nonfiction

Book Review: Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman

I can’t actually remember how Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman (The Jewish Publication Society, 2015) ended up on my TBR; likely a mention by one of the many Jewish pages I follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Books and reading have always been an important part of being Jewish (we are the People of the Book!), and so learning about and understanding what happened to Jewish books during and after World War II was something that piqued my interest. Boy, did I learn a LOT from this book!

So, almost everyone knows that the Nazi burned books. Most of us have seen pictures of people throwing books onto a huge bonfire, and we use Nazi book burning as a metaphor for the dangers of censorship. But most of us probably don’t know that their book burning phase didn’t last very long; they quickly moved on to collecting books. That’s right. The Nazis stole, then collected Jewish writings even as they mowed down the Jewish people during World War II. They planned to study the writings of the culture they had wiped out. Fortunately, they lost, and afterwards, one of the many questions to be answered at war’s end became, “Now what do we do with all these millions of books?”

In order to help the reader understand the importance of this question, Rabbi Mark Glickman begins the book with a fascinating look at the history of Jewish texts and the emphasis on reading and study that has always been central to Judaism. The second section segues into the many heartbreaking ways the Nazis stole and desecrated our texts; the third, how so many people worked for years to return said texts to their rightful owners, or, barring the ability to do that, to send the texts to the places they would again be loved and cherished. This was obviously a massive amount of work; millions upon millions of books and papers had been stolen and hidden away, or stored in places that ranged from caves to castles. Moving these books involved multiple organizations working tirelessly for years.

This is an incredible book that tells a story I hadn’t heard before. I had no idea about the Nazis stealing books; even with all the reading I’ve done about history, World War II, and the Shoah, I had been under the impression that they burned books and nothing else. I had no clue about the massive troves of Jewish literature that lay hidden after the war, nor of the incredible effort of so many people to return these books to communities and organizations that would recognize them for the treasures that they are. This book presented a brand-new understanding of history to me, and I’m grateful to Rabbi Glickman for having penned such an interested, eye-opening work. I always appreciate being able to be better informed about anything, but especially Judaism and Jewish history.

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nonfiction

Book Review: The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed by Wendy Lower

It was a combing through of my library’s catalog (the old person impulse to still refer to it as a ‘card catalog’! I have a scar on my hand from dropping and thus trying to catch the H drawer of my library’s card catalog when I was 12. I think of it as a super cool natural bookworm tattoo…) to look for Jewish books that I learned about the existence of The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed by Wendy Lower (Mariner Books, 2021). I knew I had to read it – I feel a big responsibility to read everything I can handle about the Holocaust, but I had to wait until I had the mental space for it. And in trying to read all the ebooks that have been sitting on my list for a bit, this book came up…and it was finally in.

The Ravine covers a photograph that captures murder in progress. The photograph, shown in detail several times throughout the book, shows a woman in the process of being shot and falling into a deep ravine, a small child at her side and an even smaller child tucked in to her lap. Several men stand behind her, one who is doing the shooting. A cloud of gunsmoke hangs in the air.

Wendy Lower, scholar and researcher, worked diligently over a long period of time to identify not only the people in the photo, but also the photographer who took it. The Ravine documents this arduous process, which takes her across countries, deep into archives and down village streets around the world. Phone calls, documents, interviews, research into cameras; Ms. Lower used all the skills she had, along with the skills of other people, to help flesh out the story of this horrifying moment captured for posterity.

Not an easy book to read. The book gets into some truly gutting details about the horrors of the Holocaust, and there were a few times I struggled to continue reading. It’s also a research-heavy book, written in a fairly academic style, so this isn’t something the casual reader is likely to pick up for a relaxing weekend read.

It does tell a story of how intense historical research can be, and the lengths and depths researchers need to go to in order to ensure that their work is correct. The Holocaust isn’t over; its effects are still felt in the remaining survivors and in the family members who were affected by what their loved ones suffered. This is evident in some of the interviews Ms. Lower conducts; the subjects break down and struggle to answer her questions. This is still a raw subject for them, and this book does a good job showing how the pain hasn’t ended.

The Ravine is a heavy, heavy book, but a worthy read.

memoir

Book Review: The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger

I feel such a responsibility to read memoirs by Holocaust survivors. So much history, so much suffering, so much to learn about how not just to survive but even thrive while carrying some of the worst trauma imaginable. I’m careful about how and when I read these books, however; I recognize when I’m more able to engage with these types of books, in order to preserve my mental health (especially with the constant chaos going on in the world today), and hopefully you are too. On my last library trip, I decided I was ready for The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger (Scribner, 2017), a Holocaust survivor, and I’m glad I was. This is a remarkable book.

Edith Eger was only sixteen years old when she wound up in Auschwitz. Her parents were killed immediately; her oldest sister had been away playing violin concerts, so she hadn’t made the trip, but Edith and her other sister clung to each other, helping each other to survive and risking their lives for each other. Throughout her time there, through illness, starvation, grief, and pain, Edith managed to maintain an attitude that helped her make it through the grueling days of suffering, and afterwards, trying to rebuild a life without her parents and beloved boyfriend, she carried on with that same attitude, marrying, having a family, and eventually earning a PhD and growing a successful therapy practice. Her story is one of resilience, a message about how we can’t always choose our circumstances, but we can choose our attitude towards them, and some attitudes are more helpful for survival – and thriving! – than others.

Dr. Eger’s story is a tough one. Her descriptions of conditions, of the depravity forced upon the prisoners in Auschwitz and the other camps she spent time in are horrifying, and there were definitely times I had to set the book down and take a few breaths. It’s not an easy story to listen to, but these stories are so, so important. We can’t let this history be lost; we have to take it in, carry it with us into the future, and make sure our children understand what the outcome of such hatred looks like.

Reading about Dr. Eger’s successful practice, not only after having survived the Holocaust but after having earned her PhD as an adult student, filled me with hope (and also more than a little jealousy for her clients; she sounds like she’s a remarkable therapist!). Maybe it’s not too late for me to become something more than what I am now. If she can do it, maybe I can, too…

Truly a heart-wrenching, inspiring book, one I’m very glad made its way to my TBR.

Visit Dr. Edith Eger’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

I’ve read more middle grade this year than I have in the past, which is a good thing, because I always kind of tend to forget about it as a genre. Now that my daughter is getting older, however, middle grade books are more on my radar, and a few really great ones have ended up on my TBR. It was a list of Jewish middle grade books that made me aware of The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissmann (Dial Books, 2018). Due to its location at a different library, I hadn’t gotten to it yet, and I hadn’t even meant to check it out when I did – we were just visiting that library for a quick escape to its air conditioning on a day when ours had died (all good now, thankfully!). I had books at home, but my daughter wanted to play in the empty children’s play area, so I grabbed this book off the shelf and was hooked within the first few pages. And by hooked, I mean HOOKED.

Imani is not only preparing for her bat mitzvah, the ceremony that will mark her entry into Jewish adulthood, she’s grappling with her identity as an adoptee. What does it mean to be adopted? What were her first parents like, and why did they choose for her to be raised by her parents? What’s her ancestral background? The death of her great-grandmother Anna, who traveled alone to America at age twelve, raises more questions than answers for Imani, until she discovers Anna’s diary among the books she inherited. Anna’s story of leaving her twin sister, parents, and other siblings behind in occupied Luxembourg to travel to safety in America is one of discovery, stress, and worry, all things Imani is grappling with, albeit in a much different context. But Imani is able to relate, and reading Anna’s story (and sharing this journey with her best friend) is able to help her put her own questions into context.

When the journal ends abruptly, Imani isn’t satisfied, and she begins to delve deeper into her family’s story, and to gain the courage to ask the difficult questions that will shed some light on her own identity.

This is an amazing book. My write-up doesn’t do it justice at ALL; I didn’t want this to end, but when it did, I immediately marked it as five stars. Ms. Weissman deals with some heavy issues here: the Holocaust, death, adoption, identity, but she does it all with grace and a deep understanding of tween emotions. Imani wants nothing more than to understand her own background, where her genetic ancestors came from and why she’s not living with the people she came from (questions that non-adopted kids are almost always readily able to answer); her search for knowledge about herself is contrasted with her great-grandmother Anna’s solo journey to America, leaving behind her entire family to live in safety with relatives. Anna’s guilt at living in safety, with abundant food, while her family remains behind in Nazi-occupied Luxembourg, weighs heavily on her, especially with the dearth of information coming out of Europe, and this is something that affects Imani deeply. Her desperation for knowledge of her background helps her understand exactly how frightened her great-grandmother must have been.

Imani’s feelings about her adoption are complicated. She loves her family and her Jewish community, but the answers she craves about her biological family depend on help from her parents, and she’s not sure how to begin that conversation in a way that won’t wound them. Things don’t always good smoothly, especially between her and her mother (who, at one point, does react in a somewhat hurtful way – there’s no manual for this, and we as parents all fail from time to time), but with great-grandma Anna’s story as a launching point, Imani is eventually able to find a place of wholeness and acceptance within herself…along with moving her family in a new direction after a surprising turn of events.

Goodness, what a masterfully written middle-grade novel! I honestly don’t think I could have possibly loved this more.

Visit Elissa Brent Weissman’s website here.

fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

World War II! Rationing! Making do in trying circumstances! From the moment I learned about The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (Ballantine Books, 2021), I knew I would enjoy it. I’m fascinated by all things rationing (check out a review I did of a book about the subject, Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations, forward by Jill Norman) and have been ever since I was introduced to the subject as a young girl in one of my favorite books in the world, Back Home by Michelle Magorian. The Kitchen Front didn’t disappoint; it was as charming as I suspected it would be.

It’s wartime Britain, and the BBC has introduced a new contest on its show dedicated to helping housewives learn to deal with wartime rationing. The Kitchen Front’s contest is looking for the best rationing chef, and four women are desperate to win. Audrey is a widowed mom to three boys, struggling to stay afloat ever since her husband was killed in the war. Gwen, Audrey’s image-obsessed social climber sister, is hiding her unhappy reality behind an icy-old façade. Nell, an orphan-turned-maid, is scared of her own shadow, but cooking brings out the best in her. And Zelda, a professionally trained Cordon Bleu chef, will do just about anything to win – but will the secret she’s carrying ruin everything for her?

A ruthless beginning eases into something with softer edges as the women are forced together and begin to understand each other’s stories. Rifts will be mended, new bridges forged, and brand-new paths forward will appear amidst the strain and struggle of wartime. The Kitchen Front is full of charm, friendship, and the can-do attitude that gave British women the reputation for strength and fortitude of character that pulled them through the long years of rationing.

What a lovely book. The characters are all with their own personal struggles, but each is so determined to triumph despite them, that you can’t help but root for every single one, even when some of them sink to some truly low levels to win. The research put into this story is evident, with characters foraging for wild-grown ingredients, substituting local ingredients for little-known ones, and utilizing cooking techniques and recipes known to the era. (A few of the lines mentioned in the book, particularly about manner of dress for women at the time, I had learned just days before while watching episodes of Horrible Histories with my daughter!) This was very obviously a labor of love for the author, and it shows in her respectful treatment of all of the characters and how they came together in the end.

If you’ve read other books by Jennifer Ryan, I’d love to hear if you enjoyed them! I don’t read as much fiction as I’d like, and I tend to be kind of picky about the fiction I do read, so if you’ve got recommendations here, I’d love to hear them! Her The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle looks particularly interesting!

Visit Jennifer Ryan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

Piggybacking off my last book, I grabbed a copy of Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, 2019) from the library. I had read Ms. Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl in 2019, and while writing my review for that, I checked out her other books, and that’s how this one ended up on my list. Most books about World War II center around European nations: Germany, Poland, England, France. I hadn’t read anything before that focused on the Soviet Union, and definitely not anything from the perspective of the children who survived the horrors. I don’t know that the perspective of Soviet Children was a perspective I ever considered, and there was certainly a lot in this book I hadn’t known about.

Children are uniquely traumatized by war, and World War II was devastating for millions of children, for a million different reasons. The children of the Soviet Union suffered in a multitude of ways, most of them horrific and brutal. Each small chapter in this book is a transcript of an interview with a person who was a child during the war, who witnessed terrible things no human being should ever witness, but who have shared their stories, at great personal cost, so that the world will remember what it took from them.

There is deep, scarring pain on every page of this book. Most children lose their fathers; many of them watch their fathers being murdered, and many of them watch their mothers murdered as well. Some are forced to bury their parents. Others watch as their siblings die or are murdered in front of them. They starve. They’re beaten by soldiers. They witness their neighbors slaughtered by German soldiers. They eat grass and dogs and cats in order to survive. They dig graves and hide in the forests in winter. They flee their houses that the soldiers set on fire. They’re damaged for life from all that they’ve seen and suffered.

How did I make it to 41 years old without knowing all of this? My schooling barely touched on war on the Soviet front. All I remember learning is about how the German army went to the USSR and froze; I was never taught about the nightmare the Germans foisted upon the Soviet people, and definitely not the way they murdered their way through so many of the towns. I learned about how the Nazi soldiers occupied towns in France and Denmark; how they bombed England and how tough rationing was; never once was I taught about how they raped grandmothers and left parents hanging from ropes in trees in the USSR. Did other schools teach this? I had a really good education and I’m usually pretty pleased with all that I learned in the schools I attended, but this was absolutely never covered even once.

Needless to say, this is a dark, dark read from a horrible period of history that I’m actively embarrassed I knew so little about. If you have the mental and emotional space for it, I highly recommend it, because these are stories that need to be heard and understood, and Svetlana Alexievich has compiled an incredible collection of stories that illustrate the deep abyss of pain Nazi soldiers wrought upon Soviet children and their families.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer

My library sends out a quarterly newsletter to everyone within its service area, informing the community about scheduled programs, updates on the new library building currently under construction (completion scheduled for late fall of next year!), book clubs, activities for kids (still lots of virtual storytimes and take-and-go-crafts), and new services they’re offering. I look forward to this newsletter at the dawn of each new season. I learned about My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer (The Experiment, 2013) from one of these newsletters, as it was a book club pick. While I wasn’t able to make the book club discussion centered around this book, I still wanted to read it, and onto my list it went.

Jennifer Teege, a German woman of mixed-race descent, grew up as the adopted child of a white family. She spent the first three years of her life in an orphanage, with her biological mother visiting her on occasion, and spending time with her maternal grandmother. At age three, she became the foster child of the family who eventually formally adopted her at age seven- and after the adoption, as was the norm for the time, all contact with her biological family ended. Jennifer struggled with feelings of abandonment and trauma; trust wasn’t easy for her. And in her late 30’s, she happened upon a book about a woman grappling with her father being Amon Goeth (as it’s spelled in the book), one of the most vicious Nazis and head of the  Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. That woman was Monika Goeth, Jennifer’s biological mother.

Already suffering from depression and struggling to define her life, Jennifer was thrown into the depths of despair. Who was she, if that’s what she came from? What did this mean for her life, for her two sons, for her relationship with her adoptive family, for her relationship with her Israeli friends? How much of ourselves can we assign to those who came before us? Jennifer struggles terribly with the implications of this discovery, and it takes a lot of work, soul-searching, therapy, and thousands of miles of travel and years of research to come to terms with who her biological grandfather was.

Whew. This is obviously a heavy topic and a compelling story, likely an adoptee’s worst nightmare. Jennifer is legitimately distressed, as would most people be. Her biological grandfather was a horrible, horrible person, responsible for the murder of thousands; her biological grandmother, whom she absolutely loved, was far more supportive of him than Jennifer would have expected, and this also caused her a great deal of strain. As someone who is a dedicated traveler, who spent years living in Israel and who is fluent in Hebrew, being a woman of mixed-race, she’s completely certain that her grandfather wouldn’t have treated her any different than the Jews he shot from his balcony at the camp he presided over.

I had some issues with this book. While it’s an intriguing story, I disagreed a lot with how the author handled some of the situations she found herself in. She obviously had very fond memories of her maternal grandmother, who had never been anything but kind and loving to her. Even after learning about her grandmother’s romance with and lifelong support of and defending of Amon Goeth, she still chooses to cling to those memories and defend her grandmother. That is absolutely not the choice I would have made. People who are nice to you but not nice to people who are different from you…are not nice people. People who defend bad people are not nice people. I could have respected if she had said, “I have very fond memories of my grandmother, but it disturbs me greatly to learn of her support for this Nazi murderer and I cannot look at her the same way anymore.” I realize I’m seeing this in a more black-and-white fashion, but something things ARE black and white, and defending Nazis is one of them.

I also really struggled with the way she treated and referred to her adoptive family (some of this may be due to social and cultural differences; adoption was looked at very differently back then. And there may also be translation issues as well- not with content, but more along the terms of differences between how Germans refer to adoption and how it’s talked about here). It seemed almost as if the moment Jennifer learned about her Nazi grandfather, that biological family became her sole family and her adoptive family ceased to exist, ceased to matter to her. This may be due to her underlying trauma that hadn’t yet been addressed, but there were a lot of places here that made me feel really bad for her adoptive family in terms of how she spoke about them (and I’m absolutely NOT of the mindset that adopted kids need to be grateful their whole lives to the family who chose them. Eff outta here with that gross BS; we’re the lucky ones for those kids being in our lives and we need to honor the trauma they’ve experienced by losing their biological family). I’m definitely willing to cut her a lot of slack in regards to this, especially as she does write about having a better relationship with her family these days, but I wish that would have been covered a little more. So this book is a wild ride that has a lot of issues. I felt terrible for Jennifer throughout quite a bit of it; she was very obviously deeply distressed on learning such shocking information. I hope she’s since figured out she’s not responsible for her grandfather’s crimes, and just because she shares a few segments of DNA with him doesn’t mean…anything, basically. We get to be our own people; we don’t have to be anything at all like the people who came before us, if we don’t want to be. That’s the beauty of it all. 🙂

nonfiction

Book Review: 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam

I will never understand the Holocaust. I don’t know that anyone will. Because there’s no good answer to all the many, many whys and hows of it. Why would anyone do that? How could anyone act with such cruelty? I don’t know. I don’t know how the perpetrators never once took a hard look at what they were doing and went, “Wait a minute…” But I keep trying, because these stories need to be told and read and shared, and that’s how 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam (Citadel Press, 2019) ended up on my TBR. I heard so much about this a year or two ago, and it was just now that I had the mental space for it. It was worth the wait.

In 1942, 999 young unmarried women in Slovakia, including a lot of teenagers, were rounded up and shipped off, away from their homes and friends and family, under the guise of three months of forced government work. They were the first group to whom this happened. Instead of working in a shoe factory, as they expected, they were taken to Auschwitz, where their nightmare began. Working outside in the worst of weather with no shoes (or wooden sandals at best) and only a thin dress to cover their emaciated bodies. Starvation. Shaved heads that blistered in the sun. Barely adequate water, if they were lucky. Typhus. Injuries that went untreated. Being made to stand naked outdoors for hours in all kinds of weather in order to be counted. The threat of death, yours or someone you loved, at every possible moment. There was no end to the nightmares suffered by the young women imprisoned there, and Ms. Macadam doesn’t shy away from the details.

This is a heavy book, filled with the stories and memories of the few who survived, and the stories and blessed memories of those who did not. The survivors’ pain is evident in what they choose to share. Ms. Macadam points out several times things that are not common knowledge and that most survivors don’t share, due to shame or embarrassment, even all these years later. They still cry as they share what they went through, and when they share stories about their families who were torn from them and murdered solely for being Jewish. It’s a heartbreaking book, one that I had to set down a few times and take a lot of deep breaths before I could continue reading, so great is the pain on each page.

It’s hard to write about these books that are so emotionally difficult to read, in a way that will convince people to read them as well. “Here’s this book that highlights the worst of humanity and that deftly portrays images that (hopefully) only show up in nightmares these days; you should read it!” is one heck of a take, right? But you should. It brings honor to the survivors, honor to the memories of those who didn’t survive, when we read their stories and further our commitment to speaking out against human rights violations and working for a better world. It helps us to recognize the signs of fascist governments that are bound on stripping our fellow citizens of their rights and of their humanity. ‘Never again’ isn’t just a slogan; it’s a directive. And if we’re truly committed to an atrocity like the Holocaust never happening again, it’s up to us to understand it to the best of our ability. And that is why we should read these kinds of books, even when it’s hard and unpleasant and scary.

Heather Dune Macadam brings to life a world that no longer exists in pre-war Slovakia, and shows us the horrors that happen when we stop recognizing the humanity in others. This is a deeply important book, one that I recommend highly, but it’s okay to wait until you’re able to handle it, because it’s a lot.

Visit Heather Dune Macadam’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

This! This is the book that has held up my blog updates for so long. Sorry, fellow booklovers! I hadn’t realized The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn (Harper, 2006) was so long (512 pages), or that it would be such a challenging read. I knew it would be tough- Holocaust books are always emotionally difficult, and this came at the time during my class when we were studying it, so at least it was a timely read- but the complex story and masterful writing, combined with the painful subject matter (and small print!) made for a read that was informative, intriguing, wrenching, and one that I had to put down quite a few times in order to maintain my sanity.

Daniel Mendelsohn grew up as his family’s historian, the grandchild who was always interested in the family lore and who was always collecting stories and tidbits and information from his relatives who fled to the US from modern-day Ukraine. The stories of his aunt, uncle, and four cousins who didn’t make it out, who died at the hands of the Nazis, always gripped him, and as an adult, he began the worldwide search to discover what really happened to them. What parts of the stories he had growing up were true? When and where did they die? What had they been like before the Holocaust destroyed everything about them, and was there any part of them left in the place they used to live?

Mr. Mendelsohn’s search is a race against time; the survivors he travels to interview are all in their 80’s and 90’s, many in failing health. The information he receives isn’t always what might give him a more complete picture of his missing family members (quick: think of a family who lived across the street from you, or down the hall from you, when you were fourteen. Think of what you would tell their relatives today. “They always waved”? “They had a black and white dog”? Could you give much more information than that?). Sometimes, the memories are still too painful or frightening, or shameful, to talk about; his interview subjects still get choked up seventy years later, remembering how they suffered, how their parents disappeared, how they watched their friends, neighbors, family slaughtered in front of them, often while they hid in fear for their own lives.

From country to country, continent to continent, from archive to darkened living room, Daniel Mendelsohn pieces together the story of his grandfather’s brother’s family and how they were all murdered. The full story takes years to fully stitch together, from multiple sources in multiple languages, mined from memories that contain some of the most painful images known to humanity. His dedication to uncovering the truth as to what happened to his lost family members should be a reminder to the everyday reader as to just how much was lost during this horrific period of time.

Heavy, heavy book. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be said, but this is a book about the Holocaust; there are many pages that contain gruesome imagery and descriptions of the worst things that could possibly be done to other human beings. They’re real, they happened to real people, and reading of how they suffered, while necessary to ensure that their stories will never be forgotten, takes an emotional toll. If at all possible, space this book out with some lighter material. Remembering the stories of the victims doesn’t mean breaking ourselves down.

The Lost should serve as a master class in family research. The lengths to which Mr. Mendelsohn had to go, the hoops he had to jump through, the flights he had to catch and translators he had to hire, to be able to produce this story, while all of it was likely exhausting and expensive, it’s likely a dream come true to people who engage in serious genealogy and family research. His story wound up with a concrete ending, with solid knowledge as to what happened to the final surviving members of the family who remained in Bolechow. Not all- maybe not even most- genealogists are so fortunate to end up with such clear answers, but I’m guessing everyone who wants to engage in such serious research could learn a few things from his techniques and his dedication, or at least be better prepared for the Odyssean journey ahead.

The Lost is a long, painful book of the atrocities suffered by one family and the grandson who was determined to shine a light on their lives and their ultimate fate. It’s meticulously researched and crafted, with the desperation and determination to give voices to the dead and ensure that their lives and their suffering will never be forgotten. This isn’t an easy read, but it’s worth every second of the time it takes to read and every moment you’ll set the book down, take a few deep breaths while staring off into space while wondering how anyone could ever do that, and then begin reading again.

Visit Daniel Mendelsohn’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Secret Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper

I like nonfiction. I like history. I like justice. All of these come together in Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Secret Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper (Hachette Books, 2019). (And huh, I’m just now seeing the discrepancy between the Goodreads title and what’s on the cover of the book!) I believe this came to me from a book list- either a list of amazing nonfiction, or a list of Jewish-themed books. Either way, it hung out on my TBR for a bit, until I made my latest order-for-pickup at the library, and then I dove right in as soon as I picked it up. Be warned, though: even if you’ve read plenty about the Holocaust before, this is a rough read.

Citizen 865 tells the story of the OSI, the Office of Special Investigations within the Department of Justice. It focused on bringing to justice former Nazi soldiers and collaborators who became naturalized US citizens under false pretenses, after lying on their citizenship documents about their activities during World War II. Because alongside Holocaust survivors who had lost everything and who had journeyed to America to start all over again, hundreds of former Nazis who had spent their war years carrying out Hitler’s orders to torture and murder slipped into the country as well.

Debbie Cenziper recounts the difficulties of puzzling out exactly who these men were and what they did during the war, a task made even more challenging because many countries refused access to identifying records and documents. The historians and lawyers who staffed the OSI worked long hours and traveled long distances in order to ensure justice was served to the millions of murdered souls and the survivors who fought so hard to rebuild after everything had been stolen from them. While not a simple or easy job, it proved a satisfying one.

This is a rough, rough read. I kept having to put the book down and scroll through Twitter or Facebook in order to get a bit of a mental break after reading some particularly heinous detail about how the Jews of Poland were tortured and murdered by people who took such glee in it. No matter how much I read about the Holocaust, I don’t think I’ll ever, ever understand how one person could perpetrate such horrors on another human. Ms. Cenziper doesn’t go into graphic details, but the stories the OSI digs up are nightmarish in nature. If you’re sensitive, be sure to balance this book with something lighter. These stories deserve to be heard, lest we ever forget, but they’re not easy to read.

While grief and despair are definitely feelings that Citizen 865 evokes, rage is also prevalent, so be prepared for that. There were plenty of American politicians who defended the Nazis, who thought that enough time had passed and that the victims should just get over it and move on from the murders of their entire families,- unity, amirite? (STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE *eyeroll*). I’ll give you one guess which political party these Nazi defenders belonged to. I spent a lot of time taking deep breaths and trying not to explode in a fiery ball of fury. So, so little has changed. What are we even doing???

Debbie Cenziper makes digging through historical documents to build a legal case deeply intriguing. Under her treatment, the historians are detectives, justice- and truth-seekers of the highest degree, and their jobs go beyond poring over decades-old documents. The survivors’ stories are treated with the utmost of respect, and while I feel it’s a bit clichéd to note when nonfiction reads like a novel, this absolutely does. It’s difficult subject matter, but it’s one worthy of your time, and Ms. Cenziper’s writing will keep readers turning the pages.

(I apologize if this review isn’t up to my usual standards. This is an amazing book and I don’t feel like I’ve done it justice. It’s a bad day for pain here and I’m struggling to come up with words. When the pain gets this bad, it’s the equivalent of trying to focus on the television with someone blaring the radio right behind you at full volume. ☹ )

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