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‘The Nine Hundred: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz’ by Heather Dune Macadam *****

I studied the Second World War and the Holocaust extensively whilst at school and University, and have been lucky enough to visit Holocaust museums and memorials all around the world, from Poland and Hungary to Australia. It is a subject which I keep coming back to, time and again, particularly as more scholarly books and works of memoir are published. As an historian, it is so important to me to learn as much as I can about different periods in history, and about the many causes and triggers which led to a particular situation.

In The Nine Hundred, Heather Dune Macadam has chosen to focus upon a particular instance and group of women whom I knew little about – those who were sent on the first official Jewish transport to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In Poprad, Slovakia, in March 1942, almost one thousand young and unmarried Jewish women, many of them teenagers, boarded a train. They were “asked” to ‘commit to three months of government work service’, and believed that they were going to be working in a factory, before coming back to their families. With a ‘sense of adventure and national pride’ they set off. Only later did they realise what was in store for them, and many had to watch whilst their families were also forced to Auschwitz, and sent straight to the gas chambers. By the end of 1942, two thirds of the women on this first convoy had been murdered, and just a handful survived the war.

The Slovakian government despicably paid 500 Reichsmarks – or about £160 or $200 apiece – for the Nazis to take these young Jewish women away, and use them for slave labour. As news travelled slowly around rural Slovakia at that time, the announcements were staggered, and no immediate warnings could be made before more women were taken away. Macadam writes: ‘All over Slovakia, the same notices were being posted and simultaneously heralded by town criers clanging brass bells or banging drums. The only variable between communities was where the girls should go: firehouse, school, mayor’s office, bus stop. The rest of the news was the same…’.

Relatively little is known about this initial transport, but Macadam has pieced together so many sources, from consulting with historians to the relatives of these first deportees. She has also interviewed as many survivors as she could firsthand. She writes that knowing about these women is ‘profoundly relevant today. These were not resistance fighters or prisoners of war… Sent to almost certain death, the young women were powerless and insignificant not only because they were Jewish – but also because they were female.’

The foreword to the volume has been written by historian Caroline Moorehead, whose book, A Train in Winter, I loved. She comments that in The Nine Hundred, Macadam ‘has managed to re-create not only the backgrounds of the women on the first convoy but also their day-to-day lives – and deaths – during their years in Auschwitz.’

Alongside the wider historical context, which she covers excellently, Macadam has taken the decision to focus upon as many of the individual women in this transport as was possible. This means that what we read as a result is concurrently a shared experience, and a solitary one. In her author’s note, Macadam explains: ‘This book would not be a memoir… It would be about all of them, or as many as I could find information on and fit into this complex history.’ She goes on to write: ‘It is a great honor and privilege to be a part of these women’s histories, their champion and their chronicler.’

I liked the way in which Macadam has structured The Nine Hundred. It is a work of non-fiction, but some of the writing reads more like that of a novel, allowing one to become involved with the individuals immediately. Macadam begins her narrative in the incredibly cold winter of 1942, just before the girls were snatched from their homes. At this time, rumours were beginning to fly around Slovakia’s small towns and villages: ‘Flames of doubt and uncertainty were quenched by reason. If the rumor was true, the most reasonable said, and the government did take girls, they wouldn’t take them far away. And if they did, it would only be for a little while. Only for the spring – when and if spring ever arrived. If, that is, the rumor was true.’ Macadam goes on to recap many of the restrictions and laws made against Jewish people in Slovakia before this point, which ranged from being ‘forbidden to reside on any main street’ in a town, and being banned from having pets, to having to deposit their fur coats with the right-wing Hlinka Guard, and the denial of operations at any hospital.

The Nine Hundred is an invaluable resource, which has a real quality of immediacy about it. It goes without saying that the content of Macadam’s book is shocking and horrific, and I did find some of it very difficult to read. The author demonstrates real strength in setting the scene, and in giving appropriate background information whenever it is needed. One gets the sense, from the very beginning, that Macadam cares deeply about each of these girls, and she handles the portrayal of each expertly. The Nine Hundred is heartbreaking, but learning about these brave women, many of whom were forced to abruptly grow up and face so many horrors, is a powerful and moving privilege.

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‘Survivor’ by Sam Pivnik ****

9781444758399‘Sam Pivnik’s life story is a classic testimony of Holocaust survival. In 1939, on his thirteenth birthday, Sam Pivnik’s life changed forever when the Nazis invaded Poland. He survived the two ghettoes set up in his home town of Bedzin and six months on Auschwitz’s notorious Rampkommando where prisoners were either taken away for entry to the camp or gassing. After this harrowing experience he was sent to work at the brutal Furstengrube mining camp. He could have died on the ‘Death March’ that took him west as the Third Reich collapsed and he was one of only a handful of people who swam to safety when the Royal Air Force sank the prison ship Cap Arcona, in 1945, mistakenly believing it to be carrying fleeing members of the SS. Now in his eighties, Sam Pivnik tells for the first time the story of his life, a true tale of survival against the most extraordinary odds.’

My sister purchased this as a gift for me when she visited Auschwitz back in August.  It is a Holocaust account which I hadn’t heard of before; I do not remember seeing any information about it upon its release, and have come across no reviews on Goodreads or blogs regarding the thoughts of its previous readers.  Regardless, as a History nerd, the premise appealed to me immediately, and I only waited for a couple of weeks before reading it.

Pivnik’s account is thorough, and all the more heartbreaking for it.  Usually with collaborative memoirs like this, I do not usually find that the prose style is quite up to scratch, but here it was refined, and read beautifully.  The prose style is fluid, and very much suits the piece.  Survivor is brutal in places; I expected this to be the case, but some of Pivnik’s descriptions were far more chilling than I had anticipated.

Pivnik’s bravery is paramount to his account; he survived conditions which millions did not.  The very fact that he writes so humbly of his own efforts is extraordinary.  It was astounding to discover how much he went through, and yet still came out of the other side eager to live and contribute.  Survivor is an incredible memoir, which is sure to appeal to those who enjoy reading historical accounts of the Second World War.  There is so much to think about whilst reading, and so much to get choked up about too.  Survivor is an incredibly important book, and one which I wish I had heard about sooner.

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‘The Auschwitz Violin’ by Maria Angels Anglada ***

The history nerd within me is absolutely fascinated by books which take World War Two as their focus, particularly so in instances where fact and fiction have been woven together.  Such is the case in Maria Angels Anglada’s novella, The Auschwitz Violin.  Translated into English by Martha Tennent, it was originally published in Catalan.  Anglada, who died in 1999, was one of the most important figures in Catalonia, as well as one of the region’s most prestigious authors.

The Auschwitz Violin has been on my radar for a number of years, but I was only recently able to find a copy via my local library system.  Standing at just 109 pages, this book is a slim one, but even before beginning, I expected it to pack quite a punch.

Each chapter opens with an authentic document of World War Two; the first of these details the fatal shooting of a Jewish woman along the ghetto border, who is trying to steal turnips from a cart.  The novel proper begins in Krakow in 2001, with a concert musician named Climent, who becomes fascinated by the violin of a fellow player, and wishes to know its origins: ‘When the lesson finished, Regina placed her violin in my hands.  I tried it, and the strings responded to my every appeal. like pliant clay being molded in my hands’.  Her uncle, Daniel, made it, she tells him, to ‘the same measurements as the Stradivarius’.  Regina decides to give Climent photocopies of all of the material which she has collected about the Holocaust, in which the majority of her family were murdered.9781849019811

Throughout, the third person narrative voice has been used to detail Daniel’s story.  He has been imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp, tasked with building a wooden greenhouse, in which ‘Commander Sauckel, a refined but sadistic giant of a man, was determined to cultivate gladioli and camellias’.  Whilst giving his profession as a cabinetmaker, Daniel is actually a luthier, a violin maker.  When we first meet him, he is being harshly whipped for the crime of oversleeping.  Anglada quickly build a picture of the horrific conditions which surround her protagonist, and continually reasserts his place within the camp: ‘No nightmare, he thought, could possibly be worse than the cruelty that surrounded them, pervaded them, as inescapable as the air they breathed’.

As soon as the camp command finds out about Daniel’s true profession, he is told that he has just one day to repair a violin, otherwise he will face grave consequences.  This process of mending also helps to mend him, giving back the humanity which he had been stripped of upon arrival: ‘He was himself once again, not a number, not an object of taunting ridicule.  He was Daniel, a luthier by profession.  At that moment he thought of nothing other than the job at hand and the pride he took in it’.  As one would expect, there is information here which deals with the making of violins, but it does often feel as though it has been rather overdone, and it overshadows other details of the plot.  Some of the scenes which detail Daniel’s craft also tend to be a little long, or rather repetitive.

Anglada details how Daniel comes to rely on those around him in some ways: ‘His fellow inmates – lice-infested, like him, to a greater or lesser degree – provided a warm, familiar reassurance’.  The details which have been written about so simply carry with them a haunting quality: ‘From the ceiling hung corpses and violins’.  There is a flatness to the whole, though, and it is rather too distanced – the fault of the third person perspective, perhaps.

Catalan authors seem to do novellas well, but I must admit that I have a preference for Maria Barbal’s Peirene-published Stone in a Landslide, which I read a couple of months before The Auschwitz Violin.  Whilst it deals with entirely different subject matter, the aforementioned seems to have had a tighter handle both over characters and scenes, and is not so abrupt in some places as The Auschwitz Violin tends to be.  There may be a problem with the translation which takes some of the human element away, and there is a definite lack of emotion here; but nevertheless, the strong story in Anglada’s novella deserves to be read.

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