In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer Book Review

Love and hate exist in the same breath. It is merely a matter of which path we choose and the consequences of that decision.

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, by Irene Gut Opdyke and edited by Jennifer Armstrong, was published in 2016. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Irene Gut, a Polish Catholic teenager, was living an ordinary life. The oldest of five girls, she is studying to become a nurse.

World War II changed everything. Coerced into working in a German officer’s dining hall, she uses the information she learns to save lives. Upon transferring positions and becoming the housekeeper in a Nazi Major’s home, she hides 12 Jews in the basement. To keep them alive, Irene will have to accomplish the impossible. Even if it means crossing a boundary she would have never considered before.

This book is very good. It proves two things. The first is that one person can make a difference. The second is that love can overcome hate. We just need the will and courage to act on that love.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer is available wherever books are sold.

The Last Checkmate: A Novel Book Review

When we talk about the Holocaust, we sometimes forget The Righteous Among the Nations. These are non-Jews who put their lives and safety aside to save their Jewish neighbors.

The Last Checkmate: A Novel, by Gabriella Saab, was published last year. Maria Florkowska, a Polish-Catholic teenage girl, has been forced to grow up quickly. The only connection to her life before World War II is her love of chess. A member of the Polish underground, Maria, along with the rest of her family, is caught by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz.

After her parents and siblings are murdered, Maria is initially stuck in an emotional cycle of grief and anger. When one of the camp’s commanders notices that she plays chess well, he decides to use her skill to entertain the guards. This opens the door to doing everything she can to get him transferred to another camp. When they met again at the war’s end, Maria challenges him to one more game, not knowing the outcome.

I truly enjoyed this book. If nothing, Maria is proof that there are good people in this world. It also shows that when it seems darkest, there is always some spark to keep us going. I love Maria’s sass, I love her intelligence, and I love her fight to stay alive.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely?

The Last Checkmate: A Novel is available wherever books are sold.

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The Winter Guest: A Novel Book Review

One of the offshoots of war is being forced to grow up quickly. Childhood quickly changes to adulthood when a young person must make decisions that would in peacetime, be made years later.

The Winter Guest: A Novel by Pam Jenoff, was published in 2014. In a small town in Poland during World War II, eighteen-year-old Polish-Catholic twins Ruth and Helena Nowak are no longer living as carefree teenagers. With their father dead and their mother hospitalized, the girls are both parenting themselves and their younger siblings. Adding insult to injury, the war is creating shortages and making a hard life even harder.

Things change when Helena rescues Sam, an American Jewish soldier. She quickly falls in love with him, and he with her. Her time with him threatens to break the tight bond between the sisters. They create a plan for the entire family to escape to safety. When they are betrayed, the consequences will have an effect well beyond that place and moment in time.

Jenoff does it again. This story is searing, romantic, powerful, and proof that love truly can overcome hate. I love that the protagonists are young women who are not waiting to be rescued, they do their own figurative rescuing. The book is amazing and I would read it again in a heartbeat.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

The Winter Guest: A Novel is available wherever books are sold.

The Ukrainian Invasion is a Both a Premonition and a Warning

It’s easy to take democracy for granted. It is only when it is on the brink of destruction that we remember how fragile and important it is.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday morning. The estimated number of casualties as of Thursday night was 137. While the rest of the world sanctions, condemns, and protests the actions of the Russian military, Putin acts as if he has every right to take over a sovereign nation.

In a previous post about this topic, I compared the invasion to when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. A more appropriate comparison is the German takeover of Poland in 1939. This event, as we all know, was the opening salvo of the European theater of World War II.

As both a Jew and an American whose family left Eastern Europe more than a century ago, I am scared and horrified on two points. The first is that Putin claims that he needs to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Putting aside (momentarily) the continued misuse of the Holocaust-related language and imagery, he ignores the known fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is also a member of the Jewish faith. Anyone with half a brain can easily see through what is nothing more than a flimsy excuse.

Among the many pieces of video that have been released, the one I find most heartbreaking is the man saying goodbye to his wife and daughter as he prepares to fight for his country. I don’t know about anyone else, but seeing this exchange was nothing short of gutwrenching.

I am equally horrified that several prominent members of the American right (i.e. Republicans) are loudly and proudly flying their pro-Putin flag. What was that about America First? More like Russia First.

I believe that this is a turning point in world history that cannot be ignored. We have two choices. We can pull a Neville Chamberlain and let Putin steamroll over Europe. Or, we can fight back and ensure that our children live in a world in which democracy is respected and protected.

The Escape Artist Book Review

It would be easy to wish, that as adults, the experience of our childhood have no effect on us. But the truth is that as much as we have grown up, who were and what we went through when we were young is always with us.

Growing up, writer Helen Fremont knew two certainties. The first was that she knew that her parents lived through and survived World War II, but refused to share the details with their children. The second was that what happened in their house stayed in their house.

Her new memoir, The Escape Artist, was published last year. Her story is that of long held secrets (her parents were Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland), mental illness, and the heart breaking discovery that her father wrote her out of his will. Add in the questioning of sexual identity and you have a messy youth that has the power, if allowed, to destroy the chance of having a productive and happy adulthood.

I loved this book. Her story has all of the complications that life throws at us. It was at times, painful to read. I kept wishing that I could have given her the innocence and happiness that I knew when I was a girl. I’ve read more than a few memoirs over the past few years. This book is one of the best.

Do I recommend it? Yes

The Woman with the Blue Star: A Novel Book Review

It is easy to judge someone based on a stereotype or a first impression. But when we get to know them, we hopefully will get to see the real person and not who we think they are.

Pam Jenoff‘s new book, The Woman with the Blue Star: A Novel, was published in May. In Krakow, Poland in 1942, 18-year-old Sadie Gault’s life has been turned upside down. Because she is Jewish, she and her parents have been forced to move into the Krakow Ghetto. When the Nazis decide that it is time to liquidate the ghetto, they escape into the sewers beneath the city. Hiding with her pregnant mother and another family, she looks up one day and sees a young woman her age looking back to her.

On the outside, Ella Stepanek is living a comfortable life (relatively speaking). Her Catholic faith has so far kept her alive and safe. But once she gets home, it is another story. Ella is the only one of her siblings still living at home. Both of her parents are deceased. Her stepmother would love nothing more than to have an empty house. She has also opened her doors, literally and figuratively to the new regime.

As the two girls become friends, Ella starts to provide Sadie with as many provisions as possible. But with both the war and the hunt for hidden Jews ramping up, they realize that the decisions that must be made have life-changing consequences.

I have been a fan of Jenoff for the last few years. She perfectly balances the historical record with fictional characters, telling stories that transcend the time and place in which they are set. I also very much appreciate that most, if not all of her protaganists are female. We can talk all we want about representation. But until writers, readers, and publishers step up, male protaganists will still dominate the world of fiction.

Reading this book, I am reminded that the Holocaust is not ancient history. Many who survived are no longer with us. Without their testimony and the recording of their experiences, this dark day in history will be lost to memory. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the younger generations to listen while we can and make sure that what they lived through is preserved, re-told, and never forgotten.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos Book Review

When we think of war, we generally think of men on the battlefield and women keeping the home front going. But the reality is that women have waged war, but not in in the way we perceive it to be.

The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos by Judy Batalion, was published earlier this year. The book tells the story of a group of young Jewish women who actively fought against the Nazis in the Polish ghettos during World War II. Told in vivid detail using interviews, archival information, and written accounts, the author brings to light an aspect of this era in history that has been overlooked.

This book adds a new layer to the information we have about the Holocaust. I loved that each woman is given her time to shine. We are told that women are weak and emotional. We are incapable of being bold, brave, and courageous. The subjects of this book are the opposite. They know that death is waiting for them at every turn. But they cannot sit back and do nothing. Instead these young women used every tool at their disposal to save as many lives as they can.

I appreciated the epilogue in which the author sketches the lives of the survivors after the war is over. While some settled down into of normal life, others are haunted by those years and what they experienced. They lived with what we now know to be PTSD, creating a shadow that stayed with them years after peace was declared.

Though it is not the heart pounding thriller I thought it would be, it is still a good and a very important read.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

World on Fire Character Review: Grzegorz Tomaszeski

*For the foreseeable future, some Character Review posts may not be published every Thursday as they have in the past.

*Warning: This post contains spoilers about the characters from the television series World on Fire. Read at your own risk if you have not watched the show.

There is something to be said about a well written, human character. They leap off the page and speak to us as if they were right in front of us, as flesh and blood human beings, instead of fictional creations. When facing an invading army, one usually has two choices: give into what seems to be inevitable or fight for your family, your home, and your nation. On World on Fire, Grzegorz Tomaszeski (Mateusz Więcławek) is introduced to the audience as a young man who wants his father’s approval. He will soon earn in a way that will forever change the course of his life.

When the Germans invade Poland, Grzegorz joins his father and other men at Danzig to prevent the Nazis from entering the country. Their attempts, as history tell us, is not a success. After watching his father being killed by German soldiers, Grzegorz quickly learns about the harsh nature of war. Finding a father figure in fellow fighter Konrad, they plan to get out of Poland and Europe in general. But that journey will be far from easy and they can only pray that they survive.

To sum it up: War has a way of forcing us to grow up quickly as few things can. Grzegorz’s time as young man ignorant of the world around him ends in Danzig. Now fully understanding what he must do, he knows that he has no choice. It is one of those truths about being an adult that can only be learned the hard way.

Which is why he is a memorable character.

World on Fire Character Review: Jan Tomaszeski

*For the foreseeable future, some Character Review posts may not be published every Thursday as they have in the past.

*Warning: This post contains spoilers about the characters from the television series World on Fire. Read at your own risk if you have not watched the show.

There is something to be said about a well written, human character. They leap off the page and speak to us as if they were right in front of us, as flesh and blood human beings, instead of fictional creations. When one’s country goes to war, no one is immune from it’s cold touch. On World on Fire, Jan Tomaszeski (Eryk Biedunkiewicz) is the youngest of three children.

His life is relatively normal, until the Nazis invade Poland. With his father, older brother Grzegorz (Mateusz Wieclawek), and older sister Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz) fighting for their country, Jan is sent to England with his brother-in-law, Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King). Left with Robina (Lesley Manville), Harry’s domineering mother, he is a stranger in a strange land. Clinging to the memories of his family and the hope that they are still alive, Jan is faced with a challenge that only occurs during war time.

Children, we are told, are resilient. They have the ability to bounce back emotionally and psychologically faster than adults. But that does not mean that the scars of the experience completely disappear. Though Jan is still quite young, there is something in him that keeps him going. Which I happen to think is an inspiration to us all, regardless of age.

Which is why he is a memorable character.

World on Fire Character Review: Kasia Tomaszeski

*For the foreseeable future, some Character Review posts may not be published every Thursday as they have in the past.

*Warning: This post contains spoilers about the characters from the television series World on Fire. Read at your own risk if you have not watched the show.

There is something to be said about a well written, human character. They leap off the page and speak to us as if they were right in front of us, as flesh and blood human beings, instead of fictional creations. War changes our fate like nothing else can. Forced to make decisions that would never even be considered in peacetime, we know that the chance of not surviving is high. In World on Fire, Kasia Tomaszeski (Zofia Wichłacz) is a young woman without a care in the world. Working as a waitress and living in Warsaw with her family, she is also in love with Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King), an English translator who is working in the city.

Then the Germans invade and her world is forever changed. When her father and brother, Grzegorz (Mateusz Wieclawek) join the Polish army, Kasia has two excruciating choices. Now married to Harry, she can go with him to England, not knowing his complicated love life. Or, she can stay and fight for her country.

Choosing to join the Polish Underground, Kasia sends her little brother to England in her stead. Driven by her mother’s murder, she knows that she could be betrayed, captured, tortured, and killed at any moment. But it is a risk that must be taken to free Poland. When we last see Kasia, she is reunited with Harry, but they are surrounded by German soldiers, their fate unknown.

To sum it up: The decisions Kasia makes are far from easy. The consequences, whatever they maybe, are at best, dangerous, and at worst, deadly. But for her it is the only choice. For her family, for her country, and most of all, for herself.

Which is why she is a memorable character.

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