Today I am delighted to share the first of three WWII/ Holocaust reviews, this one for Auschwitz Lullaby by Mario Escobar. Translated from the original Portuguese, this edition maintains all of emotion and nuance of this harrowing and nearly hopeless tale. Get your tissues ready my friends – this book is amazing, heartbreaking, and an absolute must read.
Title: Auschwitz Lullaby
Author: Mario Escobar
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication Date: August 7, 2018
Originally Published: January 1, 2016
Genre: Fiction, WWII Fiction, Historical Fiction
Themes: WWII, Holocaust, Auschwitz, Survival, Family
Features: Author’s Note
My Rating: 5/ 5
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.
For sixteen months, Helene lives with this reality, desperately trying to find a way to save her children. Auschwitz Lullaby is a story of perseverance, of hope, and of strength in one of the most horrific times in history.
Once again, I am kicking myself for letting an incredible book languish too long on my TBR. It took me nearly two months to get around to starting this baby – and a single evening to finish it! We’ll ignore that moment when my fellow woke up at 2 AM to query why I was bawling my face off, but I simply couldn’t put it down.
I love how the story starts out like any other day, with a mother getting ready for work and looking after her family. There is just enough historical backstory to set the tone for understanding the trials and hardships the communities targeted by the Nazi regime were facing, but not so much information as to feel like a textbook. Instead, the frustration and encroaching restrictions were communicated in tender, yet highly emotive way, and amplified by the ways in which individuals reacted to circumstances.
I can only imagine the terror that would have accompanied a knock on the door, or footsteps coming up the stairs, and the constant fear that your neighbours were just waiting for a moment to report on you. And harder yet to imagine the difficult choice of saving yourself or accompanying your family to their assured destruction. I was heartened by Helene’s endless compassion, constantly cool head, and the ways in which she used her position as a German woman within the camps to benefit others and not just her immediately family.
My heart nearly broke in two the moment when Helene and the children were separated from her husband, and I genuinely felt the longing and unanswered questions that accompanied not knowing his fate. Conditions in the camp were as awful as is expected, but as someone with relatively little knowledge of the Gypsy camp within Auschwitz and the Nursery that was opened within, I was fascinated by this horrifying anomaly. I tried not to think too hard about how Barracks 29 and 31 became available for use, but appreciated how Helene worked tirelessly to ensure there was the smaller fragment of hope for the children in her area. Each little act of defiance felt like a hard-won victory, and each act of kindness an awe-inspiring sacrifice.
I enjoyed the spunk of Helene’s oldest son, and have to admit I cheered a little when he was throwing rocks at officers. Perhaps it’s because I found the Hannemann so endearing, and Helene’s compassion so encompassing, that Dr. Mengele’s experiments seemed that much worse. The juxtaposition of their actions created a high-drama, high-tension reading in the absence of constant abuse, violence, or other such war crimes. I hesitate to say more on the plot, as I don’t like handing out spoilers, but I will say that Helene’s character is faultless to end.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! It’s one that I loved so much that once I finished the Galley I immediately went out and bought a print copy. It’s not a happy read, but it is power, moving, and based on true events that are entirely worth knowing. And as a translation, it is exceptional! The prose is seamless and flowing, with rich imagery and approachable language. This is the type of book that can be easily enjoyed by WWII enthusiasts and novices alike.
Many thanks to Mario Escobar, Thomas Nelson Fiction, and NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.