Tag Archives: Holocaust

Lilac Girls

 

 

 

 

LILAC GIRLS

by MARTHA HALL KELLY

RANDOM HOUSE-BALLANTINE | 487 pages
Genre: HISTORICAL FICTION | HOLOCAUST
Source: ARC e-book from EDELWEISS

★★★

Don’t be fooled by the lovely cover photo.  This book will be rough on the emotions.

Author Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel was inspired by two real life women who represent the yin and yang of the Nazi era – New York socialite Caroline Ferriday and Dr. Herta Oberheuser of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for women.

Kelly spent nearly 10 years researching the background story for Lilac Girls and based on war crimes tribunal reports, survivor interviews and family records, the fictional Kasia Kuzmerick emerged  to tell her story about life before, during and after the Germany invasion of her native Poland. The three narrators alternate chapters and present the war from three vastly different perspectives.

America, still reeling from WWI, wanted no part of unrest building in Europe. It’s 1939 and a frantic wave of immigrants arrives daily in US ports hoping for safety. Most are sent back; often to their deaths. Caroline Ferriday, a retired stage actress, has found volunteer work at the French Consulate assisting wealthy refugees obtain documentation to stay stateside. The Ferriday’s are Francophiles and have a vacation home in Paris. Caroline is aghast that America has turned a blind eye to those in need and hosts fundraising galas to help French orphans. Her generous spirit is admirable but her lack of understanding what the children need goes without saying.

Meanwhile, Herta Oberheuser has received her medical degree in Dusseldorf, Germany and has found that gender bias prevents her from furthering her education as a surgeon.  While working well beneath her education, Herta spots an advertisement that will change her future:

I picked up The Journal of Medicine and noticed a classified ad for a doctor needed at a reeducation camp for women. . .near the resort town of Fürstenberg on Lake Schwedt. There were many such camps at the time, mostly for the work-shy and minor criminals. [It] had an appealing name. Ravensbrück.

Herta’s naivety upon arrived at Ravensbrück is abruptly shocked. She adapted  quickly to become a sinister criminal but left me thinking of so many in that time period that swallowed the party line – what makes a person become incapable of seeing the humanity in others? In the end, one has to wonder if those perpetrators of such horrific crimes could ever receive adequate justice.

Kasia Kuzmerick’s carefree childhood ends when Hitler declared war on Poland in 1939. Kasia and friends are spying on Jewish refugees hiding in a potato field when German bombers arrive and massacre everyone. The horror motivates Kasia to join the underground movement; a step that ultimately costs her dearly. One misstep and Kasia along with her mother and sisters are captured and sent to RavensbrückKasia and her sister, Zuzanna, were selected for medical experimentation surgery by Dr. Herta Oberheuser. The mutilated women were known in the camp as “Rabbits”.

The author softens the story with Caroline’s adventures in love and luxury but it is hard to look away from Ravensbrück with its inhumanity, pain and death. Caroline’s post-war efforts on behalf of the Rabbits is much stronger than her initial foray into war-time charity with her homemade gifts for the children. Her relationship with her married love interest felt oddly out of place weighed up against the horrors of the concentration camps; it did not occur in real life.

The strongest part of the story lies with the Ravensbrück inmates for their efforts to survive. The stories of the compassion and friendships they showed toward one another and the attempts to “normalize” their lives with little things like hair ribbons and lace collars is heartbreaking. The post-war lives of Kasia and Zuzanna illuminates how long-term trauma of malnutrition, torture, PTSD and disease has changed the arc of their futures.

It was difficult to rate the book. I gave it high marks for several reasons. The author’s research exposed the depth of depravity exhibited by the Nazi doctor’s and camp guards. As unsettling as the subject is, it happened; and stepping away from our creature comforts into that unimaginable horror reminds us that it could happen again – anywhere. The book reminds us that charity begins at home, suppressed hatred is corrosive, and that discrimination of “others” does not make a society stronger.

As a debut work, Kelly did a remarkable job of exposing a little known horror of the Holocaust and the generosity of the Americans for the surviving Rabbits.

Post-War Photo of Surviving Ravensbrück Rabbits living in America

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Managing Bubbie

hot bubbie

Bubbies book

 

Managing Bubbie

by Russel Lazega

Managing Bubbie netgalley

CreateSpace| 2015
Hardcover: 244 pages
ISBN: 978-1499126297
Genre: Memoir/Jewish Culture/Holocaust

ARC  E-book from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★★ 5/5

Winner of 20 Book Awards!

“I vant you should make this book.”

Shortly after Lea Lezega’s grandson, Russel, finished college, his Bubbie tells him, again she might add, he must write about her life. It would make them all millionaires! She is certain! Years pass before Russel grabs a pen and starts researching truth from fiction in Bubba’s stories. Ten long years of interviews and document searches confirm that Bubbie indeed led one hell of a life.

And tell the story her eynikl, Russel Lazega has done!  Bubbie would be very proud! Hang on to your reading glasses… As Bubbie says,My life – oy! my life is full of crazy stories.”

Lea Lazega, the ultimate Jewish Bubbie to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is straight out of a Neil Simon play with over-sized tortoise-shell glasses and that instantly recognizable Yiddish accent percolating invectives at one or more family members.  The book opens in Miami in 1987 with Bubbie telling Cousin Leon some far-fetched theory that Ronald Reagan is her long-lost half brother. Trying to follow Lea’s logic feels like running headlong through a corn maze blindfolded.

Nearing the end of her “golden years”, Bubbie finds her body failing her unrivaled spunk and she is as offended by its physical weakness as she was by the murderous Nazis. Despite her better interests she struggles to be the manager of the situation, not the managed. Her family struggles to keep her out of trouble. She has always done what she wants regardless of the rules of civilized and uncivilized society. It is a battle of wits and Bubbie, as she has done throughout her life, wins!

No assisted living facility in Florida will accept her …She’s worn out 6 already…2 in one month! She’s been blacklisted. “She just won’t follow the rules!” Yet in the midst of trying to make her final years comfortable and hitting brick walls,  the younger family members see the strong amazing woman that towed her young family threw hell and back to outwit the Nazis as they muscled their way through Europe.

Lea was born in 1911 in a small desolate Polish village, a child of a skirt-chasing flirt determined to become a world famous entertainer and an iron-willed mother striving to turn her man into a husband. Her parents had just returned to Poland following a five year stint in America; one of Isaac’s misguided efforts to become rich and famous gone horribly awry. There was one good thing that did happen in America. Esther gave birth to Lea’s sister, Evelyn making Evelyn a US citizen and at the first opportunity she returned. Lea, growing up in Poland, a young victim of anti-Semitic bullying and discrimination vowed to follow her sister. I promise mineself then that I’m going to America- No matter vat, I’m going to follow my sister to the greatest country in the world- America.

Lea’s first chance at a new life took her to Brussels, Belgium where her menial sewing factory job didn’t improve her living conditions but it did provide her freedom from her battling parents and the bullies. Soon after, she married a timid tailor and life was rosy with Lea in charge. When rumors of German mistreatment of Jews in far off European countries sifted into everyday conversation in Belgium, Bubbie’s radar told her she needed to leave Europe and head to America.

With one ear to the ground for safety for her family, Lea haunted the halls of governments from Belgium through France and into Spain to obtain those all important documents needed to reach America. Bombs crushed cities, Nazis prowled the streets and countries fell but Lea never lost sight of her goal. So many close calls but always outwitting the enemy. Hunger and abhorrent living conditions never slowed her drive. As always, rules never applied to Lea. Line up, sign up, hands up…not Lea. Her winter passage on foot through the deadly Pyrenees mountains into Spain with her babies was awe-inspiring. And in the end, Lea planted her flag- in America.

Russel has done a phenomenal job of telling Bubbie’s life scattering humorous moments in America with her life during the Holocaust. I guarantee you will cheer her victories and huddle with her in those terror filled moments-just inches from death. He vividly describes Lea and the children cowering behind a large rock in the Pyrenees too afraid to build a fire for warmth against Bubbie’s fury at Ed McMahon for telling her falsely she had won $10 million dollars. Sue him Russel, sue him for me!

I can’t say enough good things about this book. Highly recommended for book clubs.

I conclude with one more story from Bubbie. Listening to President Reagan on TV visiting a War Memorial in Europe. Reagan: For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow…Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation…Bubbie with a tearful eye and a broken smile answers, “Oy, Brother you don’t know the half of it.”

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THE BOY ON THE WOODEN BOX

“Not even the scariest of fairy tales could have prepared me for the monsters I would confront while just a boy of ten…or the hero, disguised as a monster himself, who would save my life.”

Book Cover Layson as a young child racing barefoot through meadows, skinny dipping in the river and pulling childish pranks to pass the idyllic early days of youth.

This high spirited and curious child moved from his mountain village to the big city of Krakow when he was eight years old.  He easily made friends with Gentile and Jewish children his age.  Surrounded by the deep abiding love of parents, and the freedom to explore his new urban world that now Originalincluded indoor plumbing and streetcars, Leon could not have imagined or prepared for the evil heading his way.

Leon in factory

Leon in factory

Leon, the young Jewish child, unskilled and uneducated, incredibly survives against all odds, to be a witness to the horrors of the Holocaust.  For forty eight years he couldn’t believe anyone would be interested in his story. When the movie, Schindler’s List introduced Oskar Schindler and his heroic efforts to the world, Leon knew it was time to reveal his deepest secrets.

Leon on list

Schindler’s List 289 Lejzon, Lieb (Leon Layson)

“Oskar Schindler thought my life had superstickies recommendvalue.  He thought I was worth saving, even when giving me a chance to live put his own life in peril.  Now it’s my turn to do what
I can for him…This is the story of
my life and how it intersected with his.”

What makes Leon’s story so special is the care he has taken to tell us what it was like to be a little boy, separated from his parents sometimes for months, forced to live an unimaginable life.  This courageous child never gave up.  And he would be the first to admit just plain lucky.

When most people think of the Holocaust they envision humiliated, tortured and dehumanized Jews packed into cattle cars. They picture rows upon rows of emaciated and poorly clothed bodies stuffed onto wooden barrack bunks. You don’t dare look deeply into their vacant eyes to see their memories and lost lives. You can’t begin to understand where they find their strong will to live one more minute, one more hour, and one more day.

As the world regained control in Europe, the battle sounds receded and the crematoriums stopped spewing souls to the sky, questions were asked.  Why didn’t the Jews fight back?  Why didn’t they see this coming and prepare ways to save themselves and their families?  What was life like for those that survived trying to find out what happened to those closest to them?

1965 Schindler reunited with Leyson and wife

Schindler reunited with Leyson 1965

Leon takes us gently by the hand and tells his story in his own words.  It is not an easy story to read but written carefully and truthfully without overly graphic scenes. There is no good way to describe brutality, murder, starvation, and random torture.  Many, however, will be surprised by the number of times he told of tiny ways the downtrodden lifted each other’s spirits or showed the courage to resist.

Little Leyson also shows us that we can never forget but we must go oleonn living.  He and his parents moved to the US.  Although he was not an American citizen, was drafted into military service during the Korean War.  Using GIs bill benefits; he obtained a college degree, found the love of his life, and enjoyed over 30 years as a high school teacher.

But he never forgot…

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