Wendy Holden will be taking part in a Q&A interview on my blog in a couple of weeks. Having read her answers and learnt more about the book, I knew that I had to read it. It is such an amazing story and I can see why Wendy is so keen for people to hear about it. The Born Survivors of the title are Eva, Mark and Hana, babies born in April 1945 while their Jewish mothers were held by the Nazis and who spent their first few weeks in Mauthausen, a concentration camp. But perhaps the title applies equally to their amazing mothers whose mental strength and determination to protect their unborn children was incredible. It seems appropriate to share my review today, which is Mother’s Day in the UK.
It is sobering to read again of the terrible experiences of the Jewish people during the second world war and distressing to say the least to read about the horrendous conditions in the Nazi camps. In Born Survivors, Wendy Holden first introduces us to each of the mothers Priska, Rachel and Anka as we learn of their lives prior to their internment in the camps. This book is clearly meticulously researched and their journeys to the camps, as well the terrible conditions endured while there, are vividly described. The inhumanity of the Nazi soldiers is evident and it is so important that people never forget what happened in these camps in the hope that the world never allows it to happen again. But what also shines through is the strength of the human spirit and the selflessness of some people to help others, even while in the depths of despair themselves.
It is truly a miracle that first the mothers and then their babies survived against all the odds. It is also amazing that 65 years on, these three children all met and have found a sense of kinship. Their mothers did not meet in the camps and the children were unaware of each other, believing that no other babies born in the camp had survived. They were brought together through a website for The 11th Armored Division (The Thunderbolts) who had liberated the camp in May 1945.
This is a remarkable story and despite the terrible events it recounts, it is completely compelling. Wendy Holden has written a superb account of a shocking time in the world’s recent history in a very respectful way. It is a story of bravery, strength and love against a backdrop of fear and despair and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Born Survivors was published as an ebook by Sphere on 7 May and in paperback on 15th October 2015. My copy was from the library. You can order a copy here: Born Survivors
From the back of the book
Among millions of Holocaust victims sent to Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1944, Priska, Rachel, and Anka each passed through its infamous gates with a secret. Strangers to each other, they were newly pregnant, and facing an uncertain fate without their husbands. Alone, scared, and with so many loved ones already lost to the Nazis, these young women were privately determined to hold on to all they had left: their lives, and those of their unborn babies.
That the gas chambers ran out of Zyklon-B just after the babies were born, before they and their mothers could be exterminated, is just one of several miracles that allowed them all to survive and rebuild their lives after World War II. Born Survivors follows the mothers’ incredible journey – first to Auschwitz, where they each came under the murderous scrutiny of Dr. Josef Mengele; then to a German slave labour camp where, half-starved and almost worked to death, they struggled to conceal their condition; and finally, as the Allies closed in, their hellish 17-day train journey with thousands of other prisoners to the Mauthausen death camp in Austria. Hundreds died along the way but the courage and kindness of strangers, including guards and civilians, helped save these women and their children.
Sixty-five years later, the three ‘miracle babies’ met for the first time at Mauthausen for the anniversary of the liberation that ultimately saved them. United by their remarkable experiences of survival against all odds, they now consider each other “siblings of the heart.” In Born Survivors, Wendy Holden brings all three stories together for the first time to mark their seventieth birthdays and the seventieth anniversary of the ending of the war.
A heart-stopping account of how three mothers and their newborns fought to survive the Holocaust,Born Survivors is also a life-affirming celebration of our capacity to care and to love amid inconceivable cruelty.