An Auschwitz survivor refutes Holocaust deniers in this debut memoir.
Birnbaum was motivated to write this memoir by the fact that some people still deny the reality and scope of the pan-European mass killing and torture of Jews between 1938 and 1945—even though survivors, like himself, still walk among us. Born and raised in Przemysl, a Polish town near the Ukraine border, the author, along with his family, never had it easy. The anti-Semitic locals were more open about their bigotry after the Nazis invaded in 1939. Some old Jewish men were tied to carts, beaten, and mocked, and hundreds of other grown men in Birnbaum’s neighborhood were forced into manual labor or shot. All the Jewish families were crowded into a ghetto, from which Birnbaum watched children of collaborators playing beyond the barbed wire. In painful stages, the ghetto’s residents were placed on cattle cars; Birnbaum’s mother and siblings vanished, and his father was imprisoned and killed. The author was later sent to Szebnie concentration camp, where he was fed only “baleful gray liquid,” made to work extra hours on Jewish holidays, and forced to watch as fellow prisoners suffered torture. Herded again onto cattle cars, Birnbaum and his companions finally arrived at Auschwitz. It would be a travesty to paraphrase what he says he encountered there; this is a book that demands to be read in full. The cruelty and grotesquery of camp life reveals itself clearly through Birnbaum’s engaging, pellucid prose: The filth and insanity of the cattle cars, the smug sadism of the guards, and the agony of the tortured may provoke readers to tears and anger. At one point, he writes of how kapos and SS men at Szebnie barked “Schnell” (“fast”) day and night: “You had to wake up—schnell! You ate and drank—schnell! Worked schnell and died schnell.” Later sections, describing the writer’s escape and work with the Polish resistance, are compelling and even inspiring, but the first half of the book overshadows all else.
A detailed and sobering account.