Monday, November 19, 2018

Review: Auschwitz Lullaby by Mario Escobar

Auschwitz Lullaby
by Mario Escobar
Release Date: August 7th 2018 (First published January 1st 2016)
2018 Nelson
Kindle Edition; 304 Pages
ISBN: 978-0785219958
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher

4 / 5 Stars


In 1943 Germany, Helene is just about to wake up her children to go to school when a group of policemen break into her house. The policemen want to haul away her gypsy husband and their five children. The police tell Helene that as a German she does not have to go with them, but she decides to share the fate of her family. After convincing her children that they are going off to a vacation place, so as to calm them, the entire family is deported to Auschwitz.

For being German, they are settled in the first barracks of the Gypsy Camp. The living conditions are extremely harsh, but at least she is with her five children. A few days after their arrival, Doctor Mengele comes to pay her a visit, having noticed on her entry card that she is a nurse. He proposes that she direct the camp’s nursery. The facilities would be set up in Barrack 29 and Barrack 31, one of which would be the nursery for newborn infants and the other for children over six years old.

Helene, with the help of two Polish Jewish prisoners and four gypsy mothers, organizes the buildings. Though Mengele provides them with swings, Disney movies, school supplies, and food, the people are living in crowded conditions under extreme conditions. And less than 400 yards away, two gas chambers are exterminating thousands of people daily.

My Thoughts
Auschwitz Lullaby is largely based on the true story of Helene Hannemann, a German woman married to a Roma, something that became illegal under the Nazi regime. As a German citizen, she didn't have to go to this camp she refuses to leave her five children and her husband and decides to go with them.  And while this is a book about concentration camps, Auschwitz in particular, it is also a book about the propaganda machine that was the Nazi regime, and how influential they were in convincing people these camps were a "good thing", despite the stories. 

Helene is a warm generous person who had to learn to survive very quickly in some very difficult conditions.  To say she was naive was generous and if it wasn't for the help of some of the other women, she would have died very early on in her stay.  Starving and losing weight, freezing, being attacked, she really had little understanding of the real danger she was in, always demanding things she felt every citizen should receive. And I'm not really sure she fully understood the danger she was in even when whole barracks were being killed because a couple of people had typhoid.  Enter Mengele (just the name gives me shivers). As a nurse Helene was recruited to work for him and had to develop a children's nursery.  Considering the many works I have read about the Holocaust and about Mengele, this is the first that really focuses on the nursery.  And I have to admit, my heart shrank a little bit at some of the horrors I was imagining I would read about.  But it was more about Helene's efforts to give the children some comfort and some hope; it was not really a story about Mengele except in regards to Helene's interactions with him as she ran the nursery. So, while there are some horrifying things in this book, it's nowhere near as graphic as some of the other books about the Holocaust have been, when I have had to put the book down after each chapter because I just couldn't go on. Thankfully, Mengele and his graphic experiments, for the most part, are not really mentioned in here. But like I said, it is a book about Auschwitz, so there is going to be some graphic scenes, it is unavoidable. 

Helene's story is definitely one that should be shared as with all other Holocaust stories, as difficult as they are to read, so that we never forget what happened.  I am one who never gets tired of reading books about the Holocaust; the number of people involved means so many different stories to tell and so many different perspectives to share.  And for those of us whose families have been affected by the war, it is important to learn about it.  What is particularly horrible about this book is knowing what Mengele was doing just down the road while he gave movies and toys to Helene's little nursery for propaganda purposes, for the big guns to see that everything was going according to plan.  Helene's interactions with Mengele were chilling, and you can feel Helene's fear of him right through the pages.  Even when she learned a bit about what was happening to the children, I have to admire her bravery in facing him and asking for more food and more clothing.  I would have been scared to death of him.  And when she learned about the twin experiments, having twins of her own, I can't even imagine what was going through her mind.  I think I would have hidden my kids. 

The book sheds more light about the Romani people and what they suffered during the Holocaust.  The writing is simple, but horrifying in its simplicity, leaving much to the imagination (and I can imagine plenty, thank you very much).  The characters were what made this book so enjoyable; there were no pages of horrifying descriptions, just scenes as they happened, which were horrifying enough.  I really liked this author's way of writing.  My only flaw with the novel, which is why I gave it the rating I did, is the beginning and end.  I don't want to spoil it so you'll have to see for yourself, but I don't think it was necessary. Helene's story was powerful enough.

Auschwitz Lullaby is one of those stories that grips you and makes you hope for a different ending.  I think part of it is because the focus was on Helene and her desperate situation to save her five children.  Because of this, she took risks, took on those in authority, all to protect not just her children, but as many children as she could.  As a German citizen she was entitled to certain things but that would have meant being separated from her children and she wasn't willing to do that.  I highly recommend this book to those who have an interest in reading about the Holocaust.  It is definitely a worthwhile entry to the genre, and reminds us that all life is precious.