Born Survivors, Wendy Holden

They say a picture tells a thousand words. So here’s a picture:

mauthausen_babies-v2

And here are some words… Meet Eva, Mark and Hana. Three people who share a remarkable story. They were all born in the darkest hours of history, destined for death, toward the end of World War II.  They are now “siblings of the heart”, bound forever by the miracle of their survival.

Eva Clarke’s mother, Anka was from Czechoslovakia. She survived three years in the Terezin ghetto outside of Prague and was then transported, while pregnant with Eva, to Birkenau. She stood before Mengele, denying her pregnancy and trying to hide her naked body with her bare hands. In another life she had been a law student, “strikingly beautiful and fluent in German, French and English with a smattering of Spanish, Italian and Russian”, she had loved classical music and the cinema. She had been an avid reader, a talented swimmer and “as happy as a lark”. Anka was ultimately sent to work in an armaments factory near Dresden and from there to Mauthausen concentration camp by train. She went into labour on the cart on the way to the camp and delivered baby Eva weighing 1.5kg. Following the war, Anka married and with her new husband raised Eva. She died in 2013.

Mark Olsky was born in an opal coal wagon that was transporting Jews to Mauthausen. His mother, Rachel, was from Poland and was the eldest of nine children. In 1937 Rachel married Monik Friedman, a wealthy factory owner. Rachel was involved in charity work and fundraising and when the ghetto was established she worked to organise relief for those less fortunate than herself and Monik. She was one of the last to leave the ghetto in Lodz in 1944 where she lived with her three sisters. She died in February 2003.

48-hana-and-priska-in-1949_credit-hana-berger-moranHana Berger Moran came into the world on April 12, 1945 on a plank on the factory floor in Freiberg, outside of Dresden. In October 1944, Priska, Hana’s mother, similarly stood before Mengele and hid her pregnancy from his “forensic fascination”. She “had no idea if telling the truth might save her or condemn her and her child to an unknown fate. But she knew she was in the presence of danger.” Growing up, Priska “won numerous academic awards” and was “highly regarded”. Priska married Tibor in 1941 and together they moved to an apartment where they lived happily. In the midst of round ups and chaos, Priska miscarried her first child. As life became more difficult, she and Tibor grieved for what they had lost. Priska would miscarry twice more before falling pregnant with Hana, the baby that she would keep and raise alone. Priska died, aged 90, in 2006.

Wendy Holden has assumed a mammoth and burdensome task in compiling this story of three young mothers who survived against all odds. This is not an easy story to tell, but Holden has managed to craft each narrative as an individual strand in a broader story and each is filled with a sensitive tension that makes it unique and powerful. At times I found the narrative structure difficult to follow, but the story itself is so powerful that it didn’t impact my reverie in reading this book.

I commend Wendy Holden and I am in awe of these three women who survived such hardship, of their courage and determination and their sheer will to create lives for their children. I wish we all had this strength.

This is not an easy book to read but you won’t be disappointed and it certainly is an important one.

To make it even more valuable, you can be one of the privileged individuals to hear Eva Clarke speak at an inspirational event to be held by the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival at Waverley Library on April 8th at 2pm. This event has limited seating so tickets are necessary.

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