|Cover of Born Survivors by Wendy Holden|
Born Survivors by Wendy Holden tells the story of how three young women - Priska, Rachel and Anka - hid their pregnancies from Dr Mengele when they arrived in Auschwitz so their babies might survive.
Before reading this book, I hadn't realised that Dr Mengele separated out pregnant women to go straight to the gas chambers. Although I have read several books about the Holocaust including those by survivors, there always seems to be something new to learn about the depths of inhumanity to which the Nazis sank during their period of power.
This book tells us of human beings at their most extreme limit of endurance in that complex that specialised in the dismantling of the human spirit.
The one thing that keeps you going through all the terrible details is the thought that "the story is only being told to me because the three women and their babies survived."
As another survivor Esther Bauer put it:
"The first twenty years we couldn't talk about it. For the next twenty years no-one wanted to hear about it. Only in the next twenty years did people start asking questions."
And as Anka's daughter Eva later put it: "It is very important to remember... all those who have never had one single person remember them because all their families and their communities were destroyed. It is our duty to tell that story... to prevent such atrocities from happening again and again."
After being in Auschwitz, the three women (each unknown to the other two) were transported to slave labour in a munitions factory in Freiberg, 40 km from Dresden. Rachel Friedman, Polish, age 25, left Auschwitz on 31 August 1944; Priska Lowenbeinova, Slovak, age 28, arrived in Freiburg on 12 October 1944, and Anka 'Hanna' Nathan, Czech, age 27, arrived at Freiburg on the same day.
In the midst of the accounts of relentless inhumanity by SS guards, the rare and precious nuggets of kindness shown to the women shine out: acts of kindness by such people as Leopoldine Wagner, an Australian hired as an Italian interpreter in the factory, or by the occasional foreman or factory office worker.
"The majority of the townspeople (of Freiburg) however did nothing - out of fear or ignorance."
Another shaft of light is the female friendships formed among the prisoners which kept them going, such as the friendship shown by Edita, whose practical and moral support of Priska played a large part in her survival. Rachel at least did have her three sisters with her throughout her ordeal.
Priska's baby daughter Hanna was born on 12 April 1945. Then 36 hours after the birth, Priska learned that the camp was to be evacuated and she was to be loaded onto the wagon of a coal train for a hellish journey across Europe which was eventually to last 16 days.
Rachel gave birth to baby Mark in the wagon during a major aerial attack on 20 April 1945.
Anka gave birth to Eva on 29 April 1945 as she arrived at Mauthausen Concentration Camp.
One of the most outstanding stories in the book, showing a rare and heart-warming glimpse of goodness, is the story about the stationmaster of Horni Briza in Czechoslovakia. Mr Pavlicek the stationmaster was a hero of compassion and humanity. When the coal train containing hundreds of wretched and desperate prisoners was forced to stop for a few days on his territory, he insisted on providing food, and clothing, and when he discovered the pregnant women he provided nappies and a blanket. He rallied the people of Horni Briza to help. All the time he had to combat the extreme reluctance and threats of the guards and the transport commandant.
His heroic intervention was described by the women as "a greeting from another world."
"Light briefly pierced our darkness."
Hanna and Eva finally connected with each other in 2008 via the website of the 11th Armoured Division who had liberated them from Mauthausen. They attended the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the camp on 8 May 2010. Then Mark too was alerted via the website, after his own son had trawled through it to find out more about the men who liberated his father. Mark agreed to attend, and the three 'babies' met at a café on the historic main square in Linz.
They all felt the same unexpected sense of fellowship. The 'babies' walked together down the few steps to the door of the gas chamber... under Nazi ideology all three of them should have gasped their last in that stifling space, cradled by their half dead mothers. But Fate had other plans for them.
For those three 'babies' had gone on to "create a second and then a third generation all of whom continued to live their lives to the full in defiance of Hitler's plan to erase them from history and from memory."
They met again in England in January 2011 to take part in a special commemoration service for Holocaust Memorial Day at the London Guildhall. There Hana and Mark met 93 year old Anka.
Again they met back in Mauthausen on 8 May 2013 to open a new exhibition. They returned to Mauthausen memorial in May 2015 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation.
As you will see from what I've written above, this is a deeply moving book about an extraordinary escape from a situation of the deepest despair. In our comfortable lives - despite the stresses of the modern world - let us remember the resilience of the human spirit in the face of the worst possible circumstances, and learn from it.