Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom by Isabella Leitner
This is a beautifully written account of the author’s experiences in Auschwitz and other German concentration camps towards the end of World War II. Her mother and youngest sister were killed when they arrived (at a time when the Nazis were burning 24,000 people a day at Auschwitz), but she and two sisters and a brother managed to survive. Surprisingly, it’s hopeful and not depressing. My only beef with her is that she portrays Germans as inhuman or a different species, which seems a dangerous attitude—if we imagine that the Nazis killed the Jews because they’re somehow fundamentally different from the rest of humanity, instead of asking what choices they made to get to that point, then we’ve learned nothing. There have been many, many groups of people who have tortured and murdered other groups, for whatever reason. Most notably, her saviors, the Russians, killed hundreds of thousands more people than the Nazis did. Certainly they had more time for the killing, but there are several specific and short incidents in history when the Russians matched or exceeded the Nazis’ numbers. The question is, what makes people think they can deprive others of life? What leads to that, and are we sure we’re not on a similar path? Would I have risked my own life to save others if I had lived in Germany during World War II? What if my “job” were processing Jews on their way to death camps? I hope I would have been more like the ten Booms in Holland or like Helmut Hübener in Germany, but I don’t know.
Having said that, though, I have no idea how I would react if I were ever in the same situation that Isabella found herself in when she was so young (about 20 years old). I can’t imagine the horror. So I don’t wish to criticize her. I think every first-person account of the Holocaust is valuable and necessary, and I’m grateful there are those brave enough to write about their experiences.