FRAGMENTS OF ISABELLA: A MEMOIR OF AUSCHWITZ BY ISABELLA LEITNER. (1978) THIS NEW EDITION PUBLISHED BY OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
BOOK REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
This is a gorgeous little book. I thoroughly enjoyed it, if anyone can ever be said to have ‘enjoyed’ a book about the Holocaust and the tragic events contained therein. I read it in one sitting on the day I purchased it. The book itself had a lovely velvety feel to it, a texture I can never quite resist in a book. I buy some books just because I love the shape, the feel or the smell of them. I’m totally a book nut, lol.
It’s quite short, this FRAGMENTS OF ISABELLA, just a manageable one-hundred-and-twenty-seven pages in total and, in fact, it was named on publication as an AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION BEST BOOK FOR YOUNG ADULTS.
I didn’t realise as I was reading it that it might be a book for Young Adults. I read it for what it is, a very moving, simply written but devastatingly telling account of Isabella Leitner’s- and her family’s- experience of the Holocaust.
Isabella (Leitner was her married name) was a beautiful young Jewish-Hungarian woman who was deported from the ghetto to Auschwitz on the morning of her twenty-third birthday. A cruelty indeed on the part of Fate- and the Nazis- but then, Isabella herself would probably say that every day is someone’s birthday and that all deportations were cruel. And of course she’d be right on both counts.
It’s so sad when she talks about how the non-Jewish population of Kisvarda, the small town in Hungary where she lived with her family, more or less stood by and let these deportations happen. They didn’t just let them happen, they actually stood there and watched them happen, some of them with smiles on their faces that seemed to a shell-shocked Isabella to mean:
‘Well, goodbye, dirty Jews, we’re glad to have our country back to ourselves again.’ In the end, Isabella said that she wanted to leave these small-minded, petty cowardly people behind her, whatever horrors the future held in store for her and her family.
This future was terrible indeed. Isabella and her mother, Teresa, and her four sisters Chicha, Cipi, Rachel and little Potyo, along with her brother Philip, were crammed together into one of the notorious cattle wagons for the journey to Auschwitz, the dead centre of the Nazis’ concentration camp killing machine.
Their father had gone abroad to seek safe passage and immigration papers for his family to come and join him in America or Israel, wherever he was, but I’m not sure if Isabella ever heard from him again after that. Their mother, Teresa, died in the jam-packed, almost airless cattle wagons, as did many others.
The old, the sick, babies, nursing mothers and the very young were, of course, particularly vulnerable to the appalling conditions. People were piled in on top of one another with nothing to eat or drink except what they’d managed to bring along themselves as per the Nazis’ instructions. There was only one bucket for sanitation purposes and the stench of urine and excrement would quickly become unbearable, as you can imagine.
The death of their cultured, kind-hearted book-loving mother was a terrible blow to Isabella and her sisters. Ditto, the death of their little sister Potyo not long after. Life was hard enough to bear without these two deaths to cope with as well.
Their arrival at the camp was the same nightmare experienced by all the others who passed through the dreaded gates of Auschwitz, over which were inscribed the words: ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI,’ or WORK SETS YOU FREE. Not always the case at Auschwitz.
The sisters endured together the horrible shock of having their heads shaved immediately on arrival, as well as the shaving off of their pubic and armpit hair to prevent the spread of lice, a constant worry in the camp. Isabella describes herself and her sisters at this moment in time as ‘four naked-headed monsters,’ but they were not the monsters. They weren’t even close.
Isabella and her sisters made a pact to each stay alive. No matter what the awful camp threw at them, they would stick together and STAY ALIVE. Thus, whenever one of them felt like giving up and throwing in the towel, the sisters would all rally round and practically will that person to keep going, keep going, keep going, no matter what, to stay alive.
Isabella’s brother Philip, who would have been in the mens’ section of the camp, urged his sisters to stay alive also so that the Nazis could be ‘paid back’ for their crimes against humanity. Also, Philip said, it was so that they could tell the whole world what had happened there at Auschwitz, and that was obviously something that really resonated with Isabella.
And the awful camp had plenty in its horrible arsenal to throw at them. For example, the infamous ‘selections,’ at which Dr. Josef Mengele himself indicated with his right thumb or his left thumb who was to live and who was to die in the gas chambers.
Infectious diseases like typhus and TB. Irma Grese, the notorious SS woman, blonde and beautiful but with a heart of stone. Poor, rotten food. Limited washing and toileting facilities. The endless roll-call or ‘Appell’ at which you could be standing in line for four or more hours while the guards called out everyones’ names.
If there was a mistake or a miscount in the Appell, the guards would start again while the starving prisoners either froze in the snow or wilted under the sun. And always, always, always, the constant shouts of ‘Raus! Raus! Raus!’ meaning ‘Get out!’ or ‘Schnell! Schnell! Schnell!,’ meaning to hurry up. The Nazis always did everything on the run.
Isabella’s book was written in 1978, thirty-three years after Liberation. It’s a sad book, but it’s a book that ultimately contains a dazzling message of hope. PUBLISHERS’ WEEKLY says of it that: ‘Her (Isabella’s) slim volume is a celebration of the strength of the human spirit as it passes through fire.’
The things that Isabella and her sisters go through will strike a chord with any Holocaust survivors who read the book. She’s got her own way of putting things though, a unique voice that tells her dreadful story simply, in a way that’s easy to read and digest. It’s not like one of those massive Holocaust tomes that you could use as a door-stop if you needed to, but then it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes less really is more.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
You can contact Sandra at: