceremonies organized by the U.S. Military. She has also spoken extensively throughout Europe and was granted honorary German citizenship in 2002 for her peace activism. Sylvia currently lives in Massachusetts. In addition to having spent several years in Berlin, Germany, she has also lived in New York City, San Diego, Miami, Washington, DC, and Rhinebeck, New York. Over the years her friends learned to use a pencil when adding her home to their address book!!

See https://sylviaruthgutmann.com/

This review appears in the August 2018 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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“Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August,” by Oliver Hilmes; Jefferson Chase, trans.

Other Press. 296 pages. Hardcover $24.95.  

Oliver Hilmes provides magnificent storytelling in his vivid rendering of the Nazi-hosted Olympics. Through a shrewdly handled present tense narration, he puts readers into the scene of a phenomenal display that was meant to dazzle the world and blind it to Germany’s march toward the Holocaust. His narrative tone conveys intimacy and distance at the same time.

The sixteen days fill sixteen short chapters, each one replete with the predicted weather, tidbits of the day’s news, Nazi leaders and their devotees, high-living celebrity Berliners, restauranteurs, and musicians being showcased at posh venues. Then of course there are the visitors: spellbound American and European tourists thrilled to be part of the immense crowds at a once in a lifetime opportunity.

It’s a portrait of a glorious city at the pinnacle of its glory, However, the glory comes at an enormous expense. Who knew in 1936 how the monstrous machine that Hitler was building would invite destruction upon the German people and this splendid city?

Portrait Dr. Oliver Hilmes in Berlin
© Max Lautenschlaeger, Berlin

Hilmes implants plenty of clues about how the nation that was already a nightmare for many Jews would meet an unexpected destiny. He profiles many Jewish individuals whose livelihood is threatened, and we receive news about many others who live under already under Nazi subjugation.

Key personalities move in and out of the chapters as the days go by. Among them is the sensational young American author, Thomas Wolfe, a frequent visitor to Berlin, who is not expecting to discover the hidden corruption beneath the glitter and glamour of the city he has adored. When he pens his impressions about the Nazi betrayal of Germany’s better self, he finds his books no longer available in the Reich’s bookstores. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here:  Berlin 1936

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A young, partly Jewish German soldier serves as a member of elite SS unit

The Soul of a Thief, by Steven Hartov. Hanover Square Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

“Mischling” is a German term employed in the period of Nazi rule for those with mixed ancestry; that is, less than fully Aryan parentage. Most often it connotes individuals of mixed Aryan and Jewish blood. The narrator of this admirable historical novel, Shtefan Brandt, is one such person.  

Somehow, Shtefan – like approximately 150,000 people of similar ethnic/racial status – came to serve in Germany’s military during WWII. In this case, because the SS leader found something attractive about him, Shtefan became an adjutant to Colonel Erich Himmel and thus attached to the Waffen SS command.

It is not clear if Himmel knew that his young functionary was of tainted blood. What is clear is that Shtefan’s status made him especially vulnerable. His true identity, if known, could lead to all kinds deprivations. It could even lead to his death (as if the risk of death in battle was not enough). If Himmel was aware of the mischling, he would take opportunities to exploit Shtefan’s marginality. For reasons beyond the ladder of command, Shtefan could not question any command, let alone say “no.”

Shtefan, as memoirist-narrator, draws a complex portrait of Himmel. The man is skillful, charismatic, and gregarious. However, he also exhibits cruelty, extreme egocentricity, and unquenchable lust. For the most part, he effectively rallies those in his command. Yet he is frequently unpredictable. He certainly takes every opportunity to abuse women, and he does so monstrously and without remorse.

In a way, Himmel is Shtefan’s benefactor. He insists that his fighting men are real men. No virgins will do. And when Shtefan reveals his sexual innocence, this leader makes the appropriate arrangements. The young man is terrified, though finally successful, oddly appreciative, and indebted.

Hartov

Shtefan adores the colonel and despises him at the same time.

Nazi-occupied Europe during 1943 and 1944 is the novel’s overall setting. Many scenes are set on the Russian front, and many others in occupied France. Hartov’s portraits of the places and the battle actions are magnificent. Through the lens of Shtefan’s processing of Himmel’s decisions and leadership strength, readers witness appalling combat scenes. Sensory detail is abundant: uniforms in repair and disrepair, weapons of all kinds, and the effects of those weapons on combatants, buildings, and vegetation.

And then there is Gabrielle Belmont. This gorgeous young woman lives in the town of Le Pontet, now occupied by Nazi forces. Himmel has discovered her and sends Shtefan to bring her to the colonel’s bed. She resists these second-hand advances, which impresses Shtefan immensely. In fact, the young adjutant has fallen in love with her. Eventually, Himmel finds a way of forcing her to his will. Shtefan is crushed, but he eventually learns that she had no choice.

The stretch of the novel that involves the interplay of these three characters – Shtefan, Gabrielle, and Himmel – includes many of the book’s most memorable scenes. Many other fine scenes take readers through stages of the Allied invasion. Hartov boldly paints the dashed hopes of Nazi leadership and the ensuing chaos leading up to Hitler’s death.

And then, once Himmel comes to see that he will be on the losing side of the war, there is his plan to steal Allied money and “retire” – probably to another continent! Shtefan, privy to the plan and no longer in thrall of Himmel, intends to play along but them take the money and run.

Though I enjoyed this book immensely for its hard-pulsing action, sharply drawn combat scenes, and distinctive characters, I kept waiting for the consequences of raising the mischling issue. Somehow, it’s just not there. Nor is the relevance of Gabrielle eventually being identified as a Jewess. A closing reference to the Jewish Brigade seems forced.

Nonetheless, I heartily recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction and combat literature. Also, just for good measure, there is a surprising amount of wit and humor mixed in with the horrors of the Nazi war machine.

STEVEN HARTOV is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller In the Company of Heroes, as well as The Night Stalkers and Afghanistan on the Bounce. For six years he served as Editor-in-Chief of Special Operations Report. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, FOX, and most recently the History Channel’s Secret Armies. A former Merchant Marine sailor, Israeli Defense Forces paratrooper and special operator, he is currently a Task Force Commander in the New York Guard. He lives in New Jersey.

This review appears in the April 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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“Secrets and Shadows” by Roberta Silman

Campden Hill Books, 295 pages. Hardcover $24.00. Trade paperback $12.00

The plot of this intriguing new novel oscillates between a Jewish boy’s life in wartime Berlin and that same person’s life as a temporary returnee in 1989, soon after the Berlin Wall comes down. Author Roberta Silman carefully measures the changed and unchanged conditions in Berlin in these two eras, both for the city at large and for Jewish-German relations. 

Successful lawyer Paul Bertrand, born Paul Berger, was the child and is the man returning to face his past. Paul was divorced by his wife, Eve, five years earlier after twenty-three years of marriage, in part because of his unfaithfulness—yet he has somehow persuaded her to accompany him back to Berlin. The Bertrands have three young adult children: two sons and a daughter. The manner in which Paul and Eve, separately and together, have parented these children is an interesting thread through the novel. The couple’s relationship to their own parents and other relatives also informs the narrative in significant ways.

Silman

 

A prosperous family, the Bergers were secreted during the war in their own home. Silman vividly paints the sharply contrasting characters who protected them. Her astute portrait of the families’ interactions reveals a toxic mixture of indebtedness and resentment. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Secrets and Shadows.

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