This is the story of how three young women – Anka, Rachel and Priska – hid their pregnancies from Dr Josef Mengele on the ramp at Auschwitz, and went on to suffer in the concentration camps and give birth to their babies just before Liberation in April 1945. All three of those babies then met for the first time at the age of 65 and became very close because of the astonishing similarity of circumstances in which they had been born.
I’ve read several books about and by Holocaust survivors, and yet each time I read the detailed account of an individual’s experiences I feel the horror afresh. This account, brilliantly told by Wendy Holden, spares none of the terrible details; the one thing that keeps you going, as the reader, through the grotesque inhumanity of the Nazis, is the knowledge that “this story is only being told because the three women and their babies survived.”
As survivor Esther Bauer put it: “The first twenty years we couldn’t talk about it. For the next twenty years no-one wanted to hear about it. Only in the next twenty years did people start asking questions.”
When reading these books I have two immediate responses. One is to try to imagine how I would have coped with those kind of circumstances, and how I would have behaved. The second response is always to ask what this tells us about the nature of human beings, of good and evil, hope and despair.
This time, I had the following thought:
The essential requirement for “hope” seems to be “macro” thinking. For many of us, when life’s “normal” we live our little lives with our small goals. But when Force Majeure intervenes, throwing us into a survival situation – be that earthquake, tsunami, terrorist atrocity, or Nazi Holocaust – our goals shift from “micro” thinking to “macro” thinking, at the point where lives and hopes and dreams are torn apart – a shift takes place. A new goal replaces the old: to survive; or to know that your story might be known in the future. And these three women would have hoped that their as yet unborn babies would be the living embodiment of that.
Because, over the years I’ve read many books on the Holocaust and by survivors and by survivors’ children. I’ve listened to their stories, and I’ve engaged emotionally with those stories.
The first book on the subject which I ever read was a novel, “The Last of the Just” by Andre Schwartz-Bart. I remember, before I read that book (at the age of about 14), all I knew of the Holocaust was a vague knowledge gleaned from school history lessons. I must have mentally “sanitised” the information I received, because I’d somehow got hold of the idea that only adults were killed, and that all babies and children were saved.
When I read “The Last of the Just”, I began to understand.
My journey of understanding has taken me through movies, TV programmes, books…
As the generations pass, there’s an ever-present temptation to put the Holocaust into the bin of “horrible things people have done to each other in the past” and to somehow shift off the responsibility to use it for self-examination.
This is why I believe that would be so dangerous: because the Holocaust gives us insights into our own nature as human beings: an inescapable truth that we all live with, in every generation.
We must judge behaviour by the context of the times. And judged by the context of mid-twentieth-century, sophisticated European culture, Auschwitz and the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ represent the lowest act in all history….. Once allowed into the world, knowledge of what the Nazis did must not be unlearnt. It lies there – ugly, inert, waiting to be rediscovered by each new generation.
For the TV series and the book, Rees gathered testimonies from bystanders, perpetrators and victims, including revealing interviews with SS men and sundry European Fascists. It’s in this broad range of testimonies that Rees offers us a profound insight into human nature.
On page 261, Rees considers why so many went along with the horrors of the regime, and speculates that human nature is “elemental” – the realisation came in the camps that human beings resemble elements that are changeable according to temperature. Just as water exists as water only within a certain temperature range and is steam or ice in others, so human beings can become different people according to extremes of circumstance.
Rees makes the point that this is more than just the seemingly banal comment that human beings alter their behaviour according to circumstance… it is less a change in behaviour… and more a change in essential character.
His presentation of this led me to examine my own thoughts on the subject, in relation to my experience of life.
Over the years, the Holocaust has stood for me as the benchmark of pure evil, and Anti-Life.
But the other aspect of the Holocaust which particularly interests me, as a Christian, is the recurrent miracle of faith in God.
It has long been a source of great wonderment and awe for me, that there are those (not all, of course, by any means) who were caught up in, came through, and were subsequently affected by the Holocaust, who have not only held onto but have renewed and strengthened their faith in that loving and sovereign God.
When we consider the people drowned in that vast tidal wave of suffering, we may feel overwhelmed and ask What can we do? How should we respond?
The answer they themselves gave, when they were able to, was, “When the War is over, tell our story to others.”
What they most wanted was that their stories should be told.
What we then choose to do with the knowledge these stories give us, is another matter: it may profoundly affect our future lives, on every level: or of course, it may not – according to what we choose to do with that knowledge.
But from my own standpoint as a novelist, I believe this is the first essential: let us keep listening to, and hearing, and engaging with, their stories, as they wished. To me, that is our duty to those who suffered, and the least we can do as fellow human beings.