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.

 

38, 39, 40…. 41! Pages Turned

I thought it was going to come down to the wire but I managed to hit my, strictly self-imposed, challenge of reading 40 books in 2017 and even managed to squeeze in an extra for added bonus points.

Oddly, aware of the looming ‘deadline’ I still pulled the hefty Phantom by Jo Nesbo from the the TBR pile to kick off the final stretch. Continuing the Harry Hole saga in chronological progression from The Snowman  I’m enjoying every instalment more than the last and Phantom was a real gripper for every one of its 550 or so pages, taking every element of the Hole saga to date and turning them up to 11. As he develops as a writer, Nesbo manages to take an almost literary-fiction style approach to the thriller genre, layering in so many different sub-plots and factors as to really mark his work out as a leader in the field.

Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Girl Who Wasn’t There is very much a book of two halves, so very distinctly different in terms of narrative style that I had to double check it was still the same story. It had been on the shelves for a year or so after my wife read it with my occasionally eyeballing it and I’m very much glad I decided to read it, if only based on the thinking that it’s slightness would enable me to reach my goal. Instead I discovered that it’s one of those deceptive short-novels, with so much packed in as to feel like a larger read. A beguiling an beautiful slow-burn of a first half coupled to a completely bat-shit crazy, what the fuck is going on, fast paced thriller of a conclusion.

With two weeks remaining in the year I thought I’d round out the 40 with the only non-fiction of the year (something of a rarity in itself) – Robert Leckie’s Helmet for my Pillow. As a big fan of HBO’s Band of Brothers and having read the material that informed that show too, I thought I’d do the same with 2010’s The Pacific. While not as absorbing, to me at least, as Band of Brothers there was an intensity about The Pacific which meant I quickly bought the books that had informed it…. and let them sit on my shelf as I never got round to them. Having been left aghast at the perception of his war by South Pacific – Robert Leckie put pen to paper to give an unflinchingly honest and occasionally harrowing description of his experience as a Marine during the Second World War. What I look for in such a book isn’t the “guts and glory” – that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to my near-pacifist mentality – it’s the accounts of normal people who find themselves in an extraordinary situations unimaginable to those of us who live in a sheltered, comfortable world (due, thinking about it, to their actions).

Helmet For My Pillow, clearly the work of a literary man, makes for a shocking read at times but I found it compelling throughout and deeply human. It certainly ranks up high in the list of those memoirs of this era I’ve read*. Leckie manages to find the humanity in what were deeply dehumanising circumstances. Particularly striking for me was this passage:

But, with the festive break from work affording more reading time I managed to clear Leckie’s book with time to spare and got started on book 41 of 2017, a gift from my wife, The Book of Mirrors by EO Chirovici, a Romanian author. Turns out this one was something of a big deal in the publishing world back in 2015 – this is Chirovici’s first novel in English and was snapped up by publishers in 23 countries, landing him a likely seven-figure sum just in publishing deals ahead of its actual publication in 2017. After all that hype is it any good? Yes, in short. I thoroughly enjoyed it even if, for the first session or two with it I was still feverish and ended up with it going round in circles in my head. It’s a simple enough whodunit that explores the reliability of memory but Chirovici delivers it with a lot of narrative play, a lot of psychological twisting and turning and a nice leaning on good old mystery and thrill.

I’ve hedged my bets for 2018 and not extended my aim beyond trying for 40 again.

 

*Iron Coffins by Herbert A. Werner ranks as my favourite and Alan Deere’s Nine Lives probably rubs shoulders with the U-Boat commander’s account.

For Two Thousand Years

I will speak of a land that is mine, and for her I will risk appearing ridiculous, and I will love that which I am not allowed to love.

Mihail Sebastian is a very important writer, one of Romania’s finest and yet, possibly, lesser-known.

Born Iosif Mendel Hechter in 1907 to a Jewish family living in the town of Brăila on the Danube, Sebastian studied law in Bucharest before being attracted to literary circles and the ideas of intellectual groups (which included Mircea Eliade). He had a number of novels and stories published – including For Two Thousand Years – yet his timing was tragic; a Jew at the time when Europe, and Romania, saw an increase in anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism. Even amongst his friends Sebastian was seen as an outsider. Even more so when Eliade became a supporter of the Iron Guard.

urlFrom 1935-1944, undoubtedly one of the worst time periods to be of the Jewish faith in Europe, Eliade kept a journal – it detailed the growing and horrifying persecution he faced both from strangers and former friends and the anti-Semitism that was rife in Romania at the time. It caused uproar when it was eventually published in 1996 (having been previously been smuggled out of the country by his brother in the diplomatic pouch of the Israeli embassy in Bucharest and kept safe until Romania was no longer under Communist rule)  as it shone a light on many a crime that had been quietly hidden and gained Sebastian a larger audience in the West thanks to its unflinching honesty.

I happened to find it, in English, one day some years ago in a bookshop in Bucharest – a few hours before my flight out. Thinking it might be more of a ‘war diary’ and with my interest in that field, I picked it up and was instantly hooked. For, alongside the fascinating accounts of how the writer pieced together the novel and plays he worked on during the period, the fact that a gentle, intelligent man who loved his country and it’s culture, was ruthlessly targeted, harassed and humiliated from all sides because of his faith left me aghast. It meant I stopped reading Eliade quite so keenly, too. In many a way it has drawn comparisons to Anne Frank’s diary.

urlIt left me with a thirst for more of Sebastian’s writing but I couldn’t find any of his work translated into English (there is a huge amount of literature from Romania that I’d love to see published in the UK). That was until, in bizarrely similar circumstances, I found this new (2016) translation of For Two Thousand Years during a long wait for a flight at Gatwick Airport.

It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Written in a journal-like manner (though with more focus, of course, than a genuine journal), Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years is, essentially, a story of what it means to be a Jew in Romania. A story in three parts, focusing first on the narrator’s tumultuous time at University in 1923 (when the constitution awarded citizenship to ethnic and religious minorities) where intimidation and violence was a daily part of simply trying to attend classes before moving ahead some six years to find the narrator moving ahead in his career then on to Paris before heading back to Romania.

At first the style is a little bewildering but, when framed in the context in which it is set, this becomes only more apt and well realised – a young man confronted with violence and setbacks struggling to understand and find his own way. As the narrator becomes more at ease with life with age and experience so too does the narrative change.

For Two Thousand Years is not only a brilliantly written story, framing some exceedingly important questions into its prose, but it’s disturbingly prescient with it’s dread of the future (it was published in 1934), predicting Vienna and the Anschluss as the tipping point. In this respect it’s also deeply moving for, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we know that the narrator’s fears that his work and dreams may amount to nothing and will likely be crushed by the changing socio-political landscape are more than accurate.

It – like Sebastian’s own journal – is an eye opener in terms of the treatment of Jews at the time. The narrator – as the author – remains proud of his fatherland, loves the Danube he grew up with and yet knows that he can never be truly considered Romanian. I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn from my mother-in-law that the novel had been banned in Romania for a long time.

Recalling how, for example, during military service, he is not permitted to take a shift of guard duty “since I might betray [the country] in the course of a night on guard duty.”

The resigned-to-fate manner of its conclusion becomes all the more evocative when viewed through today’s eyes and the knowledge of the trials and horrors that awaited those of his faith.

It’s hard, today and in my own privileged position and disregard for the petty ways in which we define people by the speck of dirt chance happened to place their birth, to imagine the world in which Sebastian lived; persecuted and prevented from being considered ‘of’ a country because of his faith. A such  For Two Thousand Years insightful and compellingly searching novel and was well worth the wait to finally read.

Having survived the Second World War, during which time he was refused permission to work and was kicked out of his home and forced to live in a slum, Mihail Sebastian got a job as a lecturer at Bucharest University. Unfortunately, on the way to give his first lecture (on Balzac) on May 29th, 1945 he was hit by an army truck and died. My hope is that there was a lightness and optimism in his heart at the time at least.

Yet, I won’t end there, after all in both For Two Thousand Years and his own journal Sebastian refused to give in to melancholy and sadness. I’ll pick up the quote I started this entry with:

“I will speak of the Bărăgan and the Danube as belonging to me not in a legal or abstract sense, under constitutions, treaties and laws, but bodily, through memory, through joys and sorrows. I will speak of the spirit of this place, of its particular genius, of the lucidity I have distinguished here under the white light of the sun on the plain and the melancholy I perceive in the landscape of the Danube, drowsing to the right of the town, in the watery marshes.”