Disturbing, Graphic, Real

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Thank you in advance to the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for providing an advanced review copy through Bookish First. A positive review was not required or requested, all words are my own.

My grandfather served in World War II, but he was in the Pacific Theater (Leyte, Samar, Mindoro, Luzon) on an escort carrier. His ship was hit by a kamikaze plane. Thankfully no deaths, only three crewmen were hurt, and the ship was able to sail away for repairs under her own power. So, he was not on the German front of the war, and I have no relatives alive that were on that front to hear their stories or their accounts.

Sadly, he passed in 1980 before I got to hear his side.

But, as WWII touched most of us by way of father, brother, mother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle – it is important to learn the entire history of it. It is important to hear from every aspect to learn about it.

The school room education has very little time to delve into each micro aspect of this war that caused so many deaths. And, in the past two (2) years, I’ve read books from the occupation aspect (“Paris Never Leaves You”), Concentration camp aspect (“The Tattooist of Auschwitz”, “Cilka’s Journey”, “Lilac Girls”), “post-war/trials” (“The German House”); the allies/resistance (“The Land Beneath Us”; “The Socialite”), and the British civilians (“If I Were You”). I am also set to read Chris Karlson’s The Ack Ack Girl. Strange title, but a very real unit of female gunners in Britain.

While a lot of these stories are fictionalized, a few were BASED on actual events.

One book that ties into this one is Lilac Girls (Martha Hall Kelly) (Victims) – While I didn’t particularly like the book, it was a fictionalized account of the Ravensbrück rabbits (the girls and women who were experimented on).

Word of note: a lot of the women did not like that term, and it is easy to understand why.

This is about the first true account of the atrocities I have read. There was EXTENSIVE research despite the fact that, sadly, none of the women were living at the time of the novel’s publication.

One of the women, Hélène Podliasky, was the author’s aunt and one of nine women who escaped the death march and from Liepzig towards the end of World War II.

The nine women were also part of the French resistance to fight the Germans, each one for their own reasons. Each of different backgrounds, various ages, some single, some married.

What is contained in this book are extensive personal accounts as well as some notes. As a result, this is very detailed, often with crude language (“F” word and “S” word used a few times). Strauss is very realistic in presenting the stories – visceral and brutal descriptions bring these atrocities back to life in disturbing reality that might keep some readers up late at night. And, some readers who have a connection might be disturbed by the details Strauss put into this book.

There will be mentions of genocide (the Holocaust obviously), war crimes, rape, and concentration camps.

As this is my first introduction to the author’s writing, I cannot state if all her books contain this extensive research; but this is definitely one book I can say is very intensely presented.

The first eight chapters (roughly 2/3) cover the women, sometimes by the pseudonym they’d give: Hélène, Zaza, Nicole, Lon and Guigui, Zinka, Josèe, Jacky, Mena. Aspects of their resistance activities – what led to them joining, their arrest, their connection to each other, and their escape to freedom.

The accounts of treatment in the camps, the selection processes, and the work is done with graphic detail that it is hard to really read for long periods of time. In all honesty, I did speed read through some of it, taking frequent breaks.

The women soon learn that they’re to be “liquidated” (yes, I shuddered reading it and writing it). While being marched out of the final camp, they decide to make a break for it through enemy terrain and unknown situations. It is definitely not easy either, as I didn’t think it would be. They’re treated warmly by some, with hostility by others, and at times even dine with German soldiers on their way to the American front, freedom looming in the distance. They come across other “corpses” of those marched to death or shot; they bicker; they face starvation. Still, they stay the course.

In real life fashion, reaching the “line” isn’t dramatic. They’re met by two American officers in a vehicle. After their account, one offers them a “smoke”.

The return to regular life isn’t as easy as it seems. Though their time with the Americans makes things a bit easier. At a refuge camp, the conditions remind them of the prisons they’d escaped. They do find a new house to stay in and find purpose there.

Strauss, in addition to focusing on the nine women, added some notes about the “post-war” efforts: SS guards being forced to dig graves for those who were killed, the Leipzig mayor was forced to donate caskets and wreaths, how Ravensbrück got forgotten since it fell behind the Iron Curtain, the atrocities and rape that some of the Russian soldiers committed there, though there were some “rape” reports of American soldiers. Those were blamed on African-American soldiers at a high and questionable rate.

When Germany finally surrenders one would think that the women would rejoice, but they don’t and it is a realistic expectation. They’re thinking of the ones that were lost and unable to be with them because of the war. It is interesting that this book was released four (4) days before V.E (Victory in Europe) Day – 5/8/1945.

After the war comes a new mission for the women – to get home. Not all of them go home at the same time. Seven of them head home. Jacky decides to stay at the house in Grimma to help some of the refugees. Hélène works with the U.S Army, complete with uniform and car. Her job is to translate.

Though only six of them make it home to Paris. Lon leaves and heads for Holland.

The six remaining women – Zaza, Nicole, Guigui, Zinka, Josèe, and Mena find that the authorities were ill prepared for their return home as well as the state of some concentration camp survivors. Even some family members couldn’t recognize their loved ones due to the starvation and emaciated version of the returnees. Life in Paris is different than what anyone remembers, which is to be expected. After their return home, the women lost contact with each other.

Strauss briefly touches on survivors’ guilt as well as the fact that no one wanted to talk about what happened during that time. It was either too painful or too embarrassing. It was commonplace for survivors to marry each other. As two of the women were already married, six of them ended up marrying survivors as well since they all understood the trauma the other had faced.

Strauss goes over what happened to some of the women after their return home. While the history of the others is more complex, Josèe virtually disappears. There is only one paragraph about her.

In 1964, on the anniversary of their liberation, Nicole wrote an article for Elle about Ravensbrück and her experience. One survivor wrote a scathing letter to the editor admonishing Nicole for publishing painful memories.

Imagine being told, by another survivor, that your experiences and statement are “unseemly”, to be discreet, no one wants to hear it, and an over-bragging, dramatic account.

Yet, Strauss presents the accounts and history for those who were not interested and those who are so it isn’t forgotten.

At times this book veers completely away from the women; highlighting the plight of some prisoners who died days after liberation due to their weakened condition. Some were hanging on just to be free when they died.

One interesting, and sad aspect was the use of “butterfly notes” to toss out of the trains and brave people often picked them up to send on to the women’s families. These notes are often the very last traces of mothers, daughters, and sisters.

This is not a book that one reads to enjoy, so it is NOT enjoyable. I cannot say I LOVED it. I read it to learn another aspect or POV of the war. It definitely adds to the history I have learned and gives a complete, well-rounded picture.