book reviews

A review of In the Hell of Auschwitz: The Wartime Memoirs of Judith Sternberg Newman

I don’t know why, but I have a strange habit of reading books about the Holocaust when I’m living in Germany. I am particularly apt to read them in the spring or summertime, when the weather is nice and there’s hope and renewal in the air. Maybe it’s my way of coming back down to Earth, or maybe it’s simply more bearable to read such depressing, heartbreaking material when the weather is fine. I don’t remember why I downloaded Judith Sternberg Newman’s 1963 book, In the Hell of Auschwitz: The Wartime Memoirs of Judith Sternberg Newman. Sometimes I have a specific reason for reading these books. I can’t think of any specific event that led me to discover Sternberg Newman’s extremely horrific yet triumphant story. I am glad I read the book, though. It’s one of the few I’ve read lately that hasn’t taken me weeks to finish.

Judith Sternberg Newman’s father died before the Holocaust happened; Judith was just seventeen when he perished of a heart attack. Her mother was left to raise Judith, her sister, and her brothers alone. They were living in Breslau, Germany, which is now known as Wroclaw, Poland. Born in 1919, Judith grew up in a close-knit family. In 1939, Judith had an opportunity to go to England to train as a nurse. She decided she couldn’t leave her family, even though the Nazis kept taking everything away from Jewish people and life was becoming more and more difficult. She stayed in Breslau, and trained as a nurse at a hospital there. Her nursing skills would eventually save her life.

In February 1942, while wearing her nursing uniform and working in the children’s ward at the hospital, the police came for the Jews who worked at the hospital. The police had told them they were simply going to a work camp, but Judith and her friends had heard the horror stories. One of the head nurses even decided to take cyanide rather than allow the police to arrest her. She died at the scene. Although Judith was not on the list to be deported, she decided to go voluntarily when she heard her family had already been rounded up. Judith was engaged to be married within two weeks. There would be no wedding. Her fiancé would be one of the many thousands of people lost to the Holocaust.

At a temporary camp, Judith was reunited with her mother, where the horrors of their situation became very real. They watched as over 80 people committed suicide rather than become prisoners. They saw mothers poison their babies, then kill themselves.

In the dead of night, SS police woke up the exhausted Jewish prisoners and packed them into a freight car. There was no water, no food, and no toilet. The car had just one window for fresh air. It took two days to reach their destination at Auschwitz. Some people had died en route. Others died immediately after arrival. Some were badly injured when they were forced to leap from the train, as there were no steps to help them and they were being goaded by guards and their dogs. Five crematoriums operated day and night. The air stank of burning flesh, smoke, and fear.

Judith Sternberg had arrived at Auschwitz at the height of Hitler’s Final Solution. She watched many people die in horrific ways. She witnessed people being starved, beaten, forced to work until they died of exhaustion, and many who died of diseases like typhus. She saw many women who were brutally raped. Some of her fellow inmates were forced to dig their own graves and were buried while they were still alive. Those who tried to escape were recaptured and executed. The other prisoners were forced to watch them hang.

Judith lost all of her family members, as well as many friends who were murdered in cold blood during Hitler’s regime. Somehow, perhaps through the grace of God, or due to very good fortune, Judith managed to survive. She was a nurse, and her skills were valuable. But although she enjoyed being a nurse, the work at Auschwitz was very grim.

I’ve read a lot of Holocaust memoirs, but I think Judith Sternberg Newman’s may be one of the most graphic accounts I’ve read yet. I cringed when I read some of her descriptions of what happened to people, killed simply due to their religious beliefs, political affiliations, or sexual preferences. She wrote of the “lucky” Jews who were allowed the special duty of helping to kill their Jewish brethren. They were fed better and had better accommodations. After a couple of months, they were always dispatched so that they couldn’t tell too many stories of what they’d seen.

This book, for sure, is heartbreaking on many levels; yet somehow, it manages to end in triumph. Judith managed to survive Auschwitz when it was liberated by the Russians and Americans. She describes the Russians as uneducated buffoons who loved babies, drinking, and took sexual liberties with the women. She described the Americans as friendly, clean cut, and more cultured. I couldn’t help but shake my head at that characterization, particularly since every day, I am reminded more and more of the Holocaust as I watch Trump wreak havoc on the United States.

Judith went back to Breslau to see if she could reclaim her life. Very few people she knew before the Holocaust had survived. The house she’d grown up in had been burned to the ground. None of her possessions survived, since the professor who had kept them for her had himself wound up displaced. She eventually married Senek Newman and in 1946, they made their way to Rhode Island, in the United States. Judith became a nurse in the U.S. and she and her husband had three sons and a daughter. In 1961, Judith and Senek bought a farm, which her family members still operate today.

At the end of her book, Judith describes the United States as a wonderful place, where people live in freedom and harmony. She died in 2008, at the ripe old age of 88. I wonder what she would think of the United States today, as migrants and undocumented immigrants are being rounded up and sent to detention centers, where they sit in freezing cold rooms and get separated from their children. To my knowledge, there haven’t yet been any mass exterminations. But so many of the other aspects of Trump’s plan to force out “illegals” rang so familiar to me as I read Sternberg Newman’s account of her time in Auschwitz. Judith didn’t know the America we have today. She ends her book with three words: “God bless America”.

If you can stand to read the details of what Jewish people endured during the Holocaust, I would highly recommend Judith Sternberg Newman’s book, In the Hell of Auschwitz: The Wartime Memoirs of Judith Sternberg Newman. I think it’s very important reading, especially today. Yes, most of the stories are heartbreaking. I cringed as I read about parents being forced to strip naked while their children obliviously played nearby, completely unaware of the horror they were about to face in the gas chambers. I sighed as I read Judith’s descriptions of her friends being murdered and strangers left to die in the cold. It’s hard to believe that the Germans I know today could be convinced to treat other human beings in such an incredibly cold, cruel, and callous manner. If it could happen to Germans, it can (and has) happened to Americans. This is an important book. I’d encourage you to read it if you can. It’s only 99 cents on Kindle.