The opening words, read by the author, are so ripe with the emotion of his experiences that the reader is immediately drawn into the memoir. His accent and diction are beautiful and I almost hated to have the book turned over to the professional reader, but he was equally good. At the end of the book, the author returns, briefly, to inform the reader why he believes he was lucky enough to survive and why he chose to dedicate his life to the international human rights struggle, in spite of his past.
When just under the age of 5, in 1939, Tom, (born in 1935), and his family, are uprooted from the hotel they owned and occupied, and are forced to leave. They were Jews, and the Germans required their premises for a “new” owner they had chosen. Confiscated abruptly, they find that the property is no longer theirs, and since all of their spare cash had gone into the upkeep, maintenance and improvement of the hotel, they are now without much money to spare. Over the next five years they were shunted from pillar to post, moving from Germany to Poland in an effort to stay safe and to stay one step ahead of the Nazis, surviving by their wits alone, until finally, their luck runs out, and they were shipped to Auschwitz, in 1944, when Tom was not yet 10 years old!
The book is brief and is presented through the eyes of the child, with all the memories, some possibly distorted, but always detailed as truthfully as memory will allow some sixty decades later; perhaps not all memories occur in order, but they are always indicators of the suffering and cruelty foisted upon so many innocent people during the Holocaust. They always illustrated the courage and cleverness, the luck and serendipity that often decided the fate of someone, often decided whether or not they lived or died.
The author speaks of the dignity of those who were murdered, who in their final moments refused to show the fear the Germans wanted to see, so they could gloat in their victory, in their mental illness, for no one else would have been able to stand by and watch such vicious behavior with a joyful demeanor, relishing in the humiliation, torture and pain of the conquered.
Written in a clinical way, as a child would view it, and read in such a matter of fact tone, the horror of the holocaust recedes, and yet, becomes even more dreadful, at times, since it seems to be occurring almost as a matter of course. In the end, the reader will realize that survival meant not only having your wits about you, but it also depended on luck and a kind gesture, often offered by someone willing to risk their own life. It is a wonder that Tom was not murdered in a selection as most children were.
When the war ended, Tom wound up wandering along on the road and with his fluency in Polish, is invited to join a Polish regiment. At 10 years old, he becomes their mascot, and he is outfitted in a uniform made especially for him. Eventually, however, he is sent to a Jewish orphanage where, even after the war, the Polish children in a nearby orphanage call the Jewish children names and throw rocks at them. The anti-Semitism and cruelty that still existed at the end of the war, in both children and adults alike, will touch your heart and horrify your mind, because, as we all know, many pretended to know nothing about what was taking place, even though they witnessed the roundups, the transports, the death marches, and the smell of burning flesh.
Finally, though, through a lucky circuitous route, his mother, who has survived and never given up hope of finding him, succeeds in locating him. It is not until 1946 that they are reunited however, after 2 ½ years of a brutal and horrifying separation. When he is reunited with his mother, she greets him with a new husband, who, as a stepfather, takes a sincere interest in him.
After several years in Germany, getting an education which brings him up to his age level, learning his way around, he decides to travel to America to meet his mother’s family. With the death of her second husband, his mother has since married a third time and does not want to leave Europe. She remains behind. As the years pass, through many unusual and happy accidents of fate, he is able to reunite with some of the people who helped him during the war. Sadly, he is never reunited with his father, for he and Tom’s grandparents, did no survive, nor did other family members.
At first, he is bitter, but eventually he turns the other cheek and realizes helping others will help him, teaching by the example will serve a better purpose. When the book ends, it will be hard for the reader to imagine the life of this child, barely five, when forced to leave his home and then at not quite 10, forced to enter the concentration camps; torn from his family, most of whom he never sees again, he survives, and turns his life around, becoming successful and devoting himself to helping others, even though he was so abandoned and tormented, in his own life, as a child.
No matter how many books you may have read about the Holocaust, read this one too. Told from the perspective of a little boy, from the time when the war’s effects first touched him, until many decades later, it is eye opening and enlightening in ways you will not have been touched before. He is surprised to discover that in America, many Nazis found refuge, because the country was preoccupied with Communists and not that concerned about the Nazis. There were lapses in immigration and security policies, at that time. The author explains that he did not find it hard to speak about his experiences, while his mother was reduced to tears when she tried to write about them. I thought, perhaps his youth prevented him from truly knowing the full measure of loss that older people experienced, both in their dignity and loss of loved ones. His attachments would, by virtue of his age, have been more superficial and theirs far deeper and more painful when discussing the torture, murder and absence of those well loved, those robbed of a future for simply not being of the “master race”, a group of people fortunately defeated and prevented from accomplishing their macabre view of the universe!