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A-7713—The tattoo on his left forearm catapulted this teenager, shy, frail of stature, and prone to migraines, into hell-flames. It was March 1944, Auschwitz.

His crime: He was a Jew.

No longer did the religious fabric of his Rumanian village afford him the felt presence of God through daily studies of the Talmud and the Kabala, the observance of Shabbat and other holy days. Evil’s usurpation of the Sacred broke his spirit. Torn from his mother and three sisters he feared dead, he trembled within the crosshairs of machine guns, endured whippings in silence, and agonized over his failure to aid his father, also savagely abused.

While barely surviving on stale bread and gruel and hiding out among prisoners forced to work in the warehouse, his mystic soul absorbed the atrocities around him until the camp’s liberation by the U. S. Army in April 1945. He would tell this story, somehow.

Still carrying “the burning luminous scar of the holocaust” within his psyche, he went on to become a foreign correspondent, author, teacher, world lecturer, peace activist, husband, and father. His words, printed or spoken, disturbed deeply, and still do, with their the moral imperative to witness to evil in its seductive and blatant ruses. For his lifelong efforts he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

The first of his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea (1994), contains an overview of his experiences, seasoned by delightful humor, even his year-long convalescence after being hit by a taxi in Manhattan in 1956.

This witness to unvarnished truth was Elie Wiesel. (1928 – 2016)

He still teaches for those willing to listen.

 

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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.

 

Wrapping story around horrific events disseminates their skeletal outlines into bite-sized pieces for readers’ assimilation and learning.

 

Such an event occurred the night of January 30, 1945, during a freezing snowstorm upon the Baltic Sea. The Soviet submarine S-13 torpedoed the German transport ship, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, nine hours into its passage. On board were 10,000 refugees fleeing from the Russian and Allied offensive. Only one thousand survived.

For three years the author Ruta Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee from World War II, researched this disaster until, in her imagination, Salt to the Sea (2016) was conceived. The story unfolds, piecemeal, through four characters: Joanna, a twenty-one-year old Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a seventeen-year old East Prussian preservationist and restorer of works of art; Emilia fifteen-years old, Polish and eight months pregnant; and Alfred, a seventeen-year old delusional German seaman assigned to the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Like a skilled minimalist painter, Sepetys reveals more by what she leaves out. Her precise words have dropped depth charges upon this reader’s psyche, its rumble evoking a slow burn and profound feelings for the characters.

Salt to the Sea, an historical novel, also leaves me with questions. In seventy years, will anyone be writing of today’s refugees caught within the crosshairs of greedy global politics? Since when has it been all right to minimize the losses of the poor, even their lives?

All of this cries out to God.

 

 

 

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