I received a free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This book is a must-read for everyone, which I know is a tall and impossible order, but I stand by my statement.
I almost did not read this one at all. My family is very German. My last name is basically the US equivalent of 'Smith' or 'Johnson', though we dropped the umlauts quickly. As a result of this ancestry, I have long been a receptacle for any and all WWII and Holocaust knowledge I could get my hands on. Most of our family left Germany in the early 1900s, but some stayed behind. I wanted so desperately to know their experiences, and to understand on a broader scale how such horrific crimes against humanity could happen. Every project in school that could possibly relate to the Holocaust or WWII, that was my topic.
But then I became a mother in 2013 and could no longer stomach reading of these terrible atrocities, especially when children were involved. I would sob uncontrollably and not be able to finish the book.
I approached this one with some trepidation; seven years on and I still struggle reading anything having to do with crimes against children, but I am so, so glad that I read this book and I can not stop recommending it to others.
The story centers on the Kleinmann family from Vienna and reads like a novel, though it is a true story. Gustav Kleinmann, the family patriarch, and the oldest son Fritz, are arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald. They learn to survive, relying on one another as best they can through terrible conditions. They develop a keen sense of survival, what other choice do they have?
Then the day comes when Gustav finds he is being sent to Auschwitz. They know what this means; everyone knows about Auschwitz. In that moment, Fritz knows he can not let his father go and makes the decision to go too. Fritz insists he must go with his father and the Nazis allow it, which honestly kind of surprised me. You'd think that would have been some kind of red flag, or that they would have refused in order to inflict more cruelty on their prisoners. But I guess to them one death camp is the same as another - no one was ever expected to survive Auschwitz or any of the dozens of camps and sub-camps throughout Germany and Poland.
Despite enduring such terrible treatment and atrocious living conditions, theirs is a story of love, hope, and faith in one another. The youngest child of the Kleinmann family, Kurt, had been sent to the US to escape the war. Gustav and Fritz had no idea what had become of the rest of their family; for all they knew, they were the only two left besides Kurt. They kept one another going even when giving up would have been the easiest and even expected thing to do. We find out that Tini, Gustav's wife and Fritz's mother and Herta, one daughter/sister, did not survive. Edith, the oldest daughter, was able to get to England on a work visa.
Throughout six years of absolute horror and trauma, Gustav and Fritz weather it all. They become invaluable workers in helping construct Buchenwald - Fritz learns quickly on the job, knowing that being a skilled worker at least ensures he be kept around longer than others. Gustav had been an upholsterer before their lives were completely upended and used his skills as well to become valuable to those in charge of the camp.
It is throughout this time that Gustav manages to conceal one of the small comforts that keeps him sane - scraps of paper squirreled away that become his secret journal. Had it ever been discovered, he would have been killed on the spot. Most of what we know comes from that secret journal, as well as interviews with family members - including Kurt, and thorough research by the author.
This is a truly stunning work of art, and a testament to the love and bond of a father and son. There can never be 'too many' memoirs of this horrific time in our world's history. Each person and experience was unique. All are worthy of being known.
Highly, highly recommended.