Saturday, 27 February 2016

“Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope” by Wendy Holden

 The Holocaust – the most terrible crime in the human history

The Holocaust was a process which was scheduled, institutionally organized and regularly carried out by the Nazi Germany. During the Second World War nearly six million European Jews were killed. In the years 1939-1945, i.e. between the German invasion of Poland and the end of the war in Europe, the Nazis aimed for the total extermination of Jews in Europe. On the basis of the Greek meaning of the word holocaustikós, which means burnt-offering, i.e. in the other words burnt in one piece, the extermination of the Jewish population was defined as the Holocaust.

Publisher: Little Brown
United Kingdom 2015
The persecution of the Jews began almost immediately after Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) had come to power, and it was in January 1933. Many historians claim that this date is an indicator of the beginning of the Holocaust era. In November 1938 during the so-called Crystal Night (in German: Kristallnacht), which took place in the Nazi Germany, Jewish property began to be destroyed. The Nazis started to carry out the mass arrests of Jews because of their race. The Jews were also imprisoned in the Nazi camps. But we must remember that not only they became the victims of the regime which Hitler introduced to Europe. According to the racist ideology of Nazis Germany, they considered themselves the representatives of a superior race (the Nordic-Aryan), and the Jews were regarded as a so-called anti-race. Hitler's racist and anti-Semitic ideologies were aimed at maintaining “racial purity” and then creating a group of "supermen".

In the history of humanity, the Holocaust was the most criminal period which is called Genocide. The fascists committed unimaginable crimes, not only associated with the Jewish people, but also with those who suffered from mental illnesses, were homosexuals, members of the Communist Party which was banned by the Third Reich at that time, as well as believers, for example, of the Church of Jehovah's Witnesses. However, any of those groups, the Holocaust does not apply to such an extent and on such a large scale as it was in the case of the Jewish people, whose destruction was carefully planned and prepared. Slavs – Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Yugoslavs and the Czechoslovaks – were considered by the Nazis as the worst race. Poles were also treated as so-called "sub humans" by the Nazis. On the other hand the Polish children who were “Aryan-looking” were subjected to the Germanization, and the representatives of the Polish intelligentsia and leaders were murdered, while others were sentenced to live in captivity.

During the Second World War the Jews were forced to live in ghettos and work as slave labour. The largest of these ghettos was in Warsaw, where more than four hundred and eighty thousand Jews were incarcerated. The Warsaw ghetto was liquidated in May 1943, and after the Nazi mass deportations to Treblinka in the summer of 1942 and after the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943. As far as the Lodz ghetto is concerned, which was the second largest, there were two hundred twenty thousand Jews in the greatest density. The quite large ghettos were also in Lvov, Minsk, Vilnius and Terezín. The last of which was created in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Some ghettos were surrounded by a wall or fence in order to isolate of the residents and separate them from people living outside. The Jews lived in the ghettos in inhuman conditions. Their property was confiscated and they were also deprived of their basic needs. The huge population density, lack of hygiene, hunger and the absence of basic medical care meant that very serious diseases were spreading in the ghettos. About twenty percent of the population died in the Warsaw ghetto because of the inhuman living conditions. It had happened even before the Nazis began their deportation to the death camps.

The railroad tracks, guardhouse and main gate of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
This is the view from the ramp located inside the camp (1945). 

Even before the Nazis came to power they began to plan their concentration camps with the intention of imprisoning the opponents of the Nazi ideology and regime. The first concentration camp was established in Dachau on 23 March 1933; it was two months after Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of the Third Reich. The biggest concentration camps of the Nazi Germany were in Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen. After the outbreak of the Second World War, the Germans established their camps also in the occupied countries’ territories. The largest mass murders in the history of mankind took place in the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The camp was established in 1942 and was located in occupied Poland. More than a million Jews and hundred of thousands of Poles, Sinti and Roma as well as other nationalities were brutally killed there. The final crackdown on the Jewish problem occurred when the Nazis began the mass liquidation of the ghettos which led to the extermination of the Jews who had somehow remained alive.

The policy of Jewish extermination by the Nazi Germans was particularly brutal against children because they were most vulnerable to the consequences of hunger and diseases. First, to the concentrations camps the Nazis sent the children who they considered as “unfit” to complete the fascist plans. In many countries the Jews were saved by ordinary people who for months or even for years hid them. There were situations when Germans occupying high positions in the Nazi hierarchy helped the Jewish people. For this reason a lot of people received the official title of Righteous Among the Nations which is given to those who in some way protected the Jews from inescapable death, although they were not Jews. So far more than six thousand Poles have received this honour. It is the vast majority of the people coming from other countries. However, it is said that during the war even more Poles helped the Jewish population to save their lives. We do not know their names. However, we must remember that most of the people were only passive observers of the Holocaust.

The arrival of a new transport of prisoners to Terezín.
Before Anka Nathanová was deported to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, she had lived
 in the concentration camp in Teresienstadt. 

At this point let me mention a family coming from Markowa – a town located in Podkarpacie near Lancut (south-eastern Poland). It was the Ulma family whose members gave their lives for those and together with those who they had hidden in their house. On March 24, 1944 a terrible tragedy took place in the village. That day in the morning the German police brutally killed seventeen people. Joseph and Victoria Ulma and their six children died as well as the eight Jews coming from the Szall and Goldman families including the Goldmans’ little daughter. The enormity of that crime is simply unimaginable. At the moment of the execution Victoria Ulma, who was then pregnant, began to give birth to another child who was her seventh baby…

Now let's focus on the unique book by Wendy Holden who in a very moving way describes the story of three incredibly brave women. Priska, Rachel and Anka were young married Jewish women who did not hesitate to oppose the cruel policy of the Nazis to be able to prevent their unborn babies from the death. Each of them was deported to the concentration camp called Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1944. Before the nightmare really began, each of these women had had to undergo a visual inspection of the fascist doctor called Josef Mengele (1911-1979), who asked the same question to Priska, Rachel and Anka: "Are you pregnant?" His beady eyes gave the women a piercing stare. However, they answered “No”, even though they were already aware of their pregnancies.  

Josef Mengele called
the "Angel of Death". 
We must add that after the war Josef Mengele was considered as a war criminal. On his victims he conducted his pseudo-medical experiments whose the primary purpose was to find ways of a genetic Aryan traits in children and increase the number of multiple pregnancies. Accordingly, the primary object of his interests became twins. It was on them he carried out his gruesome medical research. Then the twins were often killed, and the “Angel of Death” compared their internal organs. For his experiments Mengele chose victims primarily from the Jewish and Roma prisoners. He conducted his cruel tests without anesthesia. He conducted amputations, injected bacteria causing diseases, intentionally infected wounds and performed lumbar punctures. He repeatedly attempted the replacement of blood between the twins. In the camp he had two laboratories and an experimental hall at his disposal where he conducted postmortem examinations. The experimental hall was in one of the crematoriums. Apart from that Josef Mengele decided about the life or death of people from the new transport. He knew who would be destined to die, and who would be suitable to work for some time. A lot of prisoners were usually so weakened that they finally died or were sentenced to death because they ceased to be useful.

Priska Löwenbeinová (Slovak), Rachel Friedman (Polish) and Anka Nathanová (Czech) did not know what would have happened to their babies if they had told the truth. They did not know that Josef Mengele would do anything to snatch their babies from them for his bestial medical experiments. The women nevertheless denied their pregnancies almost without hesitation, and then did what they could in order to hide their pregnancies not only from the Nazis, but also from their fellow-prisoners. Of course, all that time they were working hard and starving while secretly believing that one day they would come home to their families and beloved husbands who were also deported to the concentration camps. The women hoped that one day they would be able to lead the life they had led before the war and which had been brutally discontinued. So, there were two things which kept them alive. Their profound belief and hope that tomorrow would be better and their great love for babies who they hoped would be born soon.

During their seven moths in concentration and slave labour camps, Priska, Rachel and Anka witnessed great cruelty. In Birkenau they were told that their families had been murdered in the gas chambers after the Nazis persuaded them that they were going there just to have a shower. The women could also see smoke rising from the crematorium chimney and they were terrified, because they realized that one day the Nazis could give their order to them to go to “have a shower”. After some time, all three women were transported to the labor concentration camp in Freiberg (Germany), where they were forced to do hellish work at the production of the combat aircrafts. Months later they were taken to another concentration camp at in Mauthausen (Austria). During those days the babies of Priska, Rachel and Anka were born. Hana (the daughter of Priska) was born first, then Mark (the son of Rachel), and finally Eva (the daughter of Anka). We must add that the women were not aware of one another’s existence although they were kept in the same camps. Their adult children found one another in 2010 and finally met in the place where they were born and where their mothers miraculously survived.

The streets of the Lodz ghetto where Rachel Friedman had stayed before 
she was transported to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In the background 
of this picture we can see the Jewish synagogue on Wolborska street (March, 1940). 

Wendy Holden’s book is extremely moving. Nothing is spared to the reader. The author describes the concentration camps’ nightmare with incredible accuracy. She also chronicles the heroines’ life before the outbreak of the Second World War and their deportation, and then after the liberation and their return to their homes to discover their apartments and factories had been stolen from them. Priska, Rachel and Anka had to start all over again. There was almost no one to help them. At some point they finally realized that their beloved husband would never come back home. Therefore they had to take care of their babies who survived only by a miracle. They had to fight for every day. First they did it in the concentration camps, and then in real life. The women were very strong not only physically, but especially psychologically. None of them fell into depression. None of them gave up. They deserved the greatest admiration.

Born Survivors is a book for the present generation and the next. It is the tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. While on the one hand there is a lot of cruelty in this publication, on the other hand there are also quite a few scenes where we can see some humanity in this whole Nazi bestiality. Undoubtedly, the symbol of this humanity is Antonín Pavliček – the chief of the railway station in Horní Bříza (a town in the Czech Republic). The man showed great courage and in spite of the danger which threatened him then, he helped the starving and terrified Jewish women who were being transported to another concentration camp by the Nazis. The US army sergeant – Albert J. Kosiek, whose ancestors came from Poland – was the next man who did a lot of good things for the liberated prisoners in Mauthausen.  

Survivors of Mauthausen cheer American soldiers as they pass through the main gate of the camp.
 The photo was taken a few days after the liberation of the camp (May, 1945). 

The book is filled with tremendous pain and human tragedy which should never have happened in the world. However, we cannot go back in time. Now we can only remember about all those who were brutally murdered in the name of a sick idea that we cannot justify in any way. We cannot forget about those who survived and who experienced unimaginable ordeals. Therefore Born Survivors is not only a tribute to the people murdered during the Second World War, but also a monument to the Holocaust victims and their families. 

If you want to read this review in Polish, please click here.
If you want to read the interviews with Wendy Holden and Hana Berger Moran, please click here and here


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