book reviews

Repost: Two sisters survive Auschwitz… My review of Rena’s Promise

And here’s my last Epinions repost for today. I wrote this as/is review in May 2010.

It’s ironic that I finished reading Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz (1995) last night. Last night, it was May 2, 2010. May 2, 1945 was the day that Rena Kornreich Gelissen and her younger sister, Danka Kornreich Brandel, escaped the nightmare of the German labor camps. Rena and her sister had survived the Holocaust against all odds. Their bittersweet story is related, with help from ghost writer Heather Dune MacAdam. Having finished this book on the 65th anniversary of the sisters’ liberation from Auschwitz and Birkenau, I can state with no hesitation that this is not a story I will soon forget. 

A brief outline

Rena and Danka Kornreich grew up in Tylicz, Poland. Their parents, Sara and Chaim Kornreich, had four daughters. Rena and Danka were the two youngest. When Danka was a few months old, she got the croup, which made her cough relentlessly. When the coughing suddenly stopped, Sara thought her baby had died and covered her with a sheet. But a few minutes later, it became clear that Danka was still living. Sara asked Rena, who was just two years older, to promise that she’d always look after the little one. 

Born in 1920, Rena was a young woman when the SS invaded Poland and the surrounding countries. She ended up escaping to Slovakia, but later turned herself in to German authorities as a means of protecting the people who were hiding her. Rena was engaged to be married at the time; it was just two weeks before her wedding. 

Rena was on the very first transport of Jewish women to Auschwitz. She arrived on March 26, 1942. Upon arrival, she was tatooed with the number 1716. Three days later, her younger sister Danka arrived. Remembering her promise to her mother, Rena vowed to look after Danka. Over the three years time Rena and Danka spent in Auschwitz and Birkenau, they escaped death and forced medical experimentation several times. They survived, in part, because they formed a bond with each other, were very cunning, and cooperated with other prisoners. Of course, I think they were also very lucky, particularly when they were selected for forced medical experimentation by Dr. Josef Mengele. 

While the two sisters were in Auschwitz, they were forced to write letters that made the camp sound like it wasn’t such a bad place. Of course, if any relatives volunteered to go to the camp, they soon found out what they were in for. Rena and Danka came up with a way to include a warning so that others might be spared their fate.

When the sisters were liberated, they went to Holland, where they met and married their husbands. In the 1950s, both sisters emigrated to America, where their eldest sister Gertrude had been living since 1921. They never knew what became of their parents or their other sister, Zosia. It’s because of Gertrude that Rena’s Promise has any photographs from the girls’ childhood. 

This book includes a postcript that explains what Rena and Danka knew of the people they knew while they were in Auschwitz. From what I could gather, the vast majority did not have an ending as happy as theirs was. 

My thoughts 

This book is the incredibly moving and often inspiring story of two sisters who were determined to survive against all odds. Heather Dune MacAdam did a marvelous job writing Rena’s story as if it came straight from her, translating the heartbreak and terror Rena and Danka experienced as well as the few lighthearted moments that made their experiences bearable. 

In this book, I read of the supreme hunger and exhaustion the two sisters endured together, as well as the terror they experience every time there was a “selection” of prisoners who were to go to the gas chambers. I read of how Rena and Danka felt when they were forced to witness executions of their fellow prisoners who dared to attempt escape. I got a mere inkling of the incredible brutality the sisters and other prisoners suffered at the hands of the Nazis who forced them to work and live in deplorable conditions. Rena even describes what it was like for her to have her period while she was a prisoner. As I read this account, I was amazed at the sisters’ will to live and how Rena kept her promise to their mother. 

Overall 

I would definitely recommend Rena’s Promise to anyone who is interested in learning more about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, particularly from a woman’s point of view. According to Wikipedia, Rena Kornreich Gelissen died in 2006, though her sister Danka is still alive (ETA: Danka died in 2012). Rena died without her tattoo. She had it cut off after her liberation.

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Repost: Review of Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz

This is a reposted review that I wrote June 20, 2017. It appears here as/is.

Hello again!  I’ve just gotten back from our whirlwind long weekend in Belgium.  Today happens to be my 45th birthday.  I have spent all day in an aging SUV, hurtling down various high speed freeways and avoiding traffic jams as much as possible.  It was kind of hellish, trying to get back to Germany today.  However, as bad as today’s journey was, it paled in comparison to the journey so many others took to and through Germany back in the 1940s.

I don’t know why, but it seems like I always read about the Holocaust at this time of year.  I just recently read The Pharmacist, a book about an ethnic German Romanian pharmacist who was corrupted and became a Nazi.  A couple of days ago, I finished Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz (2013) by Shlomo Venezia (Venezia also includes an interesting commentary about why so many Jewish people have places as their last names).  This may seem like a very heavy topic to be writing about on my birthday, but I wanted to get my thoughts down before I forgot too much… although honestly, this book was so gripping that I’d be hard pressed to forget much about it.

I’ve read a lot of books about the Holocaust, but none that have quite the perspective that comes from Shlomo Venezia, an Italian Jew whose family was rounded up and deported from Athens, Greece and sent to Auschwitz.  Once they arrived, Venezia’s mother and sisters disappeared, almost certainly gassed immediately.  In exchange for some extra bread, Shlomo Venezia agreed to be a member of the Sonderkommando.  He had no idea what he was signing up for when he agreed to this special duty; basically, it was his job to help remove the corpses from the gas chambers and burn them.

This book, written in interview style, covers what it was like for Venezia to carry out his grim duties. Although he had relative comfort compared to other prisoners, he was there to see fellow Jews sent into the gas chambers.  He heard their screams and saw what they looked like after they were murdered.  He watched his colleagues raid their bodies before they were dispatched to the crematoriums.  One guy lied about being a dentist and was tasked with removing gold teeth from the corpses.  He found the work relatively easy at first, but then it grew more difficult as the bodies stiffened.

There were times when Venezia would run into people he knew.  One time, an uncle grew too sick to work and was sent to the gas chamber.  Shlomo had the opportunity to talk to him before he died.  He reassured his uncle, knowing that he was lying, but trying to comfort him in his last moments.  He gave him an extra piece of bread.  And when he died, he and his colleagues were able to say a kaddish for him before he was cremated. 

Venezia was also in a position to see some things that other survivors could not have seen.  He witnessed a baby that survived the gas chamber only to be shot in the neck by a Nazi.  He saw a mother and son evade the gas chamber for a couple of days, hiding in tall grass.  They were eventually found and murdered.  He saw some prisoners try to escape, unsuccessfully, of course.

As the war drew to an end, the members of the Sonderkommando became dangerous.  They had seen so much.  The SS wanted to exterminate them before they could reveal all they knew.  Venezia had to use his wits to escape the situation and survive so that he could tell the tale of the horrors of Auschwitz.  While it must be a living hell to have those memories, we are fortunate that he is able to share them with the world.  I think we still have a lot to learn from the horrors of the Holocaust. 

I won’t lie.  This book is pretty depressing and often shocking.  And yet, it’s fascinating and unbelievable… unbelievable that I now happily live in the country that produced most of the monsters who were capable of such horrific acts.  One thing I have noticed about Germany, though, is that its citizens fully recognize what happened and are very ashamed of it.  I have had some interesting conversations with Germans in my two times living here and many times visiting.  I even met one guy who was a POW in the USA.  Still, even having had those conversations and read so many books, it’s hard to even fathom the horrors that went on during World War II. 

Shlomo Venezia’s account is stark, unflinching, dispassionate… and it’s often very depressing and horrifying.  I still think it’s valuable reading.  We really do have a lot to learn from what happened in the 1940s, especially given what is going on in Washington, DC right now. 

I highly recommend Inside the Gas Chambers.  Be prepared to be shocked at the cruelty people are capable of… and heartened by the smallest acts of kindness and humanity. 

Tomorrow’s post will be on a much lighter topic.  I promise!

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Repost: my review of Children of the Flames

Here’s one more reposted book review. This one was originally written for Epinions.com in 2010 and reposted on my old blog January 24, 2015. It appears here as/is.

On January 27, 2015, it will have been 70 years since Russians liberated the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.  This morning, I read a fascinating news article about an 80 year old Slovakian Jewish woman who was at Auschwitz when the Russians came.  It was Marta Wise’s 10th birthday when she was caught by Nazis and sent away, first to the Sered labor camp in Slovakia and then, a few weeks later, to Auschwitz, where she and her sister, Eva were imprisoned and were subjected to the cruel medical experiments carried out by Dr. Josef Mengele. 

In the last days of Auschwitz, there was a lot of chaos.  Able bodied prisoners were forced to march westward in an attempt to escape the Russians.  Because Eva was sick, Marta stayed behind with her.  The Nazis tried to kill Marta and some other prisoners by locking them in an enclosure and setting fire around it… but European weather is fickle.  A sudden rainstorm put out the fire and Eva and Marta were rescued. 

Their survival was against all odds.  The sisters were able to go back to Bratislava, where they reunited with their parents and all but one sister, Judith, who died at Auschwitz.  Marta moved to Australia and went on to marry and have children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. 

In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am reposting my review of Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz

The story of Dr. Josef Mengele and his gruesome twins experiments May 8, 2010 (Updated May 8, 2010) 

Pros:  Fascinating book. Well-written and insightful. Photos.

Cons:  May depress some readers.

The Bottom Line: This book is a valuable reminder of where humankind has been and where we don’t want to return.

Last night, I finished reading Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. This book, published in 1991, was co-written by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel. Lagnado is writer who has had a special interest in Dr. Josef Mengele and his twins experiments at Auschwitz. Sheila Cohn Dekel is also a writer and an educator, as well as the widow of Alex Dekel, one of Mengele’s victims. 

A brief overview 

Dr. Josef Mengele was a high ranking Nazi physician. He literally had a deadly charm to go with his handsome face. Although Dr. Mengele had been an undistinguished student at his Gymnasium in Gunzburg, Bavaria, he eventually managed to study at the University of Munich, where he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology. Mengele happened to be in Munich as the ideas of eugenics, racial purity, and ethnic cleansing were becoming popular in German society. 

Graduating from university with highest honors, he went on to Frankfurt University, where he earned a medical degree and later joined the military. In 1941, he got his first taste of combat and was an excellent soldier. The following year, he was in another battle on the Russian front when he made his first selection. Because there wasn’t enough time or supplies to help every wounded man, Mengele had to decide which of the wounded would be treated and which would be left to die. This task was reportedly very gruesome for Mengele and he hated to do it… but he was evidently very good at it. 

Mengele’s skill at picking and choosing would be used again when he went to work at Auschwitz. It was often Mengele who met the trains carrying hungry, exhausted, and often very sick Jews when they arrived at Auschwitz. With a white gloved hand, he would casually pick candidates for the gas chambers, directing the new prisoners to go left or right. 

Mengele’s studies in genetics and anthropology made him fascinated by so-called “freaks of nature”. And so, when those trains came to Auschwitz, he directed his fellow Nazi soldiers to help him find quirky subjects for his research. He looked for dwarves, giants, and Jews who didn’t look like Jews. But he was most interested in twins. Mengele believed that twins held the answers to the genetic secrets he had a burning desire to explore. Mengele’s position as a high ranking SS physician at Auschwitz gave him the freedom to explore those secrets by undertaking any experiments his heart desired. 

Mengele’s children: a protected class 

Dr. Mengele sought twins every time new Jewish prisoners arrived at Auschwitz. Most of the prisoners who arrived were under the impression that they were there to work. So when soldiers called for twins, some parents of twins and adult twins were reluctant to come forward. But as it turned out, the people who ended up in Mengele’s experiements were often better treated than other inmates were. They were fed better, allowed to keep their hair, and had better quarters. They were also safe from the gas chambers. The catch was that they had to be Mengele’s specimens for his often gruesome experiments and exploratory surgeries. Those that didn’t survive the experiments or surgeries were autopsied by an assistant, who would send their body parts and organs to Berlin. 

Supposedly, Mengele was comparatively gentle with the twins, particularly with the small children. He kept them in fairly good health and had a fairly gentle touch when he drew blood (on a daily basis). Sometimes, if he had a very young set of twins, he’d let their mother come with them. Mengele would often pick a pet who would be especially well treated. It’s said that he was affectionate with the children, giving them candy and chocolate and sometimes even playing with them. Some of them called him Uncle Mengele. But he would also casually dispose of them when he grew tired of them and none were spared his horrifying experiments.  

This book’s layout 

The authors of Children of the Flames chose to recount the story of Mengele and the twins in an interesting way. They got the stories from surviving twins who were the subjects of Mengele’s research and flip-flopped between the twins’ experiences and Mengele’s life story. Among the twins interviewed were a pair of male/female twins. The male half had been chosen to be the “twins father” because he had served in the Czechoslovakian army. He looked after all of the male twins. His sister was almost murdered, but was saved before she was sent to the gas chambers. The female twins in Mengele’s research did not have a “twins mother”. 

The authors include a lot of commentary from the “twins father”, as well as several other sets of the several thousand twins that Mengele used in his research. Of course, of all of those twins, only a few hundred survived the war. The authors also include photos as well as an afterword that updates readers on the twins.

One thing to know about this account is that it’s not entirely about the concentration camps. The authors don’t go into great detail about the experiments and they don’t dwell much on the concentration camp experience. Instead, they approach the story by describing how it was for the twins before and after the war as they interweave Mengele’s story.

My thoughts 

I found Children of the Flames fascinating. Josef Mengele was a horrible person, but he’s extremely interesting to read about. From this account, he comes across as deceptively charming and kindly, yet underneath that gentle exterior was a monster who killed and tortured people as if they were toys. As someone who has studied the social sciences, I find Mengele an extraordinary subject. He really is an example of a sociopath. The authors follow him from Germany to several countries in South America. They also offer information about his two wives, his son Rolf, and his nephew and former stepson, Karl Heinz.

I also enjoyed the interviews from the twins, most of whom were incredibly resilient. Their stories from before and after their experiences at Auschwitz are recounted, giving readers some perspective as to what it was like during their recoveries. Anyone who thinks the Jews had it so much better after they were liberated may be in for a shock. The twins describe very hard times, particularly for those who went to Eastern Europe or Israel rather than America or Canada. 

Overall 

Children of the Flames is excellent reading for anyone who is interested in learning more about Nazi Germany and concentration camps. The authors did an outstanding job of describing who Josef Mengele was as they put a face on his victims. They provide valuable insight as to what it was like for Jews after they were liberated. Even when they weren’t prisoners, they were still victims, haunted by nightmares, poor health, and crushing poverty. This should be required reading for anyone who is a student of European history.

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Repost: Book review of Exile from Latvia: My WWII Childhood- From Survival to Opportunity

I wrote this post for my original Blogspot blog on September 15, 2016. It appears here as/is.

It’s time for another book review.  Since my Internet sucked yesterday, I finished reading a book I’ve been working on for awhile.  Harry G. Kapeikis published his book, Exile from Latvia: My WWII Childhood- From Survival to Opportunity in November 2007.  I see the book, which is the first in a three part series, is now no longer available on Kindle.  I think that’s a pity.

I really enjoyed reading Mr. Kepeikis’s story of his Latvian childhood interrupted by the invasion of the Russians and subsequent liberation by the Germans.  Kepeikis and his family left Latvia and moved to Bavaria, where they eventually ended up in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp operated by the Americans, who were occupying Germany post World War II.  Although Kepeikis now writes in a very fluent, conversational English, in the 1940s, he was a young boy who spoke Latvian.  He did not speak German.  He did not speak English.  And there he was in a strange land with his family, trying to assimilate and survive.

Harry Kepeikis offers a unique perspective on history, albeit one that is definitely slanted by his own experiences.  His family rented land in Latvia, where they had rabbits and chickens and a big garden. It was their home.  When the Russians invaded, they began to round up Latvians and send them to Siberia, where they were forced to work.  Many people died of exposure, exhaustion, and starvation.  Kepeikis also writes of Latvian children being rounded up by Soviet authorities and sent to a “camp”, where they would learn about the “benefits” of being in the Soviet Union.  Kepeikis writes that many of the children who were rounded up never came home again.  His mother, whom he explains was very protective, hid her son in the cellar for days while the authorities came through their town looking for kids to send away to camp.

Germany, it seems, was equally frightening for the Kepeikis family, especially at first.  Kepeikis writes of seeing American soldiers, some of whom were black.  He had never seen black people before and was bewildered and, perhaps, afraid of them.  They spoke a language he didn’t understand.  But they also gave him chocolate.  He brought the chocolate home and his mother, being protective, told him not to eat it because she feared it was poisoned.  Of course, it wasn’t poisoned and Kepeikis eventually tasted it and loved it.  He sang the praises of American chocolate, which at least in the 40s, might very well have been superior to what one could find in Europe.

Because of the language barrier, Harry and his family often found themselves often confused, especially when it came time for them to go to a DP camp.  While the idea of being sent to a “camp” may sound sinister, Kepeikis makes it sound like it wasn’t so bad.  The families were put up in apartments that had running water and kitchens, which was a huge upgrade over camping out.  The kids were able to attend school.  They made friends.  Eventually, in 1950, the families who were in DP camps were allowed to move to one of several countries willing to receive them.  Some people went to Australia.  Some went to Canada, England, or Argentina.  Many ended up in the United States.

Because it was 1950, Kepeikis and his family took a ship across the Atlantic Ocean.  I have done a few cruises in my day and I know I have a tendency to get seasick.  Imagine being on a naval ship crossing the Atlantic in a time when the ships had no stabilizers.  Yes, there was rampant seasickness.  However, there was also plenty of food and companionship.  This part of the book is at the end, as Harry and his family are headed for their new home.  As I finished reading about their first glimpses of New York City, I found myself wishing the book was longer.  But, as I mentioned at the start of this review, this is the first book in a trilogy.  I want to read the other two books to understand how this man eventually assimilated into the United States.

What I liked about Exile from Latvia, is the firsthand account of what it was like for a man to change countries as a young child who didn’t understand everything at first.  I also appreciated, as an American, how grateful Harry was to the American soldiers who ultimately helped his family.  In a time when a lot of people have overwhelmingly negative things to say (and write) about the United States, I found this attitude very refreshing.  Of course, Harry’s family didn’t always trust the Americans… and rightfully so, given what they’d already been through.

I also think this book is extremely timely reading for many reasons.  First off, I live in Germany and have extensive experiences with the U.S. military as a “brat” and a spouse, so I can relate on many levels to Kepeikis’s impressions of the military and Germany.  Secondly, Germany is currently home to many refugees from Syria.  While Syria is a very different place and has a vastly different culture than any in Europe, reading Kepeikis’s account gave me an inkling of what it must be like for some of the refugees who had fled the Middle East, some of whom are now living in what used to be housing for U.S. military troops.  And thirdly, the United States is currently entertaining electing a man who has some disturbing similarities to Adolf Hitler.  While Kepeikis and his family ultimately came out of World War II in a better place, many people did not.  Actually, Kepeikis doesn’t focus much on Hitler.  His enemy was Josef Stalin, yet another toxic leader.

Anyway, as you can probably tell, I recommend Harry Kepeikis’s book, especially if you’re interested in reading about what happened to people who survived Soviet occupation and World War II.  I’m glad I read it and will have to read the next book.  Kepeikis is a good writer who spins a good story– and even demonstrates a vivid imagination as he writes about how he used to daydream in his garden as a child.  He also seems like a genuinely good man who reminds us that immigration and immigrants are a large part of what makes the United States the United States.

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Repost: A review of A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz As A Young Boy

Recently, it’s been in the news that 95 year old Friedrich Karl Berger, who had been living in Tennessee since the late 1950s, was deported to Germany because when he was 19 years old, he was a Nazi camp guard. Mr. Berger, who had retained his German citizenship, was kicked out of the United States due to the Holtzman Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, a 1978 law that prohibits anyone who participated in Nazi sponsored persecution to live in the United States.

Because of this current event news item, I am reposting my review of Thomas Buergenthal’s book, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz As A Young Boy, which I read in 2009, during our first time living in Germany. This review was written for Epinions.com in May 2009, reposted in 2015, and reposted again as/is.

Almost two weeks ago, I reviewed a book about a young man who escaped Saddam Hussein’s army. That review generated a lot of comments and good discussion and in the course of the discussion, the name Hitler came up. And a week later, I happened to come across Thomas Buergenthal’s 2009 book, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz As a Young Boy. Naturally, I had to read it. 

Tommy’s story 

Thomas Buergenthal was the only son of Mundek and Gerda Buergenthal, a handsome Jewish couple who got engaged three days after they met in 1933. Mundek Buergenthal owned a hotel in Lubochna, a resort town in what is now Slovakia. Gerda’s parents had sent their 20 year old daughter for a vacation in hopes of taking her mind off of her non-Jewish boyfriend. Gerda came from Goettingen, Germany, a university town. Her parents were somewhat well-to-do; they owned a shoe store. But at the time, Jews in Goettingen were being harassed by Nazi youths. 

Mundek met Gerda at the German-Czech border instead of sending a driver to fetch her. That evening at dinner, Gerda was supposed to be seated at the owner’s table. She was surprised to see her driver there. She didn’t know he was also the owner of the hotel. They were married a few weeks later and Tommy Buergenthal was born eleven months after that. 

The first few years of Tommy’s life were somewhat idyllic. But by 1938, the Hlinka Guard, a Slovak fascist group supported by the Nazis, had begun to harass the Jews. Mundek lost his hotel and the little family left Lubochna with only a few suitcases. They moved to Zilina, Slovakia and were able to get by for awhile. Mundek found a job and Gerda learned how to cook. Before long, however, the family was driven from Zilina and into Poland. Mundek had lost his Polish citizenship because he was out of the country for more than five years. Gerda had lost her German citizenship. The family was, in effect, without a country. They had no right to be in Poland or Czechoslovakia… and they didn’t want to be in Germany. They were finally able to settle in Katowice, Poland. 

One day, Gerda and a friend went to see a fortune teller. The fortune teller was apparently very good at her craft and told Gerda that she was married and had a son and that her son was ein Gluckskind, a lucky child. The fortune teller then added, prophetically, that Gerda’s son would emerge from the future unscathed. Although Mundek thought Gerda was silly for believing the fortune teller, Gerda never forgot the encounter. It would give her much hope in the coming years. 

The family was set to leave Poland for England on September 1, 1939. Unfortunately, Hitler invaded Poland before they could leave from the Polish port. They were going to try to leave Poland from the Balkans and were on a train heading that way when they were attacked by the Germans. By 1942, Tommy and his family were in a Nazi labor camp. By 1944, they were on their way to Auschwitz. Tommy was just ten years old. 

The horrors of Auschwitz

When people ask Thomas Buergenthal about his time at Auschwitz, he tells him he was actually lucky to get in there. He adds that he often gets shocked looks from people when he tells them that, then explains that they were actually sent to Birkenau first. Birkenau is a few kilometers from Auschwitz and that was where the gas chambers and crematoriums were. When people arrived at Birkenau, they were subjected to a “selection”. They were lined up and the children, elderly, and invalids were immediately taken to the gas chambers. For some reason, Tommy’s group did not go through a selection. They had come from a labor camp and the SS guards had likely assumed that the weak ones had already been gassed. Had there been a selection, Tommy would have been killed immediately. 

Tommy and his father were separated into one camp, while Gerda was sent to another. Their heads were shaved; then they were tatooed and issued uniforms. That evening, Tommy witnessed the first of many horrible scenes as a man was beaten to death in front of him. For the next year, young Tommy would be starved and exhausted; yet, he seemed to be as lucky as the fortune teller said he was. He escaped death many times before the Soviets liberated him in April 1945. He was finally reunited with his mother in 1946. And the fact that he was able to reunite with his mom was also a one in a million shot. Unfortunately, his father did not survive the camp. 

Tommy Buergenthal ended up in America, where he later studied international law. He became a human rights lawyer, judge, and eventually the dean of the American University’s Washington College of Law. Now in his 70s, he wrote this book based on the fuzzy memories of his ordeal. He admits in his preface that had he written this book earlier, he would have had a clearer memory about everything that happened. But having just read this book, I can say that I think the memories he did have were probably enough. Buergenthal and his wife now live in The Hague, Netherlands. 

My thoughts

A Lucky Child is a fascinating book. I found it very easy to get into Buergenthal’s story, which was alternately horrifying and exciting. After reading about everything that has happened to him, I have to admit that he really was a lucky child. He ran into so many kind people along the way… people who made it possible for him to survive. In one gripping chapter, he describes being moved from Poland to Sachsenhausen in Germany via Czechoslovakia. He and many other prisoners were on a freight train with open cars. When the train first started moving, the car was packed with people and that was enough to keep him warm, albeit uncomfortably squished. But the freezing conditions and lack of food was too much for some of the prisoners to take. They started to die. Soon, it was easy for Tommy to move around, but it was freezing cold and he was starving. As they passed under a couple of bridges in Czechoslovakia, people started dropping loaves of bread into the car. Had it not been for those kind people, it’s likely that Tommy and his friends would have died like the others. He was just eleven years old. 

I also found Buergenthal’s story fascinating because as horrible as his experiences were, he also managed to have quite a few adventures, especially after he was liberated. Again, this was because many kind people had taken him under their wings and saw to it that he made it. He never seems to forget it, either. His attitude toward his benefactors is always appreciative. The fact that Tommy survived Auschwitz also made him somewhat a celebrity. 

As I was reading this book, it occurred to me that I’ve been to a lot of the places Tommy was. He includes a map of Germany and the surrounding areas during World War II. A lot of the cities were familiar to me. This book also includes pictures, which help put faces to the Buergenthal’s words. Buergenthal speaks several languages and includes a few foreign words in his text, which he thankfully translates. 

One thing that was very clear to me as I read this book is that Thomas Buergenthal’s experiences at Auschwitz profoundly changed his view of the world. He describes feeling very irritated with his children who, when they were growing up, hated milk and were picky about food. As a starving inmate at Auschwitz, Tommy and a couple of his friends once risked their lives for a spoonful of milk. He writes that he can’t bear to see food wasted, even when it’s a stale piece of bread. He’ll feed a crust of bread to the birds before he’ll throw it away. His perspective on conservation is one that perhaps a lot of people ought to revisit these days. 

Overall 

I marvel at the fact that Thomas Buergenthal is the same age as my parents are and that reminds me that World War II really wasn’t that long ago. I think A Lucky Child is an important book. It’s a good reminder of how things can go terribly awry when people get complacent about their leaders. I’m also amazed by Buergenthal’s resilience. He not only survived Auschwitz, he went on to thrive and later even came back to the places where he and so many others had suffered so much. I couldn’t help but wonder how he was able to process all of the horrors he witnessed. Yet, I also understand that because he processed them, he was able to share his ultimately triumphant story with the rest of the world. 

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