Newberys Read This Year: 12
Newberys Left for Goal: 3
Newberys Left for Total: 17
Book: Born Survivors by Wendy Holden
Priska. Rachel. Anka.
Three very different women with different life stories. But they do share one amazing commonality: they all defied The Final Solution and gave birth while imprisoned by the Nazis. In even greater defiance, all three of those children are still alive today.
These three ladies share additional facets of their lives. All were middle class Jews in Eastern Europe. All were happily married. All were captives in Auschwitz. All suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis. All had several family members murdered by the Nazis. All survived the war. All became war widows. And while we should never minimize or forget their tragedies, it is their triumphs that are most memorable.
Mrs. Holden takes us through each of their stories with very readable prose. We learn of their childhoods, their courtships, and their marriages. We learn how they dealt with growing Nazi oppression and terror. We learn of their arrests and journeys to Auschwitz. And that is where we can find great inspiration amid great cruelty.
The cruelty in this book affected me more deeply than I had anticipated. I am no stranger to Holocaust literature. I have read survivor accounts before and have been horrified at the things humans can do to each other. However, reading what these women went through (in the ghettos, in Terezin, in Auschwitz, in the Freiberg factory, in Mauthausen, and in the transports themselves) was by far more grueling than anything I’ve encountered before. The brutality was just so relentless. I don’t think Mrs. Holden went out of her way to shock or horrify or to deliberately have this effect on her readers, which made the whole experience all the more powerful. There were times when reading about these women’s experiences was so difficult to bear; I cannot imagine actually having to live them.
But as I mentioned earlier, there was also great inspiration. Once imprisoned, all three women managed to find protectors willing to do whatever they could (lightening the work load, sharing food) to help. Along the way, all three women met with acts of kindness, some by friends, some by strangers. The most moving of all these acts came toward the end of their ordeal.
After evacuating Auschwitz, the three ladies were sent to a factory in Frieberg. On the one hand, the ever-present threat of the gas chambers was removed in the factory. On the other, as it became apparent that the war was grinding to a close, some of the Nazis amplified their cruelty, and some of the prisoners were worn down into their baser instincts, making the time at Frieberg just as fraught as at an extermination camp. Right before the factory was abandoned and the prisoners sent to another camp, Priska gave birth to Hana. On the train itself, Rachel became mother to Max. Prisoners on the train were not provided for—occasionally the smallest amount of food and water for some, no provisions for sanitation, no consideration for fresh air in the closed cars, no protection from the elements in the open cars—so the death toll was high. When the transport stopped at Horní Bříza in Czechoslovakia for a few days, however, the train was under the jurisdiction of the station master, Antonin Pavlíček. Mr. Pavlíček replaced the open cars with enclosed wagons, and organized the citizens of Horní Bříza to operate a canteen to provide some food for the starving prisoners. When he found out that there were newborns on the train, Mr. Pavlíček tried to arrange a local doctor to care for them, but was prevented from doing so. The doctor and his expectant wife were disappointed and instead gave away their own baby clothes (and recruited some others to do the same) to the new mothers.
While the actions of the people of Horní Bříza were the most supreme examples of solidarity and kindness toward others, they were not the last. A few days after the train reached its final destination, the camp Mauthausen, the prisoners were liberated. By this time, Anka had delivered Eva. Hana, the first of the three to be born, was close to death due to the squalid living conditions and the lack of nutrition and proper care available to her. American medic LeRoy Petersohn took one look at her and immediately got his superiors involved in order to perform the surgeries that would save Hana’s life.
The actions of Mr. Pavlíček, Dr. Roth and his wife, and Technician Fifth Grade Petersohn may have been on the greatest scale, but so many others also rose to the occasion and performed equally noble acts. One of the many things I loved about this book was that Mrs. Holden noted when Jews, non-partisans, Germans, and even Nazis stepped up to do the right thing. She didn’t limit the acts of kindness to the good guys. Likewise, when anyone from the aforementioned groups was cruel, indifferent, or selfish, she noted it. Mrs. Holden didn’t make all of one group of people the heroes and all of another group the villains. She illustrated that there is good and evil among and within all of us.
The genocide perpetrated by the Nazis has to be among the human race’s darkest hours. This book documented that. The organized groups and selfless individuals who offered up resistance to the systematic, mass murder of Jews shine a light on the triumph of good over evil. Mrs. Holden tells an inspiring true story that takes us from the dark and into the wonderful light.