It’s hard to find the right words to describe the experience of reading Sister, Sister. It’s a memoir of two sisters who survived the Holocaust, Hela through the mercy of Oskar Schindler, and Janka just barely alive at the end of a death march from Auschwitz. Words like interesting or compelling are all wrong and yet the book held my awed interest throughout…
I’ve read a few accounts by Holocaust survivors, most notably Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and Mark Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, and I’ve read Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List – and seen the film too. But since most people did not survive Auschwitz, I hadn’t come across an account from someone who did, nor had I ever read anything by any of the Schindlerjuden. To look at the eloquent cover image of these two women looking unbowed by their experiences seems like a miracle after all they went through, but the cover also asserts something else that’s different: this is a Holocaust memoir not from the predominant male point-of-view.
(Thomas Keneally interviewed Hela’s husband Poldek (Leopold Rosner) for his book, but not Hela, who wasn’t ready to talk about it at that time.)
The memoir is told in the voices of three different women: Hela’s, Janka’s, and that of the author Anna who inserts her childhood memories into the narrative, especially the accounts of the post-war period in Melbourne. In this way there is a child’s perspective on a mother’s excessive anxiety about having enough food, about being warm enough, about being safe.
The female perspective makes this memoir distinctive. It reminds me that Schindler had a wife called Emilie, who at the risk of her life scrounged extra food and cooked cereal into digestible form for the 1200 Jews and disabled people who would otherwise have perished. And I suspect that only a woman could have coaxed this admission from Janka:
I’d never had a child with Salek, and I felt overcome by pain and loss. I had nothing to remember him by, just absence and emptiness. But then I remembered my father’s advice at the beginning of the war: he had told me not to get married or have children, as terrible things were going to happen. And indeed, I witnessed so many of my women friends suffering or perishing because of their children that I was determined not to have one of my own. Some didn’t want to leave their children behind, so they threw themselves into the grave with them. What was the use of loving, caring for someone? All it brought was pain. Only much later was I able to allow my maternal instincts to overcome my fears. (Kindle Loc 3075)
Another image that strikes me from this memoir is of Hela at Schindler’s factory, learning from another woman how to turn a heel for a sock. They had been given some greasy wool, the men had fashioned some wooden knitting needles, and the women used it to knit garments to keep them warm in the harsh winter. Older women taught the younger ones as their mothers might have done had the girls not been separated from them when they were too young to learn. (Hela had lost her mother before the war, but many other young women were wrenched from their families when they were still children).
At New Year in 1945, the women at Schindler’s factory made a gift for him. I can’t read this without a lump in my throat at the idea of women who have nothing – literally nothing but the shabby, inadequate clothes they wore – making a gift for someone else:
Some of the women collected metal strips and offcuts from the machines and created a bouquet of flowers for Schindler. It seemed that even the most religious Jews were praying not to God but to Schindler. When he was presented with the bouquet he was visibly moved, and said to us, ‘As long as I remain alive, you will survive. The war is ending; let’s try to hang on. I know things are difficult, for you as for me. Trust me to the end. We never know what battles we will still have to fight to survive.’ People were crying, thanking him. His voice broke as he took the bouquet and then gave us the rest of the day off. (Kindle Loc 2708)
For Janka in the hell that was Auschwitz, the daily battle to survive is harrowing to read. But even when the war was drawing to a close, German evil prevailed and they sent the survivors out of the camps on death marches that killed thousands more. Janka was on the one that Wikipedia says is the most notorious:
The most notorious of the death marches took place in January 1945, when the Soviet army advanced on occupied Poland. Nine days before the Soviets arrived at the death camp at Auschwitz, the SS marched nearly 60,000 prisoners out of the camp toward Wodzisław Śląski (German: Loslau), 56 km (35 mi) away, where they were put on freight trains to other camps. Approximately 15,000 prisoners died on the way.
Even so, Janka feels guilt at what she did to survive:
I looked at the unfamiliar landscape, aware of the hunger gnawing at me. But as we began our march we saw a woman we knew, Mrs Stenser, who was carrying three loaves of bread, which she had been shrewd and quick enough to grab. She was having some difficulty carrying them, so I told Marysia that I would ask Mrs Stenser whether we could help her carry her bread in return for half a loaf for the two of us to share. She agreed, so we carried one loaf of bread for her, and promised to return half of it later. After a couple of hours marching, when we stopped for a rest, we couldn’t find Mrs Stenser. We sat down on the snow, and we were so hungry that we tore off a whole piece each. Then Marysia and I looked at each other. Without a word needing to be said, we both ate the remainder of the loaf. Afterwards we always had a guilty conscience that we had betrayed her trust and eaten the bread we were supposed to return. I suppose it’s some comfort to know that she survived. (Loc 2735)
The end of the war and liberation did not, as we know, mean that their troubles were over. For women there was an additional peril: rape by Russian soldiers. The memoir records some instances of great kindness, but also a narrow escape and a sense of compassion for the German women who were victims of this very common war crime in post-war Germany. Their fear of the Russians prompted some women to leave Poland:
I moved in with my sister, but I was afraid to stay in Kraków, not only because of the Poles and the Germans but because of the Russians too. I was afraid whenever I came across a group of Russians, remembering their brutality. My fear was so great that I wanted to leave Poland as soon as possible to get out of their reach. (Kindle Loc 3058).
I was taken aback also by the way in which Hela and her sister were finally reunited after the war. Janka searched for Hela by asking around about Hela’s famous husband Poldek who was a musician. While eventually the system for reuniting displaced persons facilitated reunions or revealed the sad fate of loved ones, in some cases it took years. It’s disconcerting to think that in the early days, for some people, it was the man’s work that enabled finding a lost relation.
For people who think they’ve read all they need to know about the Holocaust, this memoir offers fresh insights about the capricious nature of survival, and an inspirational view of the power of the human spirit.
Sister, Sister was short-listed for the 1998 Age Book of the Year.
Transparency statement: I’ve never met Anna Blay, but I ‘know’ her through her comments on this blog, via Twitter and because as publisher at Hybrid Books, she sends me occasional books for review.
Author: Anna Rosner Blay
Title: Sister, Sister
Publisher: Port Campbell Press, 2012 (first published by Hale & Ironmonger 1998)
Source: Personal library, purchased for the Kindle from Amazon Australia $6.25