Daily, we are all watching the caliber of the American Dream lessen, learning to hobble our dreams with lead shoes instead lifting them to the sky with wings. As our economy tanks, and politicians are only making it worse, people are losing their jobs, companies folding left and right, it is frightening to think that when these same things happened in Germany, it set the stage for Hitler's political party to launch a scapegoat campaign. How, we wonder, could people have let it happen? How is it possible for a society to turn on its own? It is just too awful to believe that mankind is capable of such inhumanity, that not only could it happen but that it did happen—a terrible facet of history that can not be swept under the rug. This history must be taught. We assure children that horror stories are not real. So how does one tell a child about the Holocaust?
Perhaps it is best told by books like Eva Mozes Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri's Surviving the Angel of Death. It is autobiographical, Eva's own story about herself and her twin Miriam, about how they came from the small town of Protz Romania, to be subjected to the horrors of Dr. Joseph Mengele in Auschwitz. The Mozes were a farm family in their obscure little village, a family that had no reason to leave the safety of their comfortable farm until it was too late. In this book, we are able to wear Eva's shoes, and see firsthand what it was like for the twin sisters as society slowly turned against them, until the Nazi's finally came for them, relocated them in a Simleul Silvanei ghetto, put them in a cattle car, destroyed the rest of their family, and turned them over to the experimental ministrations of the Doctor of Death himself.
The story is hard to take because of what it is. What stands out is the fortitude and strength, the drive to survive that got them through their impossible ordeal. And yet, the story is gently told, with understandable language and the simple perceptions of a ten year old child. It is paced in such a way that we understand why the Mozes stayed until it was too late, expressed in undramatic language. Where some words may be unfamiliar to the young reader, context clues and sometimes an appositive definition is seamlessly woven into the writing. There is no austere voice pontificating, no flag-waving, no patronization, and no condescension talking down to the young reader. There is simply the one-on-one storytelling, a matter of fact presentation of what happened. But what you will most take from this book is a sense of the fortitude of the human spirit in the face of the most ghastly circumstance.
I could say it was a gripping, or touching or riveting, or tell you about how I read it in one sitting. Maybe it is more of a testament to this book that the night that I finished reading it, I dreamed I heard my long dead father's voice talking to me (as Eva dreamed her family spoke to her) from an inanimate object the size of a bar of soap.
This matter-of-fact memoir written for the children's ear is a personal history because we so clearly hear the voice of the survivor. Thumbs may give us dexterity, and our mammal brains give us complex thoughts unavailable to the rest of the animal kingdom, but what truly makes us human is compassion—that trait of sympathy born of the ability to wear someone else's shoes. It is a good thing that there are books like Surviving the Angel of Death that enable us to embrace that compassion, and learn from survivors like Eva not only what lies in our history, but also what forgiveness is.