I ended up going to Krakow, Poland for Easter weekend, and while I was debating whether visiting Auschwitz would be crass or an important educational moment, I decided it might not be bad to read a book related to the Holocaust in preparation for the trip. I didn’t actually finish this until after my visit to Auschwitz but I appreciated having a personal story to attach to the victims since at some point the brain stops processing the scale of large numbers.
The book follows three Jewish women who all somehow managed to hide their pregnancies long enough to give birth to children in April 1945 while in a concentration camp or on a transport between camps. The women all came from different countries and regions, but despite very different backgrounds and journeys all ended up in Auschwitz in the fall of 1944, and selected for transport to KZ Freiberg for labor. One thing that this book really emphasizes is how much timing played an issue for some of the survivors of the Holocaust. If they had arrived a few weeks earlier or later, they may not have been selected for Freiberg, and their lives could have taken very different turns. If they had already had children when arriving at Auschwitz, they would have been treated in a very different manner. Sometimes, arriving somewhere even a day earlier made the difference between life and death as policies changed or equipment broke down. While Priska, Rachel and Anka weren’t even the only ones to be pregnant at these camps at this time or to give birth, as far as history knows, their babies are the only infant survivors from the KZ Mauthausen liberation.
Priska, a teacher with a gift for languages, grew up in modern day Slovakia, and was living in Bratislava with her journalist husband when they were taken to Auschwitz. Rachel, the eldest of nine, was from Poland, married to young man from a rich family, and taken from Lodz ghetto with her parents and siblings though her husband Monik was elsewhere in the ghetto when this happened, and not part of the transport. Anka, a Czech from Prague with an upper class background, had already been in Theresienstadt with her parents, siblings and husband for three years. After her husband was selected for transport to Auschwitz, Anka volunteered for the next transport, expecting a camp in similar conditions to the one she had spent so much time in, only to realize how wrong she was the moment she stepped out of the cattle car. All three women faced Dr. Mengele, and all three answered no when asked if they were pregnant (Priska and Anka knew they were, Rachel suspected she might be).
The book is broken down into ten chapters, with the first three being devoted to each woman, discussing her background, her story and her life before Auschwitz. Chapter Four onward focuses on a location or topic (Auschwitz, KZ Freiberg, The Train, Mauthausen) , with each chapter discussing the experiences of the individual women throughout the chapter. As a result, I wouldn’t recommend spreading this read out too much since it could otherwise be easy to blur details between the women and their families if too much time elapses between reading certain chapters. The final three chapters (Liberation, Home, Reunion) focus on the camp liberation, its immediate aftermath and the women and their children’s lives after the war as well as how the youngest survivors discovered each other. Each woman dealt with her experiences differently, and chose how to deal with her memories in her own way, whether that involved talking often and publicly or staying silent. So often Holocaust narratives end with liberation and quick few pages summarizing what happened next, so I appreciated seeing a few chapters devoted to how life went on afterwards. Liberation didn’t mean that all their struggles were suddenly over. Many survivors still had a long road to recover their health, and had to decide whether to return home in the hopes of discovering news of their families and husbands, and figure out what came next. In some areas, the women still felt unwelcome, all their homelands faced the threat of occupation by the Soviet Union, adding even more pressure to to decide whether they wanted to live under a different totalitarian regime in a beloved country or find a new home. It was nice to see how Priska, Rachel and Anka’s lives moved forward, and to be able to witness the lives their children, the youngest survivors, made for themselves as part of the book’s narrative.