Born Survivors by Wendy Holden, Little, Brown £18.99
The handsome man in uniform tweaked at their flesh as the women stood, shivering and ashamed, trying to shield their naked, newly shaven bodies from his gaze. "Are you pregnant, pretty lady?" These sinister words, spoken by Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death", during the daily Selektion of new arrivals at Auschwitz, spool through the story of Priska, Rachel and Anya - three women who never met, but whose children, Hana, Mark and Eva, today consider themselves to be "siblings of the heart".
The three women, deported to Auschwitz late on in the war, are the subjects of Wendy Holden's new book, Born Survivors. Early on, she tells how Priska managed to keep a step ahead of the Nazis as she moved around Slovakia with her new husband. Rachel and her husband survived the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto before being deported, while Anya spent many months in Theriesenstadt, sharing a tiny apartment with her husband. All were recently married, young, and, by the time they arrived in Auschwitz, pregnant.
Arriving there in 1944, they were strong and healthy compared to camp inmates of longer standing, even after years of privation as they scrabbled to survive as Jews under Nazi occupation in different parts of Europe.
As relatively latecomers to the camp, the women were considered fit for slave labour, but any woman found to be pregnant at the Selektion was sent immediately to the gas chamber. Each of the three woman instinctively made a split-second decision - replying "Nein" to Mengele - which saved their lives.
But that was only the beginning. They were soon moved to Freiberg to work as slave labourers in a factory making aircraft parts, where they managed to hide their pregnancies right until they gave birth - Rachel didn't even tell her two sisters, with whom she shared a bunk.
Hideously malnourished on their pitifully meagre rations, the women somehow managed to keep themselves and their unborn babies alive before actually giving birth in the most abject conditions imaginable, two of them during a transportation in coal wagons to Mauthausen. These were the last days of the war. A few days later, the camp was liberated by American troops.
Holden's book is packed with harrowing detail and impressively well-researched, though it, perhaps inevitably, suffers from a problem typical of the genre of Holocaust memoir. She uses all sorts of archive material - interviews, letters, statements to historians given over the years and conversations - to piece together the women's lives, but because this is not a work of historical scholarship, there are no footnotes and it is impossible for the reader to situate the testimonies in a historical continuum. Memory, sadly, is highly unreliable.
Tucked away in a brief preface, she acknowledges the problem: "Where exact details were beyond direct recollection… they have been summarised… and may not be precisely as others remembered them."
This problem is accentuated, particularly in the early section of the book that deals with the women's lives before the war, by the fact that Holden has given in to the temptation to novelise, and even sentimentalise, the women's accounts, which paradoxically reduces the impact of the narrative.
But the later parts of the book, intense, powerful and moving, more than make up for this. Born Survivors is a worthy testament to these three women and the miraculous survival of their children. As Hana tells Holden, "We all try to live our lives as best we can and to fill those shoes that are so empty. In memory of their memories, each new day is a promise."
Natasha Lehrer is a Paris-based writer