Tag Archives: The Holocaust

Stolen Beauty: A Novel Book Review

If you can, imagine the following: you have lived a relatively peaceful life. Your family is comfortably settled without major problems. There are haters, but they have little to no effect on your day to day schedule. Then you are othered and everything you know is about to go out the window.

Stolen Beauty: A Novel, by, Laurie Lico Albanese was published in 2017. In the early 20th century, Adele Bloch-Bauer is a young newlywed who is at the top Vienna‘s social circle. When she meets artist Gustav Klimt, the mutual inspiration transpires beyond the canvas and the bedroom. But not even his gift with the paint brush can keep the growing anti-Semitism from reaching Adele.

Nearly 40 years later, Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann, is herself a newlywed. But the city she has known her entire life has turned against her after the Nazi Invasion. Suddenly, her Jewish faith has made her, her family, and her co-religionists outsiders. Forced out of her home and praying that her husband is released from prison, she has two choices. She can stay and hope that this is the worst of it. Or try to get out and save her family’s legacy from abroad.

A literary companion to the 2015 film, Woman in Gold, this book is wonderful. The switch between Adele in 1903 and Maria in the late 1930’s is seamless. Though history tells us that Maria would get out of Europe and eventually reclaim her family’s property, the question of when and how holds the reader until the last page.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

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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

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The Forest of Vanishing Stars: A Novel Book Review

The Holocaust, as a subject is one of the most potent narratives in the world of fiction. It is therefore, up to the writer to make their specific narrative stand out.

Kristin Harmel‘s new novel, The Forest of Vanishing Stars: A Novel, was published last month. In 1922, an old woman steals a child from her crib. Re-named Yona, she is raised in the forests of Eastern Europe and taught to survive off the land. Twenty years later, Yona’s adopted mother dies, leaving the young woman alone in the world. Coming upon a group of Jews who have so far escaped Nazi slaughter, she helps them to find safety and shelter in the woods. While Yona is providing them with the tools they need to live, they provide her with the family she never had.

When her past and her true parentage is revealed, she has a choice to make. She can either go with the man who fathered her, or she can listen to her own conscious.

Among stories of this nature, this book stands out. A cross between Rapunzel and a story of survival against all odds, it is unique within the genre. But it is not Harmel’s best book. The first couple of chapters were a little slow to get into. The final chapter, as to the fate of the characters, did not make complete sense. Unless I was missing something, I was not sure who the author was referring to.

Do I recommend it? Maybe.

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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.

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Flashback Friday: The Last Days (1998)

The only way to learn from our past is to not repeat it. Sometimes, that requires reliving it, as painful as it sounds.

The 1998 documentary, The Last Days, was released on Netflix back in May. The film follows five Hungarian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. During the last year of World War II, the Jews of Hungary were the last intact Jewish community in Europe. That would quickly change. Within six weeks, hundreds of thousands were deported to Auschwitz. Only a handful would survive. Containing interviews with survivors, a SS doctor, and American soldiers who helped to liberate Dachau, it is powerful and haunting reminder of both the light and the darkness in humanity.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It was riveting, emotional, and a punch to the gut that is absolutely necessary. Hearing about this time in history from the people who lived through this nightmare reminds us all that the Holocaust is not a myth and not strictly relegated to the world of literature. It is an event that happened in the lifetimes of many people who are still alive. While we cannot bring back those who were murdered, we can honor their memory by remembering them, and open our eyes to the negative energy and destruction that hate drags behind it.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

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My Name Is Selma: The Remarkable Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter and Ravensbrück Survivor Book Review

The ability to survive a war is due to a combination of both luck and timing.

In 2020, Jewish Holocaust survivor and resistance fighter Selma van de Perre published her memoir. It is entitled My Name Is Selma: The Remarkable Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter and Ravensbrück Survivor. The third of four children, van de Perre’s live was relatively normal until World War II started. In her late teens at the time, fate determined that it was not her time to be rounded up by the Nazis. After her father was summoned to a work camp and her mother and little sister were in hiding before found and sent to Auschwitz, Selma died her hair blonde, lived under an assumed name, and joined the resistance. It seemed that luck was on her side. That is, until 1944 when she was captured and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her Jewish identity remained a secret until after the war, when she finally able to reveal her true self safely.

I wanted to like this book. If I am to be completely honest, it was an infodump. In writing terms, an infodump is where the writer(s) provide the reader with a lot of information without emotion or insight into what the characters are thinking or feeling. Now granted, this is a memoir and not a fiction book. What I was missing was the quickening of my pulse and the uncertainty of the dangerous situations she put herself into.

Do I recommend it? Not really.

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Throwback Thursday: The Exception (2016)

Love has to power to change everything. Hate included.

The 2016 film, The Exception, takes place in Holland during World War II. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is a Nazi officer whose task is to ensure that spies have not found a way into the home of the former German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm (the late Christopher Plummer). Along the way, he falls for housemaid Mieke de Jong (Lily James), who is hiding her Jewish identity in hopes of surviving the war.

This movie would normally be celluloid catnip for me. While the cast is fantastic and at the top of their game, I could not get into it. There is no other explanation other than I was bored. Whatever narrative hook this film possesses, it was lost on me.

Do I recommend it? Not really.

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Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope Book Review

Motherhood is one of the most profound and challenging experiences of a woman’s life. Wartime and the sheer will to survive forces a mother to make decisions that would otherwise not even be considered.

In 2015, Wendy Holden published Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope. The book tells the story of three Jewish women incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II. Not knowing the fate of their husbands or their families, Rachel, Anka, and Priska know that being pregnant is a death sentence. They do everything they can to survive, not knowing if they or their babies will not just live, but one day see the light of freedom.

I loved this book. In telling the story of these three women, Holden brings the cold and dangerous reality of this era of history. It is a reminder, in the most in your face way possible, how quickly hate and prejudice can descend into destruction and murder. I felt as if I was in these camps with these women, instead of reading about them generations after the Holocaust happened.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

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Daughter of the Reich: A Novel Book Review

Our teenage years are the most confusing and exciting times of our lives. We are torn between the expectations of our families and the excitement of the newness of everything that occurs during that period.

Daughter of the Reich: A Novel, by Louise Fein, was published last year. In World War II era Germany, Hetty Heinrich, whose father is moving up in the ranks of the Nazi party, is everything a daughter was supposed to be. She is respectful of her parents and goes along with the new society that the regime has created. That all changes when she reunites with an old friend, Walter Keller. Walter is Jewish. Despite the risks to both of their lives (and their families by extension), they start to fall for one another. When it becomes clear that the danger is ramping up tenfold, Walter and Hetty have to make a decision about their future.

OMG. This is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. It was such a visceral experience to see this world and this time in history through Hetty’s eyes. If nothing else, it was a reminder of how equally powerful love and hate can be. As I got further into the novel, it was not hard to see the parallels between the 1930’s and today.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

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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.

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