book reviews

Repost: A review of Survival In Auschwitz by Primo Levi…

And here’s a book review that appeared on my old blog on July 28, 2017. It is reposted as/is.

Here’s yet another review of another book about the Holocaust that took place during World War II.  I am finished reading about the Holocaust for now.  Too much reading about the mass murders that went on less than one hundred years ago is depressing and there’s plenty to be depressed about today, without reading history. 

Survival in Auschwitz, originally published in Italy under the name If This Is A Man, was written by an Italian Jew named Primo Levi, who was incarcerated at Auschwitz from February 1944 until the camp was liberated on January 27, 1945.  Levi was deported from Turin, Italy, having been arrested as a member of an Italian resistance group.  At the time of his arrest, Levi was a 25 year old chemist.

The original title of Levi’s book seems to be better than the English title bestowed upon it.  This book is basically about what happens to good people when they are beaten, starved, and placed in an environment where only the fittest and luckiest survive.  With a dry wit and an almost dispassionate tone, Levi writes about the cut throat environment of Auschwitz, as well as the small threads of humanity and even humor.  If This Is A Man was originally published in Italian in 1947, when Levi was still a young man and Auschwitz was still a fresh memory to many people.  However, reading it today seventy years later, it still maintained a gripping hold on me.  At just 172 pages, this book packs a lot of meaning into a brief manuscript.  It was published in English for the first time in 1959.

Levi describes the whole dehumanizing experience of his time at Auschwitz with starkness and clarity.  He writes of how families were torn apart upon their arrival at the camp.  They were stripped of their clothes; their heads were shaved; tattooed numbers on the ones who were not immediately gassed; and treated as mere objects to be used.  The men who were incarcerated with Levi came from different countries.  They all spoke different languages and many did not understand German, save for a few words like Jawohl (a strong affirmative, roughly equivalent to “Yes Sir or Ma’am”).

The prisoners who survived their arrival at Auschwitz were given ill fitting clothes that would never keep them warm, shoes that were full of holes, and the minimum amount of food– soup and bread.  Levi writes about how prisoners would use their food rations as currency and, sometimes, come up with ingenious ways to make themselves slightly more comfortable.  Naturally, trying to make things better was not allowed; prisoners who were caught were made an example of as they were publicly executed.  Levi witnessed many people killed before his very eyes.  He describes the executions, again with a minimum of emotion, yet with grace and clarity.

Every prisoner learned never to trust anyone.  The smart ones never left bowls, spoons, shoes, or anything else unguarded, or it would be stolen.  The prisoners worked hard every day.  Under normal circumstances, those who could not work would eventually be killed.  Ironically, the ones who eventually survived Auschwitz post liberation were the sick ones.  Levi happened to be among them when the Russians liberated the camp.  The so-called “healthy” prisoners who were “evacuated” ahead of the Russians’ arrival did not survive.  Sadly, one of Levi’s friends was among those who left and was not heard from again.

Levi explains that prisoners who were docile and compliant were not the ones who survived.  The survivors were physically powerful, shrewd, or had a skill the Germans coveted.  Since Levi was a chemist, he was of use to the Germans.  That was why he managed to live ten months.  Many, many other prisoners never made it that long.  Some of the ones who seemed like they would be of value to the Germans were murdered, while some who were sickly lived for awhile.  It was as if the selections were arbitrary and careless.

It’s really hard for me to reconcile the mostly good people I’ve come to know here in Germany as coming from the same people who could be so incredibly cruel to others.  I know now that this part of history is still a source of great shame to Germans and they have taken steps to make amends to the groups of people who were persecuted and murdered during World War II.  I am continually amazed when I consider that the Holocaust occurred during my parents’ lifetimes.  I was born not even thirty years after these atrocities occurred.  It seems incredible to me. 

But then I look at our world today and realize that these same horrors are going on in other parts of the world.  The battle is still raging, just with different players.  Maybe that’s why I think it’s so important to read about World War II and the Holocaust, depressing as it is. 

In any case, this book is fascinating and extremely well written.  I think it’s a worthwhile read for anyone researching the Holocaust and what it was actually like to be at Auschwitz.  Levi is very matter-of-fact in his writing, which seems fitting given how casually and arbitrarily human lives were disposed of during World War II.  I highly recommend Survival in Auschwitz (If This Is A Man) to all people who are concerned about where we could be heading if our world leaders don’t pull their heads out of their collective asses soon.

An informative video about Primo Levi, author of Survival in Auschwitz.

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book reviews, history

Repost: A review of Flory Van Beek’s book, Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death

Here’s another reposted book review. I read Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death in June 2018 and have decided to repost my review of it as/is today, since I hadn’t yet done it.

Every once in awhile, I go on a book buying spree on Amazon.com.  A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing Amazon’s suggested books for me and I noticed one called Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death.  Originally published in 1999, this book was written by Flory Van Beek, a Dutch Jew who survived the Holocaust thanks to good-hearted Christians who sheltered her and her husband, Felix, during World War II.  I downloaded the 2009 version of Van Beek’s book, never having heard of it before I read it.

Flory’s story…

Flory Van Beek was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands in 1924, the youngest of four children.  She was her parents’ youngest child by quite a few years, and her father died in an accident when she was five years old.  Flory’s parents were Orthodox Jews who were close to both sides of their family.  After her father’s death, her mother moved to the town where she’d grown up, Amersfoort.  There, young Flory enjoyed a good education and proximity to her mother’s side of the family, which was reportedly much more religious than her father’s side had been.  Flory writes that everyone had faith in the Dutch royal family, led by Queen Wilhelmina.  Her mother reassured her that Holland would stay neutral and remain unaffected by Hitler’s hostility toward Jewish people.  She describes an idyllic upbringing in The Netherlands with plenty of exposure to music and sports.

As Flory grew into a young woman, political tensions developed between Germany and the rest of Europe.  Hitler had taken charge of the German government and was inexorably invading surrounding countries and systematically exterminating people who threatened him.  Jewish people were at the top of Hitler’s list of people to hate.  Flory Van Beek describes what it was like as Hitler gradually took over, confiscating businesses and homes of Jewish people and deporting them to concentration camps.

Sixteen year old Flory met Felix Van Beek one day while she was hanging out at the tennis courts; he had asked her to play a doubles set with him.  Felix was a twenty-five year old German man who had immigrated to Holland with his brothers and worked for an import-export grain company.  Felix and Flory became friends who eventually developed romantic feelings toward each other.  As their relationship bloomed, the Germans continued to threaten Holland. 

Many Jewish people tried to flee Europe.  In May 1939, the S.S. St. Louis, a large passenger ship, left Germany.  Some of Felix’s family members were aboard the ship, which was destined for Havana, Cuba.  Cuba had granted visas to German refugees; however, when the ship approached Havana, it was not allowed to dock.  The ship turned back toward Germany, with some hoping that the United States would allow the refugees to disembark in Miami.  Unfortunately, U.S. officials also refused to harbor the refugees.  Many of them eventually died in concentration camps, although some European countries did take in some of the refugees.  Among those who landed in Holland was one of Felix’s relatives.  By June of 1939, it became clear that Jewish people were no longer safe in Europe. 

Felix decided he no longer wanted to stay in Holland.  Felix convinced Flory’s family to let him take her by ship to Argentina by way of Chile.  In November 1939, the two were booked in separate cabins on the S.S. Simon Bolivar.  One night into their trip, the ship collided with a German mine.  Felix and Flory were both seriously injured, but they were among the 274 of the 400 passengers on the ship who were rescued.  The couple recuperated in England for several months before they went back to Holland, where the political situation had become ever more dire.

The Nazis had demanded that Jewish people start wearing Stars of David on their clothes so that they could be easily identified.  One day, Flory went to the grocery store, against her mother’s wishes.  The family needed food to eat.  She’d had to go during the two hours per day when Jews were allowed to shop.  At the store, she met the man who would save her and Felix from extermination.  A man named Piet, who had been riding a bicycle, stopped Flory and said, “What the hell are you doing here with that damned star on your blouse?  Take that damned thing off and follow me.”  Flory did as the man ordered.

Piet Brandsen and his wife, Dina, were a Catholic couple raising four young daughters.  He led Flory into his house and asked her to tell him her story.  He told his family that Flory was a Jewish girl who needed help, since the Germans were systematically executing Jews.  Piet said it was the family’s duty to help and that they must take her in and hide her.  Piet took Flory to her home, then returned the following morning to speak to Flory’s mother and take her to his house.  Felix had gone to Amsterdam in an attempt to get paperwork that would give them a stay before they were sent to Germany to “work”.  In June 1942, Flory had received a summons to Germany and Felix was trying to get her an extension. 

While Felix was in Amsterdam, among throngs of many desperate Jews trying to obey the insane laws put in place by the Nazis, the Germans arrived and started herding people to concentration camps.  Felix managed to flee and made it home, just in time to join Flory at the Brandsens’ home.  Since the Brandsens’ were observant Catholics, they insisted that Felix and Flory marry before they were allowed to share the one room they had available.

Three heroic families…

For the next few years, Felix and Flory remained in hiding, sheltered by kind and patriotic Catholic families who protected them.  Throughout those years, they quietly worked with the resistance against the Nazis.  They survived illnesses and dental traumas, thanks to compassionate healthcare providers who were willing to look the other way.  Piet was even arrested and sent to a camp at one point, although he was eventually released.  Flory lovingly writes the story of how through the efforts of decent people who cared, she and Felix were able to survive the Nazi occupation. Sadly, many members of Flory’s and Felix’s families did not live.  Several perished at Sobibor, including Flory’s mother.  A few died of illnesses.

In 1948, Flory and Felix were able to immigrate to the United States.  They lived in Newport Beach, California, where Felix co-founded a Jewish temple.  Both died in 2010. 

My thoughts…

This book was fascinating to me on many levels.  First of all, it was very hard not to see the parallels of what is happening in the United States with what happened in Europe during the 1940s.  While I’m not sure Donald Trump is going to be able to accomplish what Hitler did, there are a lot of similarities between his leadership style and Hitler’s.  Flory’s vivid descriptions of how Jewish people were rounded up and deported are eerily similar to some of the stories I’ve read about how illegal aliens in the United States are being treated now.

Secondly, my heart was warmed by the courageous Catholic families who did their best to resist the Nazi regime and help Jewish people who were being persecuted.  These families were fine examples of real Christians.  I was particularly moved by how close Flory and Felix were to the people who helped them. 

Thirdly, more than once, as I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but look at the place where I’m currently living and shake my head in disbelief.  It’s hard to reconcile the way Germans were in the 1940s to how they are now.  It just goes to show you that countries are made up of all kinds of people.  There is a pervasive sense of shame among Germans today about what happened during World War II.  They do not joke about those days.  And yet, as Flory said, “[The Holocaust] is history, and it should never ever happen again.  War, I don’t know. But persecutions? . . . If you die for your country, it is one thing. But to be persecuted because you have a certain religion is unbelievable.  What the Germans did, it can never be made good–ever, ever, ever, no matter what they say.”

I have noticed in the wake of Trump’s disastrous G7 meeting, many media reports of other countries getting fed up with Trump and his antagonistic policies.  Americans are commenting on those posts, hoping to remind people in other countries that not every American is an asshole.  Fortunately, it seems that many people understand that, despite the Twilight Zone political climate we’re in right now.  Still, I can’t help but worry about what’s going to happen if Trump’s bullshit isn’t reined in soon. 

Finally, Felix and Flory were an amazing couple.  They were married for over sixty years and managed to touch so many lives.  They were not able to have children of their own; a baby girl Flory delivered in 1946 was stillborn.  However, they did eventually adopt a son, Isaiah, who sadly died of brain cancer in 1970.  He was just sixteen years old.  They named the temple after him.   

Flory apparently tried many times to write her story, but each time she’d start her manuscript, she’d have to stop because emotion would overwhelm her.  In 1997, she finally decided once and for all to write her book.  It was published in 1998 and remains a very relevant book twenty years hence.  I’m so glad I had the chance to read Flory’s amazing story.  I hope you’ll read it, too.

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