Blog Tour: The Twins of Auschwitz by Eva Mozes Kor

From the PR: “In the summer of 1944, Eva Mozes Kor and her family arrived at Auschwitz.

Within thirty minutes, they were separated. Her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, while Eva and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man who became known as the Angel of Death: Dr. Josef Mengele. They were 10 years old.

THE NAZIS SPARED THEIR LIVES BECAUSE THEY WERE TWINS.

While twins at Auschwitz were granted the ‘privileges’ of keeping their own clothes and hair, they were also subjected to Mengele’s sadistic medical experiments. They were forced to fight daily for their own survival, and many died as a result of the experiments, or from the disease and hunger rife in the concentration camp.

Publishing for the first time in the UK in the year that marks the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation, The Twins of Auschwitz shares the inspirational story of a child’s endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil.”

I’ve touched at various times on this blog on my interest in certain passages of history, specifically the Second World War. As part of this reading I’ve covered some pretty harrowing accounts of what those of Jewish faith endured both in the build up to and during the war – the increase in persecution, the stirring of hatred, the betrayal from friends and their treatment in concentration camps. Eva Mozes Kor’s account of this time is a vital read.

Mihail Sebastian’s Journal 1934-1945 gave a revealing insight into the persecution of Romanian Jews at home but Sebastian was an adult, an educated man and writer. What makes The Twins of Auschwitz so startling and vital is that Eva, as a child, was not aware of what was happening as the war and persecution of the Jews progressed and Transylvania was given back to Hungary and she found herself in a classroom presented with maths problems such as “if you have five Jews and you kill three of them how many do you have left?” The Twins of Auschwitz is written in a simple and direct narrative that’s perhaps as much due to Eva’s interrupted education and the fact that she details events as she experienced them at the time – as a child. It’s hugely affecting.

The increasing and constant terrors Eva and her family endured at home are one thing and certainly make for disturbing reading – it’s always shocked me just how easily people turned against their friends and neighbours with a little encouragement – however, the other element of this book is that their torture didn’t end their: like so many millions of over Jewish people in Europe, they were forced out of their homes, into cattle trucks and sent to a concentration camp. For the Mozes family that meant Auschwitz.

Saved by the fact that they were twins, at just ten years old (though Eva later references two year old twins also being in their barracks) Eva and her sister Miriam were taken from their family upon arrival. Their parents and two older sisters were sent to the gas chambers.

Again; I’m sure we’re all pretty familiar with what awaited those that were imprisoned at a concentration camp. I’ve read some pretty horrific accounts and I know that given that reading about it can barely tap the surface. Eva and her sister had to endure this as ten year olds. As Eva states: “Being in Auschwitz was like being in a car accident every single day. Every song day something terrifying happened.”

The reason that Eva and Miriam were kept aside is simple: Dr Josef Mengele was a sick bastard. Mengele – or ‘the angel of death’ as he was later known – used prisoners for experimentation. With twins he carried out some truly shocking experiments including unnecessary amputation of limbs, intentionally infecting one twin with typhus or some other disease, and transfusing the blood of one twin into the other, attempting to change twins genders by blood transfusion or genital removal…. he was a sick bastard let loose. At one point he personally killed 14 twins in one night with chloroform. If one twin died as a result of a disease he’d infected them with he’d immediately have the healthy twin killed to allow for post mortem comparison of the organs.

It was into this hell that Eva and Miriam were plunged as ten year olds. While Eva wasn’t aware of the full depth of Mengele’s experiments she was injected with a disease meant to kill her. It was only her determination not to give in and her efforts to reach water that kept her alive. In cheating her own death though, Mengele went to town on her sister, giving her a multitude of injection, one of which would stunt the growth of her kidneys, never letting them develop further.

The Twins of Auschwitz documents the twins’ time at Auschwitz and beyond – the realisation that their family was gone and their desperation to find home and simply be children with a simplicity and directness that is both profound and heartbreaking. Though I think it’s also a case that it’s written in such a manner so that we don’t simply get lost in emotion but that we learn, we remember and we ensure that it never happens again.

What makes this book all the more vital is the additional epilogue on Eva’s recovery and how she came to a point where she publicly forgave the Nazis. Not, as Eva and this book are keen to point out, on behalf of all who suffered, but for herself. Mengele was an unrepentant Nazi. When his son found him in later life in South America (that the bastard died of natural causes is confounding), Mengele refused to acknowledge any wrong-doing and sure as hell would never ask for forgiveness. But what Eva Mozes Kor teaches is that in her forgiving him and the Nazis, she is both taking the power from them and that her letting go isn’t reliant on them: “it made me feel good to have any power over my life as a survivor”. By all accounts it changed her as a person, removed a weight and she became a happier and healthier person free from the bitterness she’d carried since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz.

The Twins of Aushwitz is an important and revelatory read. I ran the gamut of emotions across its two hundred or so pages, it’s one I know will stay with me for some time and one I won’t hesitate in recommending to anyone.

My thanks to Monoray / Octopus for my copy and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part on this Blog Tour.

“During the war…” Ten ‘Essential’ WW2 Reads

These days I find myself questioning the teaching methods / teachers I had back in secondary school. I know I always liked to learn about history but back then it was a case of ‘the eight Henrys and two world wars’ and even then it was pretty dry stuff and mostly dates from what I recall.

Cut to a fair few years later and while my wife and I were dating we wanted a little getaway, drove up from Paris to Normandy to a little B&B we booked online only to discover that we were staying in Coleville-sur-Mer, just up the literal track from what had once been code-named Omaha Beach.

Coming face to face with the scene of the bloodiest of landings and standing where those German gun encampments once sat was a pretty strange sensation only matched by the cemetery up the road. It re-awakened my interest in that particularly tragic and yet inspiring periods of our history. Inspiring in terms of what ordinary people are capable of when placed into the most extraordinary of circumstance. It was this element that does and still interests me a lot more than sheer dates and stats ever could and there’s no interest from me in the “guys and glory” style or “we killed all those Jerry bastards from here to Berlin” approach – it’s the personal that counts.

As this part of history takes a good percentage of the non-fiction part of my library, second only to the ‘music’ section and already having done so for that section, I thought I’d list out (this one’s been in the making for a while) those 10 books I’ve found the most essential during my ‘re-education’. After all, if we ignore history and it’s lessons we’re doomed to repeat its mistakes.

Max Hastings – All Hell Let Loose

Finding one book that manages to convey the vast depth and sweep of a global conflict in one volume is never easy but Max Hastings was always gonna be a safe bet and All Hell Let Loose does a great job of while still managing to focus on individual accounts and the impact of the war on the personal levels rather than simply get lost in stats and dates.

Alan Deere – Nine Lives

Alan Deere was a New Zealander who joined the RAF in 1938. He flew Spitfires in both the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain and fought throughout the war – a fighter ace with 22 confirmed victories who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His account of his time, Nine Lives, is written with a real warmth and charm while not flinching from the reality that faced the men – some little more than boys only a year or two out of school – during those dark times.

See also: First Light by Jeff Wellum and Stormbird by Hermann Buchner for a take from the ‘other side’ as it were.

Andrew Williams – D-Day to Berlin

A smaller focus than Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose but nonetheless detailed and with more insight as a result of the tighter arena, Andrew William’s D-Day to Berlin looks, as the title suggests, at the Allied arrival on the beaches, the fight for Normandy, the breakout and fight on to Berlin. It was one of the first I books on the subject I picked up and it remains an oft-referred to one. There was a BBC documentary based around it, though buggered if I can find it all these years later, and it’s written with both an eye to the overall campaign as well as the personal accounts and it’s always those that make these books worth reading to me.

Herbert Werner – Iron Coffins

Without a doubt one of the finest WW2 diaries and a real eye-opener. There weren’t many U-Boat commanders that made it through the war, such were the odds against them in the final half of the war when the tables were turned and the wolf packs became hunted with greater accuracy and techniques. Werner’s account is written with insight and with the use of his own diaries and records for accuracy and is a real eye-opener: in the space of those years Werner went from officer candidate in 1939, to the early victories the U-Boats scored in the Atlantic to fighting for survival and barely escaping the same fate that sent so many other crews to the seabed. Beyond the facts and figures, what makes Iron Coffins such a favourite on my shelves is the personal insights – while Werner is fighting for survival below, the war is destroying his home in Germany and the increasing – its important to remember the German Navy were not all Nazis – frustration in their orders and their direction.

Stephen E Ambrose – Band of Brothers

An obvious choice really but it doesn’t make it any less a great read. Of course I saw the series before reading the book, it was one of the first things I did on my return from France that summer and it spurned me on to find more hence the inclusion of this book and the next couple too. There’s so much more in Ambroses’ book than could ever be captured by HBO’s series (it’s always the way, there’s nothing new here) – such as how, in Bastogne, sat staring at the same tree line day after day, Darrel ‘Shifty’ Powers, was convinced there was a tree – a mile away – that hadn’t been the day before. Turned out it hadn’t – it was camouflage that the Germans had put up for their anti-aircraft battery, which was promptly taken out. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers is an essential read for all the obvious reasons – it’s the true story of those ordinary guys thrown into the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Major Dick Winters – Beyond Band of Brothers

Of course, reading or seeing Band of Brothers will leave you wanting more and appreciating what a damn fine leader of men Dick Winters was. His own Beyond of Brothers delivers more insights into both Winters as a man and leader as well as Easy Company’s campaign. A more personal account than Ambrose’s book and his guide to leadership is one I try to incorporate into my own life.

Robert Leckie – Helmet For My Pillow

Watching HBO’s The Pacific was a real eye-opener for me in much the same way as my recent watching of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War was – and identified the next area of history to read up on. The operations in the Pacific theatre were pretty unknown to me but I soon realised that was home to some of the grizzliest and barbaric fighting and conditions. Robert Leckie’s account served as part of the series’ source material and makes for a harrowing but vital and very well-written and detailed read that gives a real look at the impact of some of the most inhumane conditions coupled with the horror of intense fighting has on people.

See also: With The Old Breed by E.B Sledge

Stuart Hills – By Tank Into Normandy

My paternal grandfather served in a tank regiment during the Second World War though spoke precious little about it to me. Aside from the closeness of Stuart Hills’ surname, the fact that he came from just down the road in Tonbridge and found himself in fierce tank combat in European fields that, while geographically close, must have felt like a million miles away from the security of Kent made this a real connection for me. These personal and individual accounts of the war that are printed by smaller publishing houses and take a little finding are all the more interesting to me and reveal so much more than statistics on the number of tanks that “brewed up” ever could and gave me a real eye-opening look at just what my grandfather may have faced when his tank rolled across those fields.

Matthew Cobb – The Resistance

You know these days you’d be forgiven for thinking that every French person has relatives that fought as part of the Resistance movement and were involved in either hiding and ferrying allied airmen to safety or blowing up German trains… the truth is that only a very small percentage of the population were involved in the French Resistance movement and of those even less in such movie-style acts of sabotage. Cobb’s book is not only a great account of the movement but also of life in occupied France which appealed both the historian and Francophile in me.

See also: Americans in Paris by Charles Glass.

Ben Macintyre – Operation Mincemeat

After success in North Africa the allies needed to open a new front in the European theatre and liberate Europe. But where would and could they land first? In April of 1943 a fisherman found a corpse floating in the sea – the body was identified as that of the Royal Marines’Major William Martin and his attached case revealed to the Germans the Allied invasion plans.

Except this was Operation Mincemeat. The body that of a tramp and the documents all perfect fakes with one aim in mind – fooling Hitler and making him believe the Allied landing would take place somewhere other than Sicily.

Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat reads like one of the greatest spy novels but it’s all true – the level of detail involved in planning and carrying out the campaign, the now-available insight into how the Germans swallowed it and how it was handled their side make for real jaw-droppers. There were so many things that needed to work and so many details that could cause it all to fail.

But it worked: Hitler informed Mussolini that Greece, Sardinia and Corsica must be defended “at all costs” and transferred panzer regiments, planes and troops to that affect so that when the allies landed on Sicily it was comparatively unopposed – even hours later Hitler remained convinced it was a rouse. So much so that similar deception methods would be employed to dupe the Führer into believing Calais to be the landing point for D-Day.

See also: Double Cross by Ben Macintyre.

 

He’s Back, and he’s Fuhrious

I’ll admit it – I bought this book after seeing the advert at a tube station and laughing at the pun “He’s back, and he’s Fuhrious”

Modern day Berlin. A man wakes up on a piece of scrub land in Berlin. He’s in full military uniform. He’s unaware how he got there and has trouble remembering anything of the previous day or two. He’s Adolf Hitler.

The Adolf Hitler.

IMG_4755So – Hitler has, somehow, been removed from the pages of history and deposited back among modern Germans. A world he expected to not exist: he had given orders for it to be burnt to the ground. He believes that he’s here due to the intervention of ‘fate’ and has been enlisted to save Germany, again, from the horror it – according to him -finds itself in.

Mistaken as an impersonator, a very intense one who refuses to break character, he finds himself taken in by a newspaper vendor conveniently located close to a television production company who buy into his act and line him up with a slot on a comedy tv show.

The humour here in Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back is both laugh out loud and extremely dark.

There’s a fantastic section early in where, having been caught in civvies while his uniform is cleaned, Hitler berates a young tv producer who had made a comment about Poland. Chastising him for his slovenly appearance, Hitler launches into a tirade, doubting that the young man even knows where Poland is, demands to know if he’s ever served in the army while doubting so as he clearly does not know where his uniform is. Hitler knows where his uniform is at all times, produces a ticket from his pocket and announces “it is at the dry-cleaners”.

There’s the suggestion that Hitler write a marriage / relationship advice book: “you could call it ‘Mein Kempf – With My Wife'”.

There’s the point that Hitler’s uniform is a little damp and, for some reason, smells of gasoline…

The combination of Hitler of old mixing with the modern world is funny but can run the risk of being a one-joke pony with diminishing results. So Vermes uses the voice of Hitler to take a satirical swipe at present day politics – Putin is admonished for appearing with his shirt off, Merkel mocked, the ideals of Germany’s Green party likened to some of his own and the Hilter of old rocking up on the doorstep of the current National Democratic Party and tearing them apart as pale imposters.

There are, however, two elements that stop this book from being a great one. Both are down to the fact that the character here isn’t fictional. It’s hard to imagine the real Hitler ever acclimatising and adapting to modernity quite as wilfully and quickly as he does – in order to propel it toward it’s function – here. The fact that he takes so easily to computers and smart phones enables all that follows and is necessary as such but isn’t quite plausible. That being said, suspend your element of disbelief and get past it, it’s a comedy after all.

And… therein lies the rub. It is a comedy, never lays claim to be serious. But while the book is clearly a satire and takes swipes at all things modern and politico, it does so from the eyes of one of History’s monster. As a bit of a history buff I’ve spent several years expanding my knowledge of World War 2 – not the dates and the statistics, the human stories. A large part of my bookshelves are given over to it. I’ve read the accounts of those who both witnessed, suffered and lost at the hands of this nasty entity and his followers.  Even if we are continually reminded that “the Jews are no laughing matter.”

There’s a theory that if you expose an audience to only one point of view, one take, one narrative for a certain amount of time, they’ll begin to find little ways to identify with that voice. To do so with Hitler is a very bold move. It works at times but the over-riding element here, especially given the lack of character change and arc (there’s no reason the real Hitler would consider any opinion other than his own so wouldn’t change), is that this is still told through the eyes of a man responsible for some of worst atrocities known to man.

As such Look Who’s Back fails to be completely laugh out loud throughout – it’s hard to laugh with abandonment at his admonishing of modern day Nazis for failing to to live up to the party when you know just what his version of living up to that party would be. But it is a very funny, satirical swipe at both how he rose to power in the first place and could, conceivably, do so again – anyone who’s been sickened by the rise of the petty, small-minded and similarly prejudiced Farage and his friends can see it’s not too much of a stretch after all.

This wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but there are plenty of laugh out loud moments and a few moments that make you think.