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The Nine–despair and courage
by Gwen Strauss
Five years of research and writing went into the creation of The Nine, a nonfiction work that focuses on a group of nine women, most in their twenties, who joined the Resistance movement in World War II at various times and places. Six were French, two Dutch, and one Spanish. They were individually captured and sent to worse than horrible Nazi internment camps.
The author was able to interview her great aunt Helène who spoke five languages and was the leader of this band who joined together to survive and escape. Strauss followed quite a maze of information and was aided by many including families of “The Nine.” The book begins with Helène’s story which for me was emotionally difficult as she provides some details of her capture and torture. There were some types of torture, however, that Helène would not discuss or even name. The rest of the account moved more quickly as we learn more about each of the young ladies in the first nine chapters along with descriptions of life in a labor camp. Each chapter moves them closer to either death or escape. Most of the rest of the book lays out their last days together and concludes with what happens after the war is over.
The ladies did not share their stories with very many people for a variety of reasons which the author relates. Several wrote about their experiences in unpublished formats to be discovered after their deaths. Many former prisoners of World War II suffered again after their presumed return to safety—homes and loved ones were gone, their bodies were physically ruined, and society turned against them. Statistically they were lucky to survive, but they bore visible and invisible scars. Most returnees were reluctant to discuss their imprisonment with even those closest to them and found that, in general, people did not want to hear about their experiences.
I highly recommend this book for the author’s insightful and thorough reporting about the brave women of the Resistance and the cruel and evil system that treated them as vermin. One of the policies that I sadly see repeated currently is those in power inciting division to weaken and control those under them. In the camps, the Poles received the best treatment from the Nazis, followed by the Reds. Every group looked down on another in the camps with the Roma (Gypsies), criminals, and homosexuals regarded as the bottom of humanity.
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
Category: History, Nonfiction (Adult)
Notes: 1. Subtitled: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany
2. At the first of the book there is a list of the women with their nicknames and a brief description
3. At the end of the book are notes about the author’s journey into the past, a bibliography, notes on each chapter, and a list of the illustrations (which sound interesting, but were not included in my Advance Reader Copy).
Publication: May 4, 2021—St. Martin’s Press
The Jewish prisoners were given the worst rations, worst living conditions, and the hardest jobs. They were already the most traumatized group, having suffered pogroms, witnessed mass murders, and narrowly escaped the gas chambers. All of them had probably seen their loved ones die, and they may or may not have counted themselves lucky to be alive.
They were proud of how they served each other, divided food equally, and maintained their civility in such an uncivil place. It had kept them strong when others become more and more like animals, lost their sense of themselves, and fell into dark despair.
In the sea of people who seemed to have been tossed up like pebbles on a beach, the prospect of finding their loved ones felt nearly impossible.
Souvenirs from Kyiv–devastation of war
Souvenirs from Kyiv
by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger
I want to believe Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger’s stories in Souvenirs from Kyiv are more fiction than history, but I know that is not true. She has researched and conducted interviews with survivors of World War II and its aftermath. She has compiled their memories into composite stories that share brutal truths about war. Her goal Is to “make it clear that conflict is not about two teams meeting on the battlefield—one called ‘good’ and one called ‘bad.’ There are no winners in this story.”
These tales are emotionally hard to read; I put aside the book several times to regroup. Because the author is Ukrainian-American, I expected the book would be slanted towards the Ukrainians. While they are certainly the focus, they are not depicted as guiltless. The barbarism of war is demonstrated in acts performed by Germany, Poland, the USSR, Ukraine, and the United Nations. “Sides” were not clear cut and people had to quickly change their nationalism based on necessity for survival.
In Ukraine’s War of Independence (1917-1921), a chant was popular:
Glory to Ukraine.
Glory to the heroes!
Death to the enemies.
It was revived in the 1940’s as a partisan group struggled to “ ‘purify’ Ukraine of Jews, of Poles, of Nazis, of Soviets.” The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was founded after WW I. It fractured into two groups, each fiercely loyal to its leader. They expended energy which would have been better used in fighting their common enemy. That is an easy position to take from my safe twenty-first century armchair.
The author creates believable, fictional characters. Through them she makes real:
–the desperation of those in labor camps
–the hard work required just to survive each day
–the quick adjusting of priorities for those fleeing
–the raw, animalistic violence that emerged during the fight for survival—whether to get a place in a bomb shelter or to grasp a stale piece of bread.
There are also shining lights:
–parents sacrificing for children
–the kindness of a German officer leading a refuge family to safety during a bombing
–everyday citizens risking their lives by sharing their homes and what little food had been left for them by ravaging soldiers.
These are all stories that need to be told, but the tale goes further. When the dust of battle settles, what happens to the survivors? To what country will they claim allegiance? Even those captured by an army and put in uniform or forced into slave labor, can be blacklisted as traitors in their home country. There is the unimaginable prospect of labor camps once more. If these threats are not realized, the survivors still have to overcome physical and mental hurdles of reintegrating into a society, perhaps not the one of their birth. During and after the war, Ukraine Diaspora occurred in the U.S. and in Europe.
Although this book is historical fiction, I learned a lot about the strife between Ukraine and its neighbors. Conflict is not new in that area. The author made history come alive with characters caught up in a war not of their making. It is important to read the forward. The first story slowly immersed me into the time period. Then the rest of the book sped by quickly. This author has written other books, and I am interested in reading them as well. Although Souvenirs from Kyiv is about Ukraine, its theme, the devastation of war, has worldwide applications.
I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Bookouture for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Historical Fiction, General Fiction (Adult)
Notes: 1. A map of Ukraine is included.
2. The book ends with a letter from the author and also a valuable glossary. Some foreign language words are defined within the story, but the glossary is helpful for the other terms.
Publication: April 22, 2022—Bookouture
I think of the Germans picking up and fleeing, the Red Army laying claim to the scorched land, and I know that one oppressor is no better than the next.
[Pretend death notification letter composed by an enlisted Ukrainian forced into the German army.] As we waited for our weapons to thaw, your son took a bullet. He did not die a hero. He did not kill many Red Army troops. He was shot, and others have died of TB, frozen to death, or have simply lost hope. You may stop sending blankets. They go to the officers, anyway. You could send clubs and knives, for we have been forced to turn into primitive cavemen. Our weapons are useless in this frozen land.
…if he has learned anything on this journey, it is this: he will give up everything—including his principles, including his painting, his life—to keep his family alive.