Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s true story of auschwitz
If you decide to read one and only one Holocaust memoir, you must consider Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story Of Auschwitz [Illustrated Edition] by Olga Lengyel, the wife of a Transylvanian physician who ended up in the Nazis’ most notorious death camp only because she could not believe, even as late as May of 1944, how treacherous they could be.
She learned quickly — starting with her first step on the platform of the train station at Cluj. Her husband, Dr. Miklos Lengyel, director of a 72-bed hospital and a Berlin-trained surgeon, had been detained and was to be deported to Germany. An S.S. officer graciously assured her that she was welcome to join him if she wished. She, their two sons, and her parents realized her mistake when the entire station was surrounded by armed sentries and they were forced with 90 others into a railcar designed to hold eight horses. It was the first, and perhaps the easiest, of the many lessons she would learn at the hands of the Nazis.
Mrs. Lengyel’s painfully poignant memoir — “Mea culpa,” she begins, “my fault, mea maxima culpa!” — was published within two years of the end of World War II. It has been on my Wish List since I read that Albert Einstein praised it as the best Holocaust memoir. Indeed, he wrote her personally to thank her for her “very frank, very well written book. You have done a great service by letting the ones who are now silent and most forgotten speak,” he wrote.
That, she tells us, is exactly why she wrote it. The few who survived carried a burden to tell the world what had happened there, to ensure the justice was served, and, more, to work to see that this should never happen again. It can be hard for us to realize now how successfully the Nazi regime concealed the atrocities that were carried out so blatantly behind the battle lines . . . even as similar atrocities happen again and again elsewhere around the globe.
“The Germans sinned grievously, but so did the rest of the nations, if only through refusing to believe and to toil day and night to save the wretched and the dispossessed by every possible means,” she wrote.
I have read many, many such memoirs, including in the last year those of two women who also survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of which I would recommend to anyone (see my review of Here There Is No Why, below) and one of which I would not recommend. Each woman has a different perspective. Mrs. Lengyel’s is both as personal and intimate as either and more comprehensive. Hers is a story of deeply painful, personal tragedy, yet she also saw and observed what went on throughout the camps and ensured that she survived to record it so that those who suffered it should not suffer in vain. Her account is detailed, and damning, and it includes lessons that cost more than anyone should ever be forced to pay.
“Perhaps the greatest crime the ‘supermen’ committed against us was their campaign, often successful, to turn us into monstrous beasts ourselves,” she writes in the final pages. Earlier chapters detail exactly how they did this, and how those of once unimpeachable integrity could be, and were, reduced to the lowest moral level. But that wasn’t all she saw, or all she learned. She also wrote of those who resisted on every level. “Because of these few, I have not entirely lost my faith in mankind. If, even in the jungle of Birkenau, all were not necessarily inhuman to their fellow men, then there is hope indeed. It is that hope which keeps me alive.”
That faith is one of the reasons her memoir is indispensable. If she, who witnessed and suffered all of this, could hold on to hope for us, we can’t be entirely lost. Yet.
Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story Of Auschwitz [Illustrated Edition] by Olga Lengyel, 234 pgs., biography & memoir, Holocaust, WWII history. Hardcover and paperback editions also available.
Here there is no why
“Here There Is No Why” was the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele’s answer to Roma, the author of one of the most compelling Holocaust memoirs, and to millions of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Written to fulfill a promise made in the darkest moment of human history, this simple and eloquent story is unique in that it spans the geography of the Nazi’s Final Solution.
Rachel Roth, or “Roma” in Polish, has written perhaps the most compelling, the most powerful Holocaust/World War II memoir I have ever read. If you only read one, you must consider this before you make your choice.
In part, it is powerful simply because Rachel Roth survived not only the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but also three of the most notorious concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz — and Mengele’s infamous selections. It is also powerful because of the deftness with which she describes the experiences, at times painting terrifically detailed scenes, at times allowing the horrific events to speak for themselves without cloaking them in emotionally charged language. Yet the emotions are there, when they are most telling. One of the ways she survived was to dream of better times, to transport herself — and others, too — away from the camps to better times and places. After sharing one of these stories with those around her, an anonymous prisoner made her promise to write of what happened there. It would be decades before she was ready to do so.
In keeping her promise, she has given us a tremendous gift — and one that cost her a great deal in recalled pain. It is understandable that she needed time to fulfill the promise, though it is also unfortunate that earlier generations were denied the gift she offers here.
The result is a rare first-hand look at life in the Jewish Ghetto until its destruction, as well as life in some of the most notorious concentration camps, and a tale that encompasses love and hate, kindness and cruelty, grace and horror. It deserves a lasting place in the library of anyone interested in history or the Holocaust. Or simply in human nature.
About the author: Rachel Roth was the teenage daughter of a journalist when Hitler became a topic of conversation in her family’s summer colony. She is an outspoken witness to life in the Warsaw Ghetto and a participant in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She poignantly relays to audiences the daily events of a schoolgirl under German occupation of Poland. She survived the remainder of the war with her Aunt as they were transported into and out of Majdanek, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. She has spoken in English and Hebrew before countless audiences of children and adults, in schools, universities, and synagogues as well as at the U.S. Department of State. Rachel was awarded an honorary diploma from the Ramaz Upper School in New York City in recognition of her studies in the Warsaw Ghetto and her dedication to Holocaust education
Note: Sis first read this through the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. Its impact on her affected many of her friends and fellow readers, who then borrowed or bought copies . . . and one of those friends, realizing that Sis didn’t even own a copy of the book she had so highly recommended, sent her the gift of the ebook for her very own. It is definitely one she’ll read again.