Every time I tell myself that I cannot read another Holocaust story because they are just too painful, another one comes along and lures me into its grasp. This one was another such story…
Lale, from Slovakia, volunteered in 1942 to work for the Germans in order to save his family from being deported (or so he was told). He, along with a cavalry of other young, fit men, were loaded onto cattle cars, given no food or water for days, and then unloaded onto the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau. On that very first day, he vowed to himself that he would survive, so that he could bear witness to the unimaginable cruelty that he and his fellow Jews (and others) were experiencing at the hands of the Germans. Lucky for him, he was picked out by the tattooist to be an apprentice and he became the main tattooist in the camp, making himself useful to the Germans. And in this hellhole of hate, Lale manages to not only inspire hope in others, but he manages to find love as well. His story is nothing short of miraculous.
I believe that the important message to take away from these stories of history is two-fold. I do believe that it reminds us to keep our eyes open – this can, indeed happen again. Not only has anti-semitism risen, but hatred for anyone who is “other” is so obviously rising (just look at the daily tweets from our so-called president). So we have to be vigilant, speak out, and vote for those who will be inclusive and bring people together.
But the other message I think this story highlights is that kindness wins. Lale shared the food he managed to procure with so many — and he was loved – and actually rewarded, in turn, for his thoughtfulness. He risked his life for others and when he could, he saved lives. He befriended everyone, no matter who they were. He became particularly friendly with the Romany – the Gypsies – who lived next to him for a time. Because he was curious and not judgmental, he became close to them and benefitted from their friendship as well. Through so many close calls and suspenseful moments, it was acts of kindness that enabled him to survive – his kindness and kindness from others. Kindness wins.
This is a remarkable story. Worth the read!
Addy Kurc tried desperately to make it home from France to his small Polish town of Radom for Passover, but in March of 1939, as Hitler and his German army was blocking travel through Europe, this was not to be. The Kurc family tried to feign normalcy, going through the familiar seder rituals, but each of the members of this tight-knit family sensed that there was something about to change in their world. Never, could they have imagined the horrors they would be facing, however, as Poland would be complicit in the anihiliation of millions of Jewish people along with Germany. And never would they believe how far they’d travel and how many years it would be until they would be celebrating Passover together again as a Kurc family.
I wasn’t looking for a Holocaust novel, and when I realized that that is what this was, I almost put it aside. But the writing was so compelling I couldn’t. There was something about this story, about these characters, that I had to continue with it. I had to know if Addy was reunited with his family. I had to know if each of his siblings (and there were 5 altogether) survived the war, and if his baby niece actually made it through as well. And how, if it were at all possible, would his parents survive the war, as they were elderly although not frail when the war broke out. The characters were very compelling and each went through such harrowing experiences.
And that was even before I knew that the story was true! Addy was the grandfather of the author!
I know that especially in this very difficult time, when we hear about hate in the news almost every day, with racial tensions, police brutality, shootings, and hate and bias incidents, it is hard to read about the Holocaust. On the other hand, I feel it is crucial in this time not to forget what it can grow to be. We cannot get complacent and think the it can’t get there again.
That’s what they believed in Radom in 1939.
“Ike” Goldah seems to be finding his way to adjusting to life after the concentration camps of World War II. He has come straight from the DP camp to live with his cousins in Savannah, Georgia. His cousin has set him up with a room in their house, a job in his shoe store, and he is even looking into doing some writing on the side, which was his previous career before the war. That is, until he has a surprise visitor who is like a ghost from his past – and seems to turn his world upside down.
I really like this book for its many plot threads and themes. You can look at the Jewish Holocaust themes, but there are also comparisons between the Jew/non-Jew and Black/White race relations that are laid out so starkly here. In addition, Goldah’s cousin is involved in illegal dealings with his shoe business that are a bit murky but that give the story another dimension. Goldah’s love interests also create another side story, giving his “visitor” addition a real shock value.
I actually think the book could have been expanded upon. It felt like it ended much too soon. The characters were great and there was so much happening in it that it could have been broadened further. I was left wanting much more.
I think this book was a good read, but probably edited down a bit too much.
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
So I have to share that this book was made all the more special to me because my daughter and I actually attended a reading of this book by Jodi Picoult herself! I was of course expecting the worst (cynic that I am) — that it would be a mob scene and we’d wait and wait only to be at the back of a huge room at the Barnes and Nobles at Union Square where we’d only catch a glimpse. But I was instead so pleasantly surprised! It was so well-organized and easy and utterly enjoyable. Ms. Picoult is the ultimate storyteller! She read from her book with the expression of a closet actress, she told us stories about the Holocaust survivors she interviewed during her research, and she so gracefully and with such humor answered many questions from the audience about herself and her writing. She is a gracious presence — she is smart and funny and warm and the kind of person you just want to go out and have a drink with. I could have listened to her for hours! After she signed our book and chatted with us for a minute or two, we walked away and my daughter turned to me and exclaimed, “Mom, I’m so star-struck!” I have to admit: I was too!
BUT on to the the book… The book has an outrageously “Picoultian”premise. A young, reclusive woman named Sage who has lost her mother, attends a grief support group where she befriends an old man in his 90’s. This man, Josef, admits to her that he is a former SS guard at Auschwitz and asks her to help him die and to forgive him of his sins. What he doesn’t know is that Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. In fact, Sage doesn’t really even know much about her grandmother’s history as her grandmother has kept the details to herself all these years. This book is the resultant telling of stories — the recounting of history — by the two characters who lived it. It is also the process of sorting out the ideas of evil and good as well as forgiveness and revenge. Can someone who has committed hideous deeds ever be forgiven? And by whom? Can a good person do bad things and get beyond that and/or compensate for it? What is forgiveness?
As usual, Jodi Picoult gives the various perspectives on the story in her brilliant way and has the reader pondering yet another enormous, controversial issue. This is why I love her writing and am already looking forward to her next book!
The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
This is the beautifully written saga of Lenka and Josef who fall in love in the late 1930’s in the romantic city of Prague, just prior to the onset of WWII. The war separates them tragically and the story tells the tale of their lives during and after the war. Lenka is caught in the Nazi web of ghetto, deportation, and concentration camps. The reader feels her hunger and filth and cold along with her, it is made so real. Josef manages to escape to America, but the loss of his family is a silent ache that he secretly bears his whole life. Eventually, life brings them together but only after they have lived thinking the other had died during the war.
This book is a love story but it is filled with well-researched historical fiction, with more history than fiction. Some of the characters that the author has woven into the story were real people that the author learned about in her research of the Holocaust. The author highlights, in particular, the artwork that was done by both the children and the adults in Theresin, the showcase camp set up by the Germans. These brave souls depicted, in their art, the hideous conditions in which they were living and some of their paintings and drawings were able to be leaked out to the world for publication. Many more were uncovered after the inmates were liberated. This book celebrated the many brave souls, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who fought their own artistic battle with their Nazi captors.
What was also unique about this book was how the author highlighted the tragedy not only of those who lived through the concentration camps but also those who escaped but lost family, homes and all that was familiar to them. While those who lived through the camps suffered unimaginable horrors, those who were forced to leave their homes, their possessions, their birthplaces, were also displaced and traumatized in their own ways. Those who came to America had to learn a new language, become familiar with an entirely different culture and learn to cope with the losses they inevitably endured. In addition, the “survivors guilt” must have been overwhelming. I love that this book brought this to light, showing further how the Holocaust caused such far-reaching suffering and tragedy.
Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson
When Ben Solomon begins his tale of how Otto Piatek, taken in and cared for by Ben’s family, turned against all of them and became a Nazi war criminal, you have the sense of this being just another Holocaust tale. However, as his tale unwinds, you also begin to get sucked in to the charges that he stole from Ben’s family and how a civil suit is the means by which Ben might expose his true identity. Otto Piatek, alias Elliot Rozenzweig, has created a persona for himself, however, enmeshed in the highest society of Chicago and known for his generous philanthropy. It takes the team of a gutsy PI named Liam and an attorney with high ethics and strong drive, named Catherine, to help Ben pursue his challenge.
Essentially there are 2 stories that intertwine, with the telling of Ben’s story that took place in Poland and the tale of the legal procedures. While the beginning of the book focuses on Poland, the latter part focuses on the lawsuit and the suspense of the legal proceedings builds and builds and makes the book very hard to put down. The author definitely draws you in to feeling such affection for Ben and wanting to see him win in his cause. You are also drawn in to feeling sympathy for Catherine who is fighting a whole team of expensive lawyers singlehandedly. Catherine is quoted as saying that this made “David and Goliath seem like a fair fight.” While it is only fiction, when you are reading it, it feels very real and very true, I think because of how well you’ve come to know the characters. By the end, you just can’t help cheering them on or booing the “bad guys.”
An essential read for anyone who is interested not only in the Holocaust, but in anything related to human rights and in justice being served.
The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer
I have a love-hate relationship with Holocaust-related books. I hate them because they are painful and tear at my heart and I often can’t sleep at night because of them. I love them, because they are essential to keeping the memory of what happened burning in our minds and they are often poignant and dramatic stories in and of themselves. I have read many, although each time I am leery about starting them. This one I put off for a long time, but it was recommended by so many people that I had to give in and take the plunge.
This one, though, was worth the heartache. It is a brilliantly written story of a young, Jewish man named Andras who goes from Hungary to Paris in 1937 to study architecture. While there, he falls in love and gets swept up in the politics of war.
This great literary saga truly captures the day-to-day miseries of the Second World War. The characters are loved and lost just as they were during the war. The separations and sacrifices are dramatic, just as they were in real life at that time. This book is also unique both in how it goes into detail about the earlier antisemitic forces both in France and in Hungary (prior to the war) and in its description of the war in Hungary specifically, which is often omitted in Holocaust books.
In short, The Invisible Bridge is worth every tear you will shed.