This book, based on the author’s real life experiences, is about the “Czech Family Camp” which existed at Auschwitz-Birkenau between September 1943 and July 1944. When I first started reading it, I was trying, because the first few chapters were written in quite a simplistic style, to work out whether it was aimed at adults or children; and I decided that it had to be aimed at adults because a book for children wouldn’t go into so much detail about the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Then I remembered reading Judy Blume’s “Starring Sally J Freedman as herself” (which I’d been thinking about only recently, because it came up in a discussion about, bizarrely, party lines on telephones,) which, although it’s set in the safety of post-war Florida, makes repeated references to allegations that the Nazis made lampshades from human skin*, in the context of the Freedman family having lost relatives in the Holocaust. I was still at primary school when I read that.
There wasn’t a lot of Holocaust literature available back then, but there is now, for readers of all ages. I sometimes think that number of novels set at concentration camps (as opposed to actual memoirs) is possibly beginning to get a little OTT. I genuinely can’t decide whether having a load of concentration camp novels on a “2 for £8” offer at the supermarket, three days before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is good because the books raise awareness of the subject, or a bit tacky. Possibly both?
Some of the books are better than others. This one started slowly, but I was absolutely engrossed in it by the end. And it’s definitely meant for adults. Partly because some of the content isn’t for children, and at the same time, because some of the prose in the later chapters is so lyrical. And some of it goes very deep, as the characters try to make sense of what’s happening, and to make sense of history.
This “Czech family camp” seems to have been established as a sort of show camp in the event of a Red Cross visit being agreed, and to enable prisoners to send letters back to Terezin/Theresienstadt, from where they’d been deported, to dispel reports that being sent to Poland meant being murdered. The prisoners there were kept in slightly better conditions than those in other blocks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and those in the children’s block got better food, and were allowed lessons and games of sorts.
The camp was liquidated in March 1944, and most of the prisoners were sent to the gas chambers, with most of those who survived the liquidation being sent to the gas chambers a few months later. Only 1,294 of the 17,517 (figures from Wikipedia) people who were in the Family Camp survived, including around 80 teenage boys.
The protagonist, Alex, is one of the teachers/supervisors in the children’s block. He’s been told by one of the clerical staff that the family camp’s going to be liquidated at a particular date, so he knows, all the time, that he hasn’t got long to live, and that none of the children are going to grow up. And yet there’s this amazing humanity there. The children draw pictures, and put on plays. When they have their heads shaved, the prisoners manage to get hold of some wool, and knit caps to cover their heads with. They even joke on April Fools’ Day that rations are going to be increased. I don’t know how true any of this is, but it is based on the author’s own experiences.
Inevitably, there’s an overriding obsession with food. But there’s also a lot of talk about books – the author eventually married “The Librarian of Auschwitz” – and about art, and about music. Music’s important from a practical basis, in that getting into the orchestra meant better rations and better treatment, but it’s not just that: it’s about remaining human. Despite everything, many of the prisoners have not been brutalised: they retain a lot of who they were before. Quote from Viktor Ullmann, who was deported from Terezin to Auschwitz and was murdered there, and whose music was played at the Holocaust remembrance event held in Jerusalem yesterday, attended by Prince Charles and many other senior dignitaries – “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavour with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.”.
Relationships are formed. In the case of our guy Alex, it’s a genuine romance, with one of the other teachers. She’s an artist. She takes art lessons with the children – and earns extra food rations by drawing family trees and pictures of naked prisoners for Mengele to use in his “research”. In other cases, however, it’s coercive, either the trading of sexual favours for extra food rations, or because a woman has taken the fancy of one of the guards. There are also strong suggestions of rape being committed by some prisoners against others. Not all the prisoners have retained their humanity.
Most of the children aren’t brutalised, but they’re inured to death, because they’ve been seeing it for so long. They’re even keen to watch the trains arriving, carrying thousands and thousands more people to the gas chambers, because it’s something to do.
I said “despite everything” – the book doesn’t go into graphic detail, but it doesn’t shy away from anything. It talks about people being shot for leaving their labour groups because they need the toilet, about groups coming back from their day’s work carrying the bodies of those who’ve died during the day, and it talks repeatedly about the gas chambers, and the never-ending stream of people going into them, more and more arriving every day, how for every one person murdered it seemed as if another ten were coming in right behind them.
Yet people want to live. When those who weren’t gassed on arrival are inspected, people try to stand out straight, to puff out their chests, to make themselves look stronger than they are. They’re enduring inhumane conditions, and they know that death is probably inevitable and that it’s just a question of when, but still they want to live. Some of the women even go willingly into relationships with the guards for that reason alone. Some of the men are happy to work as Kapos for that reason alone.
There are things you don’t think of. There are no birds, because any that come near tend to sit on the fence … and are electrocuted. There are hardly any flowers, only a stray one here and there. Many of the children, too young to remember life before Terezin, have never seen a flower.
And Alex and the others try to teach the children right from wrong. Alex wonders about this. In those conditions, what sense does it make to teach children not to steal from each other, or not to cheat at marbles? There’s quite a lot of philosophy, and historical theory, as the characters try to find some sort of rationale for what the Nazis are doing, and to make sense of history. Why do people spell Khmelnytsky’s name the Polish way, Chmielnicki? It annoys me!! They also talk about possible ways of trying to change the course of history. Communism? Zionism?
There are plans for a revolt, or for escape, but they know that, realistically, they can’t succeed. But they wonder why the outside world’s doing nothing. There’s an interesting discussion when a new group of people arrive, and the existing prisoners say that they can’t believe anyone’s so stupid as to believe that being deported east means being sent to a labour camp rather than being murdered, because how could labour camps possibly require so many people, including young children and the elderly. The new prisoners say that they’d heard rumours about the mass murders in the gas chambers, but couldn’t believe them because it was just too much to comprehend, that such things could really happen.
It’s a lot to think about.
We don’t find out what happens to the main characters, in the end. Lisa, Alex’s girlfriend, disappears. Has she been killed? Has she been moved to another camp? Has she simply been moved to another block? The reader will probably assume that she survives, because Mengele admired her drawing so much, but we don’t actually know. Alex isn’t sent to the gas chambers when he expects to be: he’s selected to be transferred to another camp, because he’s young and strong. But we don’t get as far as the liberation, so we don’t know if he lives that long. We can but hope.
There are so many of these books now – the Tattooist/Librarian/Pharmacist of Auschwitz, etc etc etc. That’s good, in that it raises awareness of the subject, but some of the books have had poor reviews, and some people have raised concerns about fictionalising events at the concentration camps. This one is very good, though.
(*In the interests of those historical accuracy, it should be said that those particular allegations probably weren’t true.)
I don’t usually read so many Holocaust books in one month, but the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau has focused many historians’ attention on the subject. It’s unfortunate that Poland and Russia have seen fit to have a spat over it, it’s unfortunate that Messrs Macron, Pence, Netanyahu and Putin decided to use their speeches at the commemorations in Jerusalem to make digs about current political issues, and it’s unfortunate that the BBC have offended people with an inappropriate report by Orla Guerin, but I thought that Prince Charles spoke very well. As he said. “We must be vigilant in discerning these ever-changing threats; we must be fearless in confronting falsehoods and resolute in resisting words and acts of violence. And we must never rest in seeking to create mutual understanding and respect. We must tend the earth of our societies so that the seeds of division cannot take root and grow. “