Thoughts: Born Survivors, by Wendy Holden

I went through a sort of phase a couple of years ago where I must have felt like my TBR list wasn’t long enough, and I started asking people for recommendations. I was visiting Spuggy’s grandparents one Christmas or New Year, and I asked his grandma what she was reading on her Kindle – this book, of course – and it didn’t seem like the kind of book you say no to, so it went on the list. And see, I keep my promises, even if it takes me years.

I read Born Survivors while we were in Berlin over Easter. Reading it in Berlin somehow felt closer to the events, even though the book isn’t set in Berlin and living in Germany you’d think I was equidistant from history wherever I was, as if history is evenly, shallowly buried across the country. Frankfurt is an old city, but so much of it has been rebuilt that you can’t always tell just by looking. There are the remains of the old ghetto and the Jewish museum and the cemetery walls with their endless plaques of names, but being in Berlin was different. I don’t know why. Whether it was because Berlin is a capital city, or because it has its own particular history buried barely below the surface (chunks of Wall, reconstructed checkpoints, looping footage of people dropping from bedroom windows to escape the East). Maybe it’s as simple as not knowing Berlin as well as I know Frankfurt, and so when we walked through a park and came across a small garden in remembrance of murdered Roma and Sinti people with all the names of the concentration camps etched into stones on the ground, it caught me off guard. Whatever it was, Berlin made me feel closer to the past.

Born Survivors is a meticulously researched story of the three pregnant women and the frankly ridiculous odds they overcame to have their babies, and the further odds those babies defied to survive. The babies, now in their seventies, will be the last Holocaust survivors. It’s not a book you say no to when someone recommends it.

Let’s start with the vulgar stuff. As a relatively new non-fiction reader, the non-fiction I do read tends to fall in one of two camps, prose-wise; either sublimely amazing or mediocre. This book falls squarely into mediocre – the content is utterly compelling and the effort impressive, but the pure prose is at best transparent and occasionally jarred me out of the book for a second or two. That said, because this is a highly emotive subject full of painstakingly verified and cross-referenced detail, it’s understandable that the prose sometimes takes a turn for the emotionally manipulative. Or not manipulative exactly, but belabouring. I don’t know how I would have even begun to approach this project, which for the most part is scrupulously well-balanced, but Holden’s book is at its best when she’s letting the survivors speak. The reader doesn’t need to be led to any emotional conclusion here, trust me. They will get there themselves.

There’s not much to say about the subject matter except that we shouldn’t look away. What is there to learn? It happened. Some people reacted phenomenally badly under pressure of the antisemitic rule of the Nazis – the communities and neighbours who cheated and gave up their own people – and some reacted admirably well. Do we know what we’d do, if we haven’t been there?

A similar randomness permeates the other side, the side the book takes us on. All three of the women whose stories it follows were relatively well to do and non-religious in their Before lives, and they were caught up in it anyway. I found the thought drifting through my head – is there something to it, this just-like-us-ness? Of course not. They were just like us, no one invented them. The pregnancies and babies that linked them had nothing to do with their backgrounds or religion. Being a certain age and fitness must have helped in some ways, but still that randomness everywhere… For the three babies who survived, many did not. Luck and coincidence are the main things that the three women have in common.

I don’t have much more to say, really, but a short while after I read Born Survivors, in which the ghettoes are described along with the strange poetry and music that came out of them, I heard about this and this. Brought home to me that there’s still more out there, lost forever or still to uncover. It’s easy to feel like we’re saturated with the horrors of the holocaust, but the fact is, we just don’t understand the scope of it.

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