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In 1942 Hannelore Wolff, a teenager at a boarding school for Jewish girls in Berlin, received news of her father's death, within weeks of his arrest and transfer to Buchenwald concentration camp. Not long after, Hannelore received another letter from her mother, who had been notified that she and her sons would be deported. Hannelore's mother urged her, "Do what you can to save yourself." However, not wishing to let her mother and brothers go through the experience without her, Hannelore took the brave (or possibly foolish) decision to be deported with them.
This book is a true account of the experiences of Hannelore Wolff (now Laura Hillman) in the years that followed as she was transferred from ghettos to a series of labour and concentration camps. Somehow amidst all the horror, Hannelore managed to fall in love with a Polish prisoner of war who promised her that if they were separated, he would find her again.
The subtitle of the book, "A memoir of a Schindler's list survivor" does give away the outcome, but this didn't lessen the dramatic impact for me as I wanted to know how Hannelore survived and whether her brothers and mother made it too. I wanted to know how Hannelore's name came to be on Oskar Schindler's list as one of the 1100 Jews he planned to rescue from the Nazi death camps and employ them in his factories at Brunnlitz. Surrounded by death, depravity and terrifying unpredictability in a world where survival had become largely a game of chance, Hannelore struggled to hold on to this ray of hope.
As readers, even though we know she will be saved by Schindler, there are times when it is hard to believe that it will really happen, so the book continues to be gripping and tense right up to the end.
So much has been written about the Holocaust and in some respects you might be forgiven for thinking there is nothing left to say. What makes this book different is that it is a love story and it is the absurdity of romance blossoming in such a grim environment that I found particularly intriguing, how you can be in such ugly surroundings, yet still notice a man with beautiful eyes and become smitten. It is quite touching but not in an overly sentimental way.
The book is narrated in an understated, almost matter of fact way, letting the events speak for themselves without the need for elaboration. Paradoxically this makes it all the more poignant, bringing home that you are reading the true memoirs of a young girl, telling it as it happened, rather than someone who is writing a fictional account full of poetic language and over the top drama.
Although there are obviously some scenes of violence depicted in the book, rarely does the author descend into graphic detail. In many ways it was the little details that I found the most chilling, such as Hannelore's mother being made to hand over her wedding band at the assembly point for deportees, never having taken it off before in the whole of her marriage.
In another extract, Hannelore describes a snowfall at the camp and comments, "In some ways it was a blessing, for the snowflakes relieved my thirst and filled my stomach, just a little." There is also a description of the sun outlining the brick building of the crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau in a silhouette, which causes Hannelore to remark - "It could have been a beautiful autumn scene, but I knew only too well what lay behind that beauty."
The significance of the lilac tree will become apparent as you read the book and I won't say too much about it here, except that it is an emblem of hope throughout the book and there are some beautiful passages whenever Hannelore speaks of it.
Hannelore's descriptions of the camps with reference to the watch towers, high barbed-wire fences, sinister smoking chimneys and the clattering trains that arrive in the middle of the night, disturbing her sleep, paint a very grim picture. She refers to gaunt, shrunken prisoners who barely look human. "The thought that there had been a time when these men were normal human beings with families, completely unnerved me." There are undoubtedly many references that make you feel very angry as you read of the callous treatment meted out to the Jews. However, there are moments that make you aware of the strength of the human spirit and the power of love and friendship. The loyalty of many people and their willingness to risk their lives to defend their friends is awe-inspiring.
This book provides a good insight into this period of history and what really comes across is the gradual nature of the Nazis' persecution of the Jews, beginning with the passing of laws to infringe their rights and ending in genocide. At the start of the book we read of Hannelore and her school friends hiding the yellow stars of David that are sewn on their jackets so they can buy ice cream on a hot day. "No shop keeper would serve us if he knew who we were." There are references to Hitler Youth bullies and to Kristallnact - the night of broken glass - when the Nazis burned synagogues and schools and broke the windows of Jewish-owned businesses. We get a sense of what it would have been like for Jewish families, with the dilemma or whether to leave Germany while they still could or whether to stay.
I would recommend this book for older children and adults. It is quite fast-paced with short chapters and it drew me in from the start. I connected with Hannelore straightaway because she has a dignity about her and we see so many different sides of her character emerge as a result of her experiences. She has to grow up fast and as coming of age stories go, this is certainly a powerful one.
Although some might say this is just another Holocaust memoir, it is important to remember that everyone who experienced the Nazi concentration camps has their own unique story to tell. We will never hear everyone's story, but those who have taken the time to write about their experiences and relive such painful memories deserve to be heard. Hannelore Wolff might be described as one of the lucky ones who made it onto Schindler's list, but this book shows how bizarre it is to use words like 'lucky' and to talk about 'happy endings' in a story of this kind. It is thought-provoking memoir and as a reader I do feel strangely privileged to have shared it, even though it as not the easiest subject.