June was not my most successful month for reading. I started a couple of books but they didn’t capture my interest. As I was considering other options, I received an email from the local library informing me a book I had reserved many months ago was available for collection. I couldn’t even remember what the book was, so headed off to solve the mystery. I didn’t complete any books during June and finished this one during the first week of July – Born Survivors by Wendy Holden. On collection, I vaguely remembered seeing it on a list of recommended reading on a blog or social media feed early this year. As I read the cover “Born Survivors – Three young mothers and their extraordinary story of courage, defiance and survival” printed over the unmistakable image of a concentration camp, my mind switched back to an almost forgotten memory.
An old lady reached over the counter to hand me her money as she paid for her purchases, a pre-cooked roast beef dinner with vegetables. As she did so, her sleeve pulled up, revealing something which took my breath away. A series of small numbers tattooed on her inner forearm indicated this lady was a holocaust survivor! I continued to process her sale, saying nothing. I served her often after that and saw her prisoner number several more times but I’ll never forget that moment. This is the only contact I have ever had with a holocaust survivor and yet, when I read about other survivors I always think about this well dressed elderly lady who regularly bought her roast dinner from us because it wasn’t worth making one just for herself. I wish I knew her story, but alas, I never will. But I can know the stories of other survivors and believe it is important to do so.
Born survivors is an incredible, almost unbelievable story of three young expectant mothers who managed to hide their early pregnancies upon arrival at Auschwitz towards the end of the Second World War. Pieced together from diary entries, interviews and photographs from these courageous women and fellow survivors, Holden tells their stories in a way which keeps you reading and wanting to know more. Holden was herself captivated by the story from the moment she read in a newspaper death notice that a woman had given birth in a concentration camp and was survived by that child. From that moment, she pursued the story of first one and eventually three women who shared this story – Priska, Anka and Rachel.
When I first heard about this book, I thought “How is that even possible?” Not surprisingly, each of the three mothers had the same thoughts, believing they were the only one to carry a baby to term, give birth in a concentration camp and have the child survive.
Priska, Anka and Rachel, although in some of the same locations at the same time, never met and were sadly never able to support or assist each other during or following their imprisonment. Many years later, their children, who will be the last survivors of the holocaust death camps, found each other.
I’ve read and watched much about work and death camps during WW2 and the inhuman treatment of so many who were murdered there. The topic has always repulsed me and is never easy reading. However, I believe it is necessary reading.
As Anka said “The more people who know about what happened, the less likely it is to happen again, I hope. This is a story which should teach people that it mustn’t happen again.” Her daughter Eva agrees, stating “It is very important to remember all those millions of people who were killed. And especially those who have never had one single person remember them because all of their families and their communities were destroyed. It is our duty to tell that story and to prevent such atrocities from happening again and again.”
These women, along with many others travelled from Auschwitz to a German slave labour camp and finally, as the war drew to a close, to the Mauthausen death camp, where they miraculously missed out on being gassed by a single day, as the gas had run out.
This book includes much detail of the inexcusable treatment of Priska, Anka, Rachel and their fellow prisoners and is truly hard going at times. The conditions their babies were born into and the state they were all in at Liberation made it amazing they continued to survive. Many others didn’t, dying within days and weeks of Liberation. The fact that they did survive, as did their babies, confirmed right at the beginning by their photo in the end papers, kept me reading. How did they survive? What did they have to do? How did they hide their pregnancies? These questions kept running through my head and meant I finished this book very quickly, eager to find the answers. I knew how it ended, but had to find out how these three women got there. I longed for them to meet, but they never did. Their stories are unimaginable yet they lived to tell the tale.
Despite the horrors endured by Priska, Anka and Rachel, this book leaves the reader with an overwhelming feeling of hope. Beginning and ending with happy times and normal family lives, the message is one of courage and sheer determination to survive. In the midst of horrific experiences, we learn of brief moments of kindness shown to the prisoners by overseers and the amazing story of the people of Horni Briza. (I won’t go into that here, but if you aren’t familiar with their part in helping POWS, it’s worth looking up their story.)
Each of the three women emerged from Mauthausen much changed yet somehow hopeful and determined to provide a happy life for their precious miracle babies. They all succeeded in this mission, living into old age and enjoying grandchildren. After enduring so much and losing so many loved ones, they were able to say,
“I survived. We are here. I brought home a baby. That is the important thing.” Priska.
I give this book a 5 star rating, but due to the subject matter, feel stars are an inappropriate image to include.
It is a difficult yet inspiring read and well worth the effort. The author’s style keeps you eager to learn more about these unbelievably courageous and resilient young women.