Tag Archives: Holocaust

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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Author brews an unexpected antidote for a poisoned world

The Taster, by V. S. Alexander. Kensington Books. 336 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

Here is a totally gripping and credible imagining of how a young German woman was affected by the building chaos and cruelty during the late stages of Hitler’s rule. It gains its power through the very special perspective of its main character, who is also the narrator. In 1943, Magda Ritter leaves her parents’ endangered Berlin home seeking employment in a part of Germany less in the path of the war. Though she finds Hitler’s leadership abominable, she takes a position at his Berghof mountain retreat, and she mostly keeps her thoughts to herself. 

Her main job is to be a food taster, one of several protecting the despicable Führer from attempts on his life. Magda learns how to recognize poisons and how to control her fear of dying to save the beast. She makes friends and some enemies. In a place like this, dominated by true believers, its important to play along with the party line and not show your true thoughts or feelings. Indeed, your life depends on living a lie.

Despite her caution, Magda will find some people who share her views and are alarmed at Hitler’s menacing actions which are taking Germany in a nightmarish direction. Most notably, she falls in love with Karl, an SS officer, who belongs to a growing cadre of conspirators against the Reich. At first, they keep their relationship secretive; later, they can be more open about it – especially when Hitler seems to sponsor their relationship and urges them to have many children for the Reich.

Magda is befriended by Eva Braun, Hitler’s lady friend, which is a mixed blessing as the intelligent, attractive, and otherwise perceptive woman is clearly in thrall to the master deceiver. Nonetheless, Eva exhibits generosity and compassion – at least in Mr. Alexander’s version.

Alexander

Hitler stays on the move to make his location unpredictable. He travels among various retreats that serve as temporary headquarters. A large entourage travels with him, and the more and more indispensable Magda is among the group. Each of these places has a distinct personality. . . .

To enjoy the entire review, as it appears in the February 1, 2018 Naples  Florida Weekly as well as in the Charlotte County edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – The Taster

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“A Crime in the Family” by Sacha Batthyany, translated by Anthea Bell

 Da Capo Press. 224 pages. Hardcover $28.00.  

Originally published in German in 2016, this disturbing memoir tells of journalist Sacha Batthyány’s confrontation with the truth and meaning of the heinous crime his family committed during the twilight of WWII.

Batthyany

During a party held by the author’s great aunt, Countess Margit Batthyány, her friends and relatives murdered 180 enslaved Jewish laborers.

Though Sacha Batthyány was not the first to write about this horrendous deed, his compulsive research and meditations enormously broaden the scope of information and understanding. He draws from his personal experience as well as diaries, public records, private papers, and interviews conducted with a mixture of determination and anxiety. His journey into the past becomes a journey into his deepest self – his life as a grandchild and child, as a husband and father.

To read the full review, click here:  https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/a-crime-in-the-family

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A young mother’s letters and poems testify to the Nazi madness that she did not survive

Dancing on a Powder Keg, by Ilse Weber. Translated with Foreword by Michal Schwartz. Bunim & Bannigan Ltd. in association with Yad Vashem. 340 pages. Hardcover $34.95.

First published in Germany in 2008, this startling book is one of the most revealing eye-witness accounts of the Nazi diminishment of Jewish life and, finally, the destruction of Jewish lives. It is comprised primarily of letters written by the Czech children’s author and radio scriptwriter to her Swedish friend Lilian von Löwenadler. In these letters, written with great regularity and growing alarm, Ilse conveys the growing horror of the Nazi occupation on Czech Jews in general and on her own family in particular.

Beginning in 1939, Ilse wrote many letters to her older son, Hanus, who was taken on the Kindertransport to London where Lilian, who lived there, met him and took him to safety in Sweden. The surface concern of most letters is to offer and report family news to a good friend already acquainted with Ilse’s family, and to encourage letters in return. The more urgent concern, rapidly accelerating, is the one expressed as early as 1936: “Antisemitism is shutting all doors on me.” The context here is the contraction of Ilse’s professional status and opportunities.  

In Ilse’s community, traditional Jewish life goes on without much interruption for many years after Hitler’s rise to power and Czeschoslovakia’s subjugation. Jewish holidays are observed (in the case of Chanukah interwoven with Christmas), and Jewish education continues. But Ilse worries about turbulence in Palestine and the reliability of the Balfour Declaration.

Ilse exhibits no desire to hide her Jewish identity or pretend to be ashamed of it. However, she is very much attached as well to her German cultural identity. Though a Czech, German is her natural language. She is an ardent admirer of German literature, music, and art. Now, as a Jew and a Czech, circumstances distance her from a central part of her identity. She loves her homeland and her adopted culture, but it is all being taken from her. “That I am Jewish is beginning to appear like a curse to me.”

Conditions worsen in her part of Czechoslovakia. For everyone. Milk becomes scarce and electric power is lost. The local broadcasting station is in German hands. “Our homeland is destroyed.” And part of the destruction is the arrival of Jewish refugees from other countries. By late 1938, Ilse is ashamed of her former German friends and acquaintances, who have almost all disappointed her as human beings. She looks away when she sees them.

The dream of settling in Palestine flutters in and out of various letters. It would seem to be the only answer to “a world that so calmly overlooks this violation and robbery of the Jews.” In 1939, Ilse refers with dred to the expulsion (from Czechoslovakia and elsewhere) of the Polish Jews who were forced to leave their homes and businesses but not allowed to enter Poland.

By this time, Ilse is worrying about her failing health and the collapse of medical care. Her second son, Tommy, has lost his physician. She doesn’t know how to prepare for her family’s survival. Life in her town is “like dancing on a powder keg.” She sees a synagogue in flames. Jews cannot leave their homes after eight o’clock. Frequent relocations are necessary. Employment for her husband is now a matter of hard labor, which has ruined his health. The Jewish cemetery is the only garden that Tommy is allowed to enter. The surprisingly free-flowing mail communication is threatened.

And then it happens. Ilse’s desperation and desire to be of use brings her to volunteer as a nurse and teacher in Theresienstadt. There is a break in communications for a while, and when it returns only short passages come off Ilse’s pen. (At this point, I think she no longer has a typewriter.)

These letters are supplemented by an essay by Ruth Bondy, “The World of Theresienstadt,” which illuminates the nature of this combination ghetto and concentration camp. Though brief, it does a fine job of creating a useful context for Ilse’s life there and for the poems that Ilse wrote in Theresienstadt, that make up a major section of the book.

These poems are remarkable for the ways in which they balance intensity with calmness, outrage with understanding. Many of them describe the lives of the children whom Ilse nurses and teaches. She worries about the substandard and uncertain nourishment, she wonders at their innocence. She writes a poem about the concealed lute with which she entertains (although music is prohibited), the horribly crowded quarters, the destruction of family life, the misery in the children’s ward. She invents an inmate child’s moving prayer to God. She ironically celebrates the ration card that allows her to pick from the war’s refuse.

Ilse Weber

These poems are most often rhymed, with a variety of stanza forms being well-exploited. Whether the translations carry these patterns over from the German originals I cannot say. I assume they do.

In one poem, Ilse confesses that her “Judaism was not a gift” but rather “a gray cloud of anxiety.”

It is a very generous selection, perhaps all that Ilse’s husband Willi, who survived the nightmare, was able to hide – and then rescue after the liberation. They deserve a separate publication.

Ilse’s life did not end in Theresienstadt. When the youngsters that she nursed and taught were being relocated to Auschwitz, she volunteered to accompany them. Ilse and her younger son perished there. That is, they were murdered, like so many, many others.

This book, the preservation of her writings, is a miracle. It is her afterlife. We can hear her words, feel her pain, honor her compassion and courage.

Dancing on a Powder Keg is concluded with an “Afterword: Against Forgetting” by Ulrika Migdal, a scholar who sought out at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem “literary voices from the Theresienstadt ghetto.” Her essay illustrates how these letters and poems can be used in the service of remembering and commemorating what must never be forgotten.

This review appears in the October 2017 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

 

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“The Orphan’s Tale,” by Pam Jenoff

Jenoff

Can you imagine a Holocaust-related story that features circus performers? Can you imagine the Nazi regime, as it spreads across Europe, tolerating these vagabond entertainers? Historical facts support Jenoff’s imaginative story of hidden Jews, vulnerable women, younger and older lovers, twisting loyalties, and valiant spirits in The Orphan’s Tale, a colorful and moving dual narrative.

 

Jenoff tells her tale through two alternating characters whose similarities and differences bring out the best and the worst in each. Noa is a troubled teenager whose pregnancy leads to her parents casting her out. She seeks a means to support herself, and longs for the child she is forced to give up. Noa looks the perfect Aryan, but her baby does not. Her journey leads to the discovery of a boxcar filled with infants. One of the babies seems familiar to her. She takes him in her arms and can’t let go of it. After she discovers that the tiny boy is circumcised, Noa finds a hiding place in a milk delivery truck and takes the baby with her. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council Review, click here: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff | Jewish Book Council

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Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18 Berlin

Revised and updated edition. By Dina Gold. Ankerwycke. 328 pages. Trade paperback $17.95.

 

This meticulously researched and powerfully presented story examines how a prominent Berlin commercial building was taken from its Jewish owners, the Wolff family. The building, which housed the family’s highly successful fur business, was a notable structure from 1910 onward. In 1937, Nazi efforts led to a forced sale of the building, after which it became headquarters for the German railway system. The Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 complicated legal matters regarding ownership status, and even after Germany’s reunification the status of such properties was mired in red tape.

Dina Gold

Gold’s original text puts most of the pieces together. It also tells several stories at once. One is the background history of Jewish life in Nazi Germany; another is the engaging yet chilling family history; and yet another is the story of the author’s valiant investigative enterprise that had the ultimate goal of unearthing the truth and pushing for a just resolution of this particular and yet powerfully symbolic Nazi crime. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Stolen Legacy – Jewish Book Council . You will also find a list of discussion questions.

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“Mischling,” by Affinity Konar

Lee Boudreaux Books. 400 Pages. Hardcover $27.00.
Set in the autumn of 1944 and the first half of 1945, Affinity Konar’s fictional treatment of Dr. Josef Mengele’s maniacal experimentation on young twins and other victims incarcerated at Auschwitz is astonishing.Mischling (meaning “hybrid” or “mixed-blood”) is a novel based on carefully mastered research processed by the author’s artful and spiritually charged imagination. It is the most risk-prone type of coming-of-age tale that one is likely to encounter, held as it is in a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic frame.
Konar - credit Gabriela Michanie

Konar – credit Gabriela Michanie

The first half of the novel is set primarily within Auschwitz, in the dormitories, labs, and operating stations known as the Zoo. We meet the Zamorsky sisters, Pearl and Stasha, who have been temporarily saved from the usual work camp-to-execution passage due to Mengele’s mad interest in exploring the physical and psychological nature of twinship. He considers himself a rigorous scientist above all else, but it is clear that his perverted genius is driven by something quite different from a passion for scientific method. As the experiments go on, one twin loses much of her sight and hearing while the other loses the use of her legs. Mengele, who asks his charges to call him Uncle Doctor, works by taking the sisters away from each other, watching the consequences of their bonded natures being severed. . . .
To see the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Mischling by Affinity Konar | Jewish Book Council

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