The sounds, the smells, the essence of the Holocaust

The sounds, the smells, the essence of the Holocaust

For the JC Sep 2022

More than 40 years ago George Clare published his Holocaust memoir, Last Waltz in Vienna, one of the very first of what might be called Shoah-realism.

In its wake came a veritable deluge of Holocaust-related non-fiction and fiction, sometimes hard to tell the two apart. Clare’s book suffered, in my opinion, from a surfeit of imagination, telling the reader things he could not possibly have remembered as a child.

Included in the flood of Holocaust books were those with Auschwitz in the title, leading to emotional overload on the part of the reader; there were tattooists of Auschwitz, tailors, sisters, even singers. Auschwitz, it was clear, sold books.

So the heart sank a little at Tova Friedman and Malcolm Brabant’s The Daughter of Auschwitz, published this autumn. She was a little girl of five when she entered the notorious concentration camp in the summer of 1944; he is an award-winning former war correspondent.

The combination, however, has turned into gold, as Brabant unerringly provides accurate research to support Friedman’s searing memories. This is the real thing, the horrors of the Holocaust brought shudderingly to life, and all from the point of view of a small child who could barely read or recognise numbers. She knew her own, though — the number tattooed on her arm in the camp. The teenage tattooist was bundled off for murder immediately after inscribing Friedman’s number.

You might think that the memories of someone born in 1938, just before the outbreak of the war, would be tricky and unreliable. Yet the well-crafted narrative makes it clear to the reader that so horrific were many of the incidents that Friedman lived through, that they would have been seared into her brain. She might not have known where she had been on a given day or date, but Brabant’s impeccable research takes care of that.

Two towering strokes of luck lift this out of the usual Holocaust memoir. One is the portrait of Friedman’s indomitable mother, Reizel, who — through a combination of fierce determination and almost preternatural ability to outguess the Nazis — kept Tova — then named Tola Grossman — safe.

The book is full of recreated conversations between Reizel and her little girl, with Reizel instructing Tola not to move, not to breathe, to snuggle up to a corpse and keep still, not to make eye contact with any Nazi. This is Tiger Mother in the extreme — but it was necessary. There is a heartbreaking vignette when mother and daughter are shoved onto the train they are taking to Auschwitz and a woman already on the train asks, wonderingly, if she can touch Tola — she has already lost her own three children.

The second stroke of luck is the re-discovery, by Friedman, of her father’s eyewitness account in the Yizkor book for her home town of Tomaszow Mazowiecki, in Poland. She writes: “Containing photographs of and tributes to the dead, and written mostly in Yiddish and Hebrew, the Yizkor books were a post-war attempt by survivors to reconstruct and honour the history the Germans tried to wipe out”.

Machel Grossman, who was a member of the Jewish police force in the Tomaszow Mazowiecki ghetto, wrote 17 pages of his community’s Yizkor book. Friedman and Brabant were able to reconstruct many of the atrocities which happened to the Tomaszow Mazowiecki Jews by following her father’s testimony.

Properly speaking, this book should have another title, since Friedman and her parents (who both survived) did not enter Auschwitz until 1944, late on in the war. But Friedman had a miraculous escape, becoming one of the very few Jews — and certainly among the only children — to enter an Auschwitz gas chamber, and then leave it alive, apparently after some unprecedented administrative error by the Nazis. So perhaps she is indeed the daughter of Auschwitz.

There is a famous photograph, taken on liberation in January 1945, of a group of children at Auschwitz-Birkenau, displaying their tattoos to the camera. Friedman is on the left of that picture, aged six. She grew up to become a therapist in New Jersey after a decade in Israel, building a family of children and grandchildren; but also becoming a woman with a terrifying sense of self-sufficiency, driven into her by her extraordinary mother, ensuring she survived by relying on observation and instinct.

She writes: “I want you to taste and feel and smell what it was like to live as a child during the Holocaust. I want you to take a walk in my shoes and in the footsteps of my family, even though, in the worst of times, we didn’t have shoes”.

Friedman and Brabant have triumphantly achieved this. It is an angry book, but it is also required reading.

The Daughter of Auschwitz by Tova Friedman and Malcolm Brabant; Quercus Books £20

  • 12 September, 2022