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‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

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One From the Archive: ‘Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis’ by Francelle Bradford White ****

After the German invasion of Paris in June 1940, Andree Griotteray ‘found herself living in an occupied city, forced to work alongside the invaders…  Her younger brother Alain set up his own resistance network to do whatever he could to defy the Nazis.  Andree risked her life to help him’.  Based on diaries written during the 1930s and 1940s and conversations which she held, and written largely as a response to the Alzheimer’s which now holds her in its grip, Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis has been lovingly penned by Andree’s daughter, Francelle Bradford White.  Here, White aims to tell us ‘her mother’s incredible story: the narrow escapes and moments of terror alongside a typical teenager’s concerns about food, fashion and boys’.

White’s account of her mother’s life begins with her being granted the Legion d’honneur in 1995, as a measure of her bravery during the Second World War.  She was also accordingly awarded the Medaille de la Resistance and the Croix de Guerre.  White then goes on to set out the history of her family, and the factors which she believes led her mother and uncle Alain to become leading figures in the realm of the French Resistance movement.  She discusses what life was like for a comfortable and relatively well-off family such as the Griotterays in France’s capital, placing particular emphasis upon the alterations which came ‘as tensions in the run-up to the Second World War’ manifested themselves: ‘Shopping, a choice of reasonably elegant clothes, a choice of books, non-censored press, attending university, things which today are taken for granted and which should have been theirs, were no longer possible’.  Andree’s own perceptions, along with interest in and experiences of certain elements of wartime life, can be seen throughout, from theatre and patriotism, to her colleagues at the Police Headquarters, refugees, and deportations.

Many of the diary entries are copied out exactly as they were written, and White speaks of the care which she has taken in  preserving her mother’s use of idioms and certain patterns in her speech during her own efforts at translation.  For instance, Andree’s entry for the 5th of August 1940 reads simply, ‘It is unbearably hot at the moment.  We are leading the most awful life’.

Throughout, footnotes add often vital historical background to the whole; they are both succinct and well penned.  Some also contain the author’s memories of particular items or incidences – of a marble bust passed down through the family from Andree’s father, for example.  Further background to her mother’s diary entries is given too; White sets the scene and continually asserts her mother’s life and decisions made against the backdrop of war.  Andree’s War is packed with such emotional depth.  On the 23rd of August 1940, for example, Andree writes the following: ‘Life is so sad.  It is impossible for a young French girl to be carefree and happy because the Germans are occupying most of my country.  Maybe it does not upset everyone in the same way, but for me to walk around Paris, my home town, to see Germans travelling around in cars and admiring the sights, is heart-breaking.  I do understand the government’s position in allowing them to march in, not wanting Paris to be bombed and destroyed, but it is very hard’.

Andree’s War holds interest throughout; the whole has been so well written, and the primary sources have been handled with such care.  The book is absolutely fascinating, particularly with regard to the extent as to which the eldest Griotteray siblings aided the Resistance.  Incredible feats of heroics show themselves, and the way in which the past story has been interspersed with more recent events, in which Andree’s efforts were both recognised and rewarded, works marvellously.  Andree’s War is a memorable read, and is certainly a wonderful addition to the canon of World War Two diaries, respectfully written about a young woman who ultimately believed in sacrificing herself and her own safety for the greater good.

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The Book Trail: The Holocaust Edition

I begin today’s edition of The Book Trail with a poignant memoir, Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ But You Did Not Come Back.  As ever, I have followed the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ link on Goodreads to come up with an interesting list of tomes.

1. But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens 9780571328024
In 1944, at the age of fifteen, Marceline Loridan-Ivens was arrested in occupied France, along with her father. They were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. When they arrived, they were forcibly separated. Though he managed to smuggle a last note to her via an electrician, she never spoke to him again.  But You Did Not Come Back is Marceline’s letter to the father she would never know as an adult, to the man whose death has enveloped her life. With poignant honesty, she tells him of the events that have continued to haunt her, of the collapse of their family, and of her efforts to find a place in a changing world.  This is a breathtaking memoir by an extraordinary woman, and an intimate and deeply moving message from a daughter to her father.

 

2. The Heavens are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod by Avrom Bendavid-Val (preface by Jonathan Safran Foer) 8302861
In the 19th century, nearly five million Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement. Most lived in shtetls—Jewish communities connected to larger towns—images of which are ingrained in popular imagination as the shtetl Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof. Brimming with life and tradition, family and faith, these shtetls existed in the shadow of their town’s oppressive anti-Jewish laws. Not Trochenbrod.  Trochenbrod was the only freestanding, fully realized Jewish town in history. It began with a few Jewish settlers searching for freedom from the Russian Czars’ oppressive policies, which included the forced conscriptions of one son from each Jewish family household throughout Russia. At first, Trochenbrod was just a tiny row of houses built on empty marshland in the middle of the Radziwill Forest, yet for the next 130 years it thrived, becoming a bustling marketplace where people from all over the Ukraine and Poland came to do business. But this scene of ethnic harmony was soon shattered, as Trochenbrod vanished in 1941—her residents slaughtered, her homes, buildings, and factories razed to the ground. Yet even the Nazis could not destroy the spirit of Trochenbrod, which has lived on in stories and legends about a little piece of heaven, hidden deep in the forest.

 

6197853. Wallenberg: Missing Hero by Kati Marton
A fearless young Swede whose efforts saved countless Hungarian Jews from certain death at the hands of Adolf Eichmann, Raoul Wallenberg was one of the true heroes to emerge during the Nazi occupation of Europe.

 

4. The Diary of Mary Berg by Mary Berg
After 60 years of silence, ‘The Diary of Mary Berg’ is poised at last to gain the appreciation and widespread attention that it so richly deserves, and is certain to take it’s place alongside ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ as one of the most significant memoirs of the twentieth century. From love to tragedy, seamlessly combining the everyday concerns of a growing teenager with a unique commentary on life in one of the 556980darkest contexts of history. This is a work remarkable for its authenticity, detail, and poignancy. But it is not only as a factual report on the life and death of a people that ‘The Diary of Mary Berg’ ranks with the most noteworthy documents of the Second World War.   This is the personal story of a life-loving girl’s encounter with unparalleled human suffering, a uniquely illuminating insight into one of the darkest chapters of history. Mary Berg was imprisoned in the ghetto from 1940 to 1943. Unlike so many others, she survived the war, having been rescued in a prisoner-of-war exchange due to her mother’s dual Polish-American nationality.  Berg’s diary was published in 1945 when she was still only 19, in an attempt to alert the world to the Nazi atrocities in Poland, when it was described as “one of the most heartbreaking documents yet to come out of the war.

 

5. Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel by Gotz Aly
1839242When the German Remembrance Foundation established a prize to commemorate the million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust, it was deliberately named after a victim about whom nothing was known except her age and the date of her deportation: Marion Samuel, an eleven-year-old girl killed in Auschwitz in 1943. Sixty years after her death, when Götz Aly received the award, he was moved to find out whatever he could about Marion’s short life and restore this child to history.  In what is as much a detective story as a historical reconstruction, Aly, praised for his “formidable research skills” (Christopher Browning), traces the Samuel family’s agonizing decline from shop owners to forced laborers to deportees. Against all odds, Aly manages to recover expropriation records, family photographs, and even a trace of Marion’s voice in the premonition she confided to a school friend: “People disappear,” she said, “into the tunnel.”  A gripping account of a family caught in the tightening grip of persecution, Into the Tunnel is a powerful reminder that the millions of Nazi victims were also, each one, an individual life.

 

6. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman 458673
One of the few survivors of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, Holocaust scholar Gutman draws on diaries, personal letters, and underground press reports in this compelling, authoritative account of a landmark event in Jewish history. Here, too, is a portrait of the vibrant culture that shaped the young fighters, whose inspired defiance would have far-reaching implications for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which pique your interest?

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One From the Archive: ‘A Love Like Blood’ by Marcus Sedgwick ****

A Love Like Blood is Marcus Sedgwick’s first novel for adults.  He is acclaimed as a young adult author, and has turned his hand to a varied range of subjects within his fiction.  The prologue of his newest offering opens in Sextanio in Italy in 1968, and its beginning is certainly intriguing: ‘Dogs are barking in the night.  He’s somewhere in the broken village on the hilltop opposite me’.  Using such prose, Sedgwick is able to set the scene within A Love Like Blood immediately. 

In the first chapter, which begins in Paris in 1944, the reader is taken into the narrator’s memories.  ‘Paris,’ Charles Jackson explains, ‘was free, and I was one of the very few Englishmen to see it’.  Our narrator is twenty five years old at this point in time, and is a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, an experience which he explains threw him straight into adulthood.  It is an interesting technique to begin a book close to the end of the Second World War rather than at its beginning, and it does work well here.  Sedgwick puts across the point that the city is so changed from one week to the next, and the way in which he portrays this information contributes to the strong sense of history which the novel holds.

On a trip to a chateau just outside Paris to view some artefacts with his CO, one of the items which Charles is shown is said to be one of the earliest known depictions of vampires.  He is startled and has to hurtle outside to get some fresh air.  He finds himself wandering into a bunker and there, he witnesses a man ‘drinking’ from a wound upon the body of a young woman.

Throughout, the sense of place and its importance in the grand scheme of things has been well thought out.  The book moves from Paris to Cambridge and back again.  On his second trip to Paris, Charles finds the couple whom he saw in the bunker eating in a busy brasserie, and he decides to follow them.  He is an honest narrator, but there are times at the start of the book in which he seems too preoccupied with himself and his own problems.  Just at the point that this begins to become a little wearing, it stops altogether.

Elements of mystery are tied up with those of horror in the novel, and the way in which the plot unfolds does not feel too dissimilar to that of Dracula at times.  Blood is, of course, a central theme – Charles becomes an expert in haemotology, and there is also the presence of the vampire, for example.  Although some of the elements of the plot are quite other-worldly, it is still, oddly, eminently believable.  Foreboding drips in here and there, and whilst things are able to be presupposed to a point by the reader, there are many surprising moments which aim to throw us off the track.  Sedgwick’s writing is easy to get into, and is not stylistically complex in any way.  Indeed, it does not feel too dissimilar to the style in which he writes for his younger audience.  In A Love Like Blood, he has crafted a great novel, and the plot points have been well placed into the whole so that there is not a dull moment.

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One From The Archive: ‘The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’ by Louise Murphy ****

First published in 2013.

9780142003077I am drawn to stories set during the Second World War, particularly when those stories are involved with survival.  I will read anything to do with this topic, from the diaries of those who hid from captors, to fictional accounts of the ways in which both capture and death could be evaded.  I also love fairytales, and modern day adaptations of old favourites.  I had therefore had my eye upon Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel for quite some time, and began it as soon as I had procured a copy.

Throughout, I found the novel incredibly powerful – unsettling so at times.  The sense of place and atmosphere which Murphy built up were truly stunning.  I loved the way in which she transferred the fairytale to a believable historical setting – World War Two in Poland, where two young children – renamed Hansel and Gretel by their father so that they appear to be more German – are left in the woods.  They soon come across the house of an elderly lady named Magda, who is purported to be the town’s ‘witch’.

Throughout, Murphy has successfully brought some of the horrors of the Holocaust back to life, and she describes the struggle for survival which Hansel and Gretel and their new family endure so poignantly.  Each scene, particularly with regard to the darker ones, were incredibly vivid.

The author has created a wonderfully crafted and memorable tale, which I found very difficult to put down.  Murphy’s ideas were so clever throughout, and the original tale woven in so cleverly, that I am hoping she will continue the theme of updating fairytales, making them fit into both our generation and our history.

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Two Reviews: ‘A World Gone Mad’, and ‘What Was Lost’

A World Gone Mad by Astrid Lindgren ****
9781782272311Astrid Lindgren’s wartime diaries, which only became available to the public in 2013, have been translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.  It is fascinating to view the Second World War from the perspective of a housewife – and later an incredibly writer, publishing her beloved Pippi Longstocking close to the war’s end – in a neutral country; thus far, I have largely read accounts like this one from either Western of Eastern Europe, and a Northern perspective was rather refreshing.

It goes without saying that Lindgren writes incredibly well, and the translation has been handled both competently and admiringly.  Many of the entires are rather short, and not every day is covered, but the whole is perhaps all the more compelling for it.  Lindgren discusses what has happened in the wider world at any given time, as well as closer to home; how rationing does not affect the Swedes, for instance, but all she has read from elsewhere is focused upon the shortages of even basic foodstuffs.  A great amount of emphasis is placed upon Scandinavia, and the effects upon it.  Lindgren’s diaries are a real joy to read.

 

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn **** 9781906994259
O’Flynn has been on my radar for quite some time.  I was undecided about which book of hers I would begin with, and chose this only because my boyfriend had a copy of it (although he doesn’t know where it came from, it must be said).  From the very beginning, I did like Kate’s character; she intrigued me.  I definitely preferred the sections which included her to those with Lisa and Kate, et al.; whilst in retrospect I can see that they were pivotal to the plot, they failed to come to life for me in quite the same way.  What Was Lost is well written and well pieced together; I’m surprised it’s a novel which hasn’t been more hyped up, if I’m honest.

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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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