The Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz, by Ellie Midwood, published by Bookouture in 2021, is a remarkable story. It takes place in the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration/extermination camp in southern Poland, in 1943 and 1944, and is, of all things, a love story.
It is also a true story.
Mala Zimetbaum is a young Jewish woman from Antwerp, Belgium. She is an assimilated Jew and grew up under the desire of her father that she be independent, educated, and self-sufficient. She became all of those while also embracing the youth groups that sponsored military-like training, becoming a skilled fighter by the time she’s in her twenties. When the Nazis invade Belgium after swallowing up the other European countries, Mala finds herself relying on those skills as she is swept up, taken to a holding camp in Malines, shoved onto a cattle train, and then spilled out onto the arrival ramp at Auschwitz. They tattoo the number 19880 into her skin.
Fortunately, the SS doctors sorting the prisoners are looking for people with a good knowledge of languages and Mala fluently speaks six. She is declared to be an essential inmate, meaning that she got a regular shower rather than one with gas. A year and a half later, she has established herself as a valued office assistant and a camp “runner”, someone who takes information, messages, orders, and requests to administrators and officials throughout the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex.
Edek Galinski is a young man from Poland, the son of a plumber. He is not Jewish at all, but was taken prisoner by Hitler because he was young, healthy, and would have made a good Polish soldier. To keep him from becoming one, in June of 1940, Edek is snatched from a maritime training academy, labeled a political prisoner, and sentenced to hard labor at Auschwitz; it was for containing the Poles that the camp was originally built. His tattooed number was one of the earliest – 531. By 1943, he and his friend, Wieslaw Kielar, have spent the three and a half years at Auschwitz.
It is by chance that Mala and Edek meet. Edek and Wieslaw have developed an escape plan, foreseeing that everyone in the camp will be killed if the Nazis think that the Russians will overrun the complex. Mala becomes a key figure in helping procure a permission paper that is required to fool the camp guards. It is while working together that they fall in love, which, to Edek, means that Mala must escape with them.
I like reading history books but also love historical fiction. This story and the detailed descriptions of the activities, personalities, and surroundings put together a lot of the information that I’ve learned about the Nazi camps. It treated me to a third dimension – the dimension of first-person descriptions of actual experiences – to my backlog of facts.
At the end of the book, the author notes the many firsthand accounts of Holocaust survivors and witnesses she used to build the story.
For example, Wieslaw Kielar, who never got to attempt the escape, survived Auschwitz and became a filmmaker and author. He wrote detailed information about Edek and Mala and their escape in his book Anus Mundi. If you visit Auschwitz, there are two locks of hair from Mala and Edek that Kielar donated to the museum.
Similarly, many of the characters in Midwood’s story have real counterparts in H. Langbein’s study People in Auschwitz. She stayed obsessively true to the people, their roles, and their contexts.
I appreciate Midwood characterizing sympathetic German soldiers. Members of the Third Reich are typically lumped together as evil incarnate, but many Nazi officers and soldiers did not like Hitler, could not understand the murdering of hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and were horrified at how prisoners were brutally treated. One key SS officer in the story subverts his Nazi principles, helps ease the horror of living at Auschwitz for prisoners, and puts himself in great danger by helping Edek. He didn’t earn a lot of sympathy from me, but it was interesting to see him struggle with his guilt.
It was good to find a sense of scale of the operations: the prisoner population alone could have made up a fair-sized city. More than a million prisoners were murdered there, but there were tens of thousands of prisoners living daily in the two camps. Trains with thousands of new captives arrived every day; up to five thousand prisoners a day were gassed, burned, or buried on a routine basis, with the camp prisoners operating the gas chambers, taking out the bodies, operating the crematoriums and burial pits, sorting the clothes, and even taking out any gold teeth and fillings. Everyday living involved carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, tilers, builders, bricklayers, cooks, clerks, interpreters, janitors, and all sorts of crafts people, some of whom were not prisoners, but were from nearby towns.
It should also not go unnoticed how much was involved in maintaining records, files, job assignments, and daily reports, the work again being done by prisoners. Imagine no copiers, no fax machines, no electronic messaging, no means of easy communication, no public transportation. It was all peoplepower, involving thousands, all working in the clouds of ashes belched out of the chimneys of the crematorium.
Midwood gives a realistic portrayal of the movement of illegal or forbidden items through the prison population, like food and medicine, as well as the miserable lives the German soldiers must have led. There were organized resistance groups within the population that gathered, smuggled, built, and hid weapons in anticipation of making a revolt against the soldiers and guards.
Prisoners who worked at higher levels in the organized administration of the camp, like Mala, could influence the quality of life for individual prisoners, regardless of whether they were Jews, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, German political prisoners, or even the more than 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war. Because of it, she probably saved thousands.
The preparations for the escape, as well as the description of the escape itself, are based on testimonies. It shows the courage, fear, and passionate longing for individual freedom of those who refused to abandon hope. Mala and Edek emerge as heroes of Auschwitz and what they did provided impetus for the internal rebellion that soon followed.
It’s a remarkable story and worth reading.
There are two cellars at the Great House in the Ukraine: one reached by an inside door in the big kitchen, while the other is outside, close to the house. They are both large, keeping cool the many jarred fruits and vegetables of the farm, bottles of homemade wine, and other stored foods. Nonna’s father digs a connecting tunnel between the two, hiding each end behind cupboards, producing a space in which his family can hide from the surging force. He wants to peaceably surrender after the violence of the advancing front has passed by. Speaking fluent German, he expects to be listened to.
In the fall of 1941, as the Russians are fleeing before the German onslaught, the few people choosing to remain are destitute. There is no electricity, no men to chop firewood in the forest, and few sources of food. As the temperatures drop, the invading soldiers ransack farms, villas, villages, and towns for shelter, winter clothing, and anything to eat and drink.
Nonna, who is fourteen, and Anna, her mother, who is thirty-eight, move from the Great House into an abandoned home in the nearby village, finding it easier to barter crafts, trade family possessions, and swap trinkets for food and supplies. Her father stays behind, hidden in his bunker between the cellars.
However, he catches a cold while working in the damp underground, and when he cannot contain his coughing, drunken German soldiers enjoying the cellar’s wine discover his hiding place. They beat him unmercifully, and gouge out his eyes. A neighbor helps the grandmother bring him to Nonna’s house in town. He lingers in great pain and then mercifully dies. The grandmother returns to the Great House, leaving Nonna and Anna on their own.
Remember the stories of the Russian winter of 1941-42? How brutally cold it was and how inadequately prepared the German army was? That it was the reason for their defeat? It’s the same winter that Nonna and her mother now experience. They are much farther south, but she tells of having a constant three feet of snow with temperatures of 47 degrees below zero. Cows fall dead in their pens, horses freeze to death while pulling sleighs, birds drop from the sky; hardly a living thing survives out in the open. Thirty percent of German artillery is still being pulled by teams of horses and they die by the hundreds. Tank and truck engines cannot be turned off because the oil would freeze, wasting even more of their limited fuel supplies.
Remember the startling scene in Dr. Zhivago of the ornate country house covered in ice? Nonna and Anna live in a house with a thick layer of ice on the inside of the walls. They tear apart furniture to burn in the kitchen stove and sleep under the mattress at night for more insulation. There is no water except for what they can melt.
But they endure. In the Spring, they move back to the Great House to be with the grandmother, but then return to town in the summer to be closer to the church, which meets secretly. They both sing to keep their hearts alive.
Even as they are withdrawing from Russia territory, the Germans seek out Ukrainian and Russian workers, promising food and shelter in exchange for working in Poland and Germany. The Russian army, now on the offense, has been ordered to consider those who did not flee the Germans the year before to be traitors. They are to be executed or sent to Siberia. Nonna and Anna feel that they have no choice but to volunteer for the German work camps.
In the fall of 1942, Nonna and her mother are crammed into cattle cars and taken across the country by various trains. The first work camp provides workers to a carton factory in Kassel, Germany. Six months later, they work in a textile factory in Lichtenau, then in a porcelain factory in Buchenwald.
The work camps are little better than concentration camps, with barracks segregated by sex and nationality, with three-tier mattressless bunks that hold as many as can be squeezed into them. There is little heat, a single blanket for each person, with cabbage soup and a three-by-three-inch piece of bread provided daily to eat, but there are fewer brutalities because the workers are needed.
The two of them are returned to Kassel, where they are selected to work in a Catholic hospital at Marienkrankenhaus. By this time, Anna has been recognized for her musical abilities and her handywork: she serves the Kommandant by playing the piano and singing, and also paints portraits of his family.
Nonna uses her father-taught skills to serve as an interpreter: she speaks fluent Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Yiddish, and German. At the hospital, built for treating prisoners-of-war and work camp prisoners, she is in constant demand in the admittance office to help with communications between patients and nurses.
It is a good life compared to what they had. They are soon favorites of the hospital staff and are treated as family members by the priests and nuns.
On September 22, 1944, Anna is told to report to the local Gestapo authorities; no reason is given. She does not come back and Nonna never sees her again. She will hear later that Anna was taken to a concentration camp called Ravensbruck, then was moved to a camp at Flossenberg. It is known as being one of the worst. By the end of the war, 73,000 prisoners will have died there of malnutrition, lack of medical care, and brutality.
Four months after the war in Europe ends, Nonna receives a letter written in Polish and Yiddish. The unidentified author tells that her mother had routinely played the piano at receptions held by the Flossenberg camp Kommandant. Weak and malnourished, she injures her arm and refuses to play. The Kommandant has both her arms and all of her fingers broken in retaliation. Anna does not recover from her injuries and becomes delirious. Considering her as good as dead, the Kommandant orders her thrown into the incinerator.
Anna dies only days before she would have been set free. The Second U. S. Cavalry liberates the Flossenberg camp on April 23, 1945.
Life without her mother is more difficult for Nonna and she suffers from rheumatic fever and angina. She becomes a patient in the hospital. The priests and nuns declare to the authorities that she is Catholic and draft her into the cloister to protect her from being taken away. She is, at one point, given last rites, but she defies them all, and survives. In the two-year period of 1945-1947, she is cared for, slowly recovers, and gradually returns to work.
Through it all, she keeps writing in her diary.
Nonna eventually qualifies to be a nurse and asks to be transferred to a new Allied hospital in Merxhausen. It treats refugees from the concentration camps and Nonna hopes that the letter was wrong and that her mother survived. She attends a nursing school in Bad Hersfeld, graduating with honors in only a few months, then finishes the coursework at a pre-med school in Heidelberg.
But she wants a new life. She wants out of Germany and she wants out of Europe. She wants to go to America.
Nonna accepts the position of personal secretary to the woman in charge of the International Refugee Organization in Germany. Mrs. Hawksley helps her do the paperwork for a visa, but it takes two years to finally be granted. The German government wants her to stay and go to medical school, even threatening her if she were to leave. Germany does need doctors, but there’s also a covert desire not to let her go; she knows too much about what happened.
Eventually, though, there is a ship steaming across the ocean, there is New Orleans, there is Henry, and then, fifty years later, there is her story.
A story that everyone should hear and that no one should forget.
Henry Bannister dearly loved his wife, but he didn’t understand some of the things that she did.
They were married soon after she got off the ship in the New Orleans harbor, on June 6, 1950, brought there under the sponsorship of the Napoleon Avenue Baptist Church of New Orleans. Her maiden name was Nonna Lisowskaja and she was from Germany, having been born in Frankfurt. She served as a nurse in different German hospitals and had come to the United States because her deceased parents would have been proud. She said nothing beyond that, telling Henry that she only wanted to focus on their future happiness.
She began, however, to make frequent trips up to their Tennessee home’s attic, where she spent hours, alone. There were also distracted moments when she was full of sadness and despair. And then there was the pillow case; there was always the pillow case.
It was a small now-empty pillow made of black-and-white ticking, with an added strap, as if the pillow was to be carried over the shoulder. Every night, for all the nights that he knew her, Nonna held it as she went to sleep. She could not sleep without it, requiring it even in hospital stays.
It was all okay with Henry; he never demanded an explanation of the pillowcase, and faithfully respected her private moments in the attic. He never opened her trunk.
Then, one day, almost fifty years after they had married, she came to him, took him by the time, and said, “It’s time.” She led him to the attic, unlocked a trunk, and took out a locked box. From it, she removed a number of ancient photographs, letters, documents, postcards, and then carefully placed into his hands a fragile, hand-sewn diary, filled with words in languages he did not recognize. Knowing that he could not decipher her writing, Nonna gave him a thick stack of legal pads, each page filled with the hand-penned English translation of what she had written.
Reading page after page, Henry finally discovered why Nonna desperately clung to that pillowcase.
Carefully concealed around her waist, it had been her secret repository for all that she considered precious. She had not been born in Frankfurt, but in the very southern tip of Russia. She had kept the pillowcase hidden from Russian soldiers fleeing the German soldiers as they invaded southern Russia; from German soldiers who ransacked her grandmother’s Great House in the Ukraine and murdered her father; from the shelling of her town by the returning, westward-going Russian army; and from the people crammed into the cattle cars that took her and her mother to work camps in Poland.
She had secreted the small pillowcase in different German concentration camps, in the German hospital where she served as an interpreter for patients and as a patient herself, and even wore it on the ship to America.
It contained her memories of a family that stretched from the Tsars of Russia, to Anton Chekov, to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to wonderful days at a Great House in the Ukraine, to the unwarranted deaths of her family members, and it even held an anonymous letter that told of her mother being burned alive in a crematorium.
Henry could hardly take it all in, but he read every word. Afterwards, having revealed her past to him, Nonna shared it with her family, then her church, and then spoke to anyone who would listen.
She had a story that everyone should hear and that no one should forget.
Nonna’s maternal grandfather was Yakov Ljaschov, a Cossack in the Imperial Cossack Army. He served as the personal protection for Nicholas II, the Tsar of Russia, and was killed by the Bolsheviks during the Russian revolution at the end of WWI. He and his wife, Feodosija Nikolayevna Ljaschova, were wealthy landowners in the Ukraine and southern Russia, owning seven grain mills, with associated houses and villages, plus other lands.
The traditional family home was called the Great House and was close to the village of Konstantinowka, Ukraine, in the same general area as Taganrog but across the border from Russia. It had thirty-seven rooms and four kitchens, plus a complex of stables, barns, caretaker cottages, and large pastures and orchards. This is where her grandmother lived during Nonna’s childhood, and where Anna Yakovlevna Ljaschova, Nonna’s mother, had grown up.
Nonna’s father was named Yevgeny Ivanovich Lisowsky. He came from Warsaw, Poland. His parents were wealthy and owned considerable land around Warsaw and in the Ukraine.
Stick with me here. I won’t use the proper names again, but can’t help but love the way they look and sound.
It is important that Nonna’s father grew up wealthy and learned to speak several languages, and it is important that her mother grew up wealthy and became a gifted musician and performer (voice, piano, violin). Together, they were a power couple, and they settled in Rostov-On-Don, a Russian town near Taganrog that had a local university. It is also important that they were not Jewish; the family, friends, and neighbors were dominantly Eastern Orthodox. This makes Nonna’s tale a non-typical Holocaust story.
Unfortunately, the region in which Nonna’s family lived and the ancestral farm was located was directly in the path of the German army going east when Germany betrayed the Soviet Union and invaded Russia, and then directly in the path of the Russian army going west when the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad, and the Soviet Union went on the offensive.
Nonna tells her story in a book titled The Secret Holocaust Diaries, The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister, published by Tyndale House in 2009. She spends the first half of the book extolling her ancestry and the delightful dominance of her maternal grandmother. It is an idyllic life that centered around the Great House. Lots of aunts, uncles, cousins, food, homemade cherry wine, animals, and sleigh rides in the winter. The Christmas of 1932 is everything that we wish for when we see a Thomas Kinkade Christmas scene.
Meanwhile, growing up in Rostov-On-Don, Nonna and her mother developed a friendship with Mrs. Taissia Shcherbak Solzhenitsyna. Her husband had also died being a Cossack for Tsar Nicholas, so they had common stories. They also met her son, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a budding mathematician whose future book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, would win him the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In 1933, Hitler comes to power in Germany, Stalin’s Communism is on the rise in Russia, and everything changes. Most farms in the Soviet Union become government “collective farms” and in 1934-35, Nonna’s extended family members, including her grandmother, lose most of their wealth and property. The grandmother is no longer considered a private owner, and is forced to pay heavy taxes on the land, house, stables, and orchards. The horses are “donated” to the collective, and she no longer has “hired help”, as it becomes unlawful to have employees.
People are told how many “living things” (goats, hogs, chickens, etc.) they can own, while any excess is given to the collective farms. The family mills become the property of the government and are operated to benefit the collective. Religion is forbidden, the churches are locked and boarded up, the local priest suddenly disappears, while bibles and icons, if found, are burned and people arrested.
The grandmother’s religious icons, jewelry, beautiful clothes, gold, silver, and other valuables are packed into metal trunks and buried in the ground in the cellar. The Great House is divided up into living spaces with private entrances. To preserve their ancestors’ homestead, several family members move back to the house, including Nonna, her brother, Anatoli, her mother, and her father.
As an aside, it’s remarkable how Stalin’s Communism resembles the Borg in Star Trek. The individual has no value, while the collective is everything. Perhaps they were striving for equity.
In 1939, Hitler signs a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, and promptly invades Poland. Once his army completes the occupation, Hitler then breaks the pact and invades Russia in 1941. By the time he gets to the east side of the Ukraine, the Russian soldiers are fleeing back to the homeland, using a scorched earth policy as they leave so the Germans will find no food or supplies. Villagers and homeowners are told to board trains to escape into Russia’s interior, but some stay.
Along with a few villagers, Nonna’s grandmother refuses to leave the Great House. Nonna’s father, who had been wanting to escape the Communism of Russia for some time, convinces himself that if his family stays and surrenders to German soldiers, they will allow he and his family to flee to Germany.
I’ll tell you how that worked out in Part Two.
On March 15, 1944, the SS Gripsholm steamed into the harbor of New York under the guiding light of the Statue of Liberty. It was a Swedish passenger ship leased by to the United States for exchanging American citizens kept in German prison camps for German POWs captured by the Allied forces in Europe.
Standing along the railing were the Wallenbergs. A wealthy Jewish family living in Poland before WWII, Lena Wallenberg was an American citizen who had met and married Shya Wallenberg, a Polish citizen, painter, and antique dealer, several years before when he had traveled to New York City to buy art. She returned with him to the city of Lodz, fifty miles southwest of Warsaw, where he managed an art gallery. She became a fashion designer, and they soon had a daughter named Mary, who was nineteen when she stared up at the Statue of Liberty.
A large crowd waited on the dock in New York City to welcome the refugees. Among them was a Yiddish journalist, S. L. Shneiderman, who was interviewing people as they got off the ship. He began a conversation with Mary, asking her to describe her life under Hitler. Mary reached into her suitcase and pulled out twelve small spiral-bound notebooks—her diary, written in a self-devised code and kept hidden through the four years of their captivity.
The journalist would later help her translate her diary into, first, a serialized series of articles for a Jewish journal in 1944, and then, on February, 1945, a book entitled Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, by Mary Berg.
The book would shock America; never had the atrocities committed under the Third Reich been even imagined.
Mary and her family had been enjoying a six-week vacation at a resort in Poland when the German Army invaded on September 1, 1939, when Mary was fifteen. Racing back to their home in Lodz, already being shelled by German artillery, they gathered what they could and rode three bicycles into the throngs of people escaping to Warsaw. Over the next four years, the Nazi Gestapo and their relentless persecution of Jews decimated their lives, not in concentration camps, but by confining them inside the Warsaw ghetto, established in November, 1940.
In July, 1942, negotiations between Germany and the Allied nations proposed exchanging non-European families for German POWs. In preparation, Mary, her family and seven hundred other ghetto residents who held foreign passports were moved into the Pawiak Prison, a compound near the center of the ghetto. Twenty-one were U.S. citizens, while most of the others had South American passports: Paraguay, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Mexico.
In January, 1943, they were moved to an internment camp at Vittel, in the mountains of France. Vittel was a former resort that housed the new prisoners in former hotels and hostels, while providing them access to the parks, shops, and entertainment venues of the resort. The purpose of placing them in Vittel was to show to the world that the Third Reich treated their “captured citizens” with great care and concern.
Mary’s diary revealed the truth.
As her diary was prepared for publication, Mary used the last name Berg as protection for her family, friends, and relatives in Poland. She was not the only witness to the Nazi atrocities before the war in Europe ended, but her diary was the first account in English to describe the ghetto from its initial establishment in 1940 through the deportations that took place in the late summer of 1942. It was also one of the first personal accounts to describe gas being used to kill prisoners at the death camps.
She also told:
On March 5, 1944, as the SS Gripsholm pulled away from the French coast and began its trip across the Atlantic, Mary Berg wrote:
“I went out on deck and breathed the endless blueness. The blood-drenched earth of Europe was far behind me. The feeling of freedom almost took my breath away. In the last four years I have not known this feeling. [I have only known] four years of the black swastika, of barbed wire, ghetto walls, executions, and, above all, terror—terror by day and terror by night.”
The 75th edition of Mary’s diary is titled The Diary of Mary Berg, Growing up in the Warsaw Ghetto. It is a OneWorld Publication, 2018.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.