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It happened in a split second—Just as the white-coated doctor wrenched the seventeen-year old’s face, the tattooist pressured her forearm to quell her screaming lest she be selected for one his brutal experiments. No matter their shaved heads, their dirty ill-fitting uniforms and wooden shoes, their enslavement at Auchwitz-Birkeneu, their dark eyes, with flitting smiles, found refuge in each other.

It was April 1942, the beginning of the three-year courtship, of sorts, between Gita Furnam and twenty-six year old Lale Sokolov, both Slovakian Jews, both determined to survive their rifle-toting tormentors with violent eyes.

Starvation, typhus, harsh weather, stray bullets, and the gas chambers sharpened the couple’s vigilance and heightened the urgency of their sporadic Sunday meetings behind the administration building. Both brought exceptional gifts to this relationship: Lale’s fluency in six languages and his position as tattooist in the camp that afforded him access to information and extra rations he liberally shared with others; Gita’s robust constitution and passion for life.

Fortunately for students of Holocaust literature, the widower Lale approached screenwriter Heather Morris with his story, three years before his death in 2006. While still decrying the injury he inflicted upon fellow prisoners and burdened by his collaborator status with the Nazis, he wanted the world to know what had happened in Auschwitz. Thus began another unusual relationship. Slowly, through long afternoons in his Melbourne apartment, Heather sifted these events through her imagination until the historical novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz emerged in 2018.

Again, we are deeply moved.

 

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Tikkun olam, a centuries-old Hebrew mandate to repair the world through practices of truth and loving kindness, breathes on every page of David R. Gillham’s historical novel, Annelies (January 2019). Such motivates Anne Frank, also called Annelies, and her family living in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and its aftermath. Their moral rectitude is rife with lessons for us.

For six years Gillham researched three versions of Anne’s diary, numerous biographies of her, transcripts of those who knew the Franks, and Holocaust histories. Twice, he visited Amsterdam and walked in her footsteps, even to Westerbork, their first internment camp in the north. Thus equipped, he plunges us into the crassness, the betrayals, the smells, the heartbreak, and the staggering hardships blistering the Netherlands. The chapters burn with unrelenting tension.

Instead of Anne perishing in Bergen Belsen, however, Gillham has her return to family friends on Jekerstraat 65 where she meets her father Pim who also survived the camps. What follow is an admixture of historical fact and the author’s imaginative rendering of this spirited young woman; her adolescence torn asunder, she rages against Pim and his decision to move on with his life, rather deal with the brutality both had experienced. Her fury even entrains the emaciated ghost of her sister Margot who spars with her as she did when living. Only Anne’s diary and notes from her twenty-five months spent in the Annex finally restore her identity as a writer, her way of practicing Tikkun olam into adulthood.

Through Annelies, Gillham also honors the young who perished in the camps, thereby impoverishing generations of their talents.

There’s much to learn here.

 

 

Like poets and priests, storytellers bridge the gap between the seen and unseen worlds. A Presence hovers over their tales, one that disturbs listeners. It’s all about conversion of life.

One such storyteller is Min Jin Lee, Korean American author of Pachinko, a finalist in the 2017 National Book Awards competition. For thirty years, she toiled over this novel that addresses the plight of Koreans living in Japan that began with Japan’s 1910 annexation. Stripped of their heritage, taxed and abused into starvation, their language trivialized into a dialect, their natural resources exploited, Koreans groveled for existence. To survive, many immigrated to Japan for work. After World War II they watched the continued psychic and physical dissolution of their homeland under the Soviet Union and America.

Against this backdrop of atrocities, Min Jun Lee places Yangjin and her daughter Sunja, peasants living outside the port city of Busan, Korea (South Korea today). These intrepid women, undeterred by the meanest toil and filth, inspire their families for four generations, from 1911 to 1989 as they eke out their existence in Osaka and other cities in Japan. Decades of accommodation fail to deter their spirits.

The more I reflect upon the selflessness of Yangjin and Sunja, the sweeter they become. Their portrayal by Min Jin Lee challenges my narrow understanding of woman and my prejudice/uneasiness around third world people. There’s much to learn in this gripping story.

 

Available on Amazon

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