I’m very interested in the history of the world and have read many books on various historic events, some fiction, some non-fiction. While perusing Netgalley, I found a historical fiction novel based on a real individual – a German nurse who was in charge of a nursery/school at Auschwitz. Particularly interested in events during this time period, I decided I had to check out Auschwitz Lullaby by Mario Escobar.
In 1943, Helene Hannemann was as worried about her family as she could ever be. She was married to a Romani musician and had five children with the love of her life. Persecuted for his heritage most of his life, Johann took things in stride until the Nazis came to power and declared gypsies to be non-conformers to their vision of an elite race. Johann has lost his job and she is now the sole provider for her family, working as a nurse in the local hospital until that morning in 1943 when the German police arrived at her door demanding her husband and her children.
Refusing to part with her family, Helene is herded into the cattle train that will bring her to the concentration camp known as Auschwitz. She is separated from her husband, but allowed to remain with her children. Their lives are a hell she could never imagine with horrific unsanitary and physically and mentally brutal conditions. Helene wonders how she and the children will survive when some Romani from a different barracks than the one she is stationed in take her in.
With their help, she secures a job at the “hospital” at camp. It is here that she meets Dr. Mengele, the new director of the camp hospital. He is immediately taken with her intelligence and her willingness to sacrifice of herself, however misguided he believes her intentions are. Dr. Mengele asks Helene to oversee a new project – a nursery and school for the Romani children. Though she wonders at Dr. Mengele’s true intentions, Helene can hardly refuse the request, hoping to bring the children some light in such a horrible situation.
Helene soon learns the real reasons behind the doctor’s kindness, but she resolves to continue bringing what little joy and extra rations she can to the children of the camp. But time is running out. With the Allies closing in on the Nazis, it’s just a matter of time before they decide the fate of those in the camp. Will they be rescued or will Helene and her children be among the ashes of the dead fed to the ovens?
From the very beginning of the book I was incensed. The prologue features Dr. Mengele, years after World War II, reading the diaries of Helene Hannemann. The true Dr. Mengele was a monster who experimented on children, preferably twins…horrific experiments that would cause much suffering before the merciful release of death. The real Dr. Mengele did survive long after the war and that fact is what had me so angry. I had little idea what I was about to read in the coming pages, but just that this monster was reading the private thoughts of one of his prisoners was enough to rile me up.
The story of Helene Hannemann is based on a real nurse who chose to remain with her Romani children despite being offered her freedom. The names of the family members were changed for the book, but her story is real. The people of the camp looked at her with mixed feelings. Here was a chance for their children to have just a little hope and food in a dismal, hopeless place. But they also knew that Mengele often selected children from the school for his experiments, despite the protests of Helene. I expect that his kindness toward the children and the extra rations he gave to the school were to ensure that his test subjects were healthier for his experiments.
The fact that Hannemann stood out to Mengele is surprising. I would have thought that a German woman who had chosen to be with her Romani children would be appalling to him. The fact that he would allow her to stand up to him and speak frankly on a number of occasions was equally shocking. But Helene Hannemann appeared to be a force to reckon with. Though there were times when she wanted to give up, she knew she had to go on for her children. Placing more children in her care only strengthened her resolve. It would give her the strength to endure the losses in the camp and more.
According to the author, some of the events, including a moment toward the end of the book were changed. If I told you what portion of the end was changed, I would give everything away, but I must say that I felt the author should not have changed anything toward the end of the book – people need to feel the full effects of things that happened in the concentration camps…now more than ever when a large portion of the population don’t even know what concentration camps were or even what took place at the hands of the Nazis in that time period.
That being said, I found Auschwitz Lullaby to be captivating. I had never heard of the kindergarten in the gypsy camp out Auschwitz prior to this novel. I was completely taken by this story of a mother who would not give up her children, even though it meant her imprisonment and certain death. I was amazed by her strength in trying to protect not only her own children, but the rest of the children that eventually came under her care. And, once the book was done, I was angry at the atrocities delivered upon the people of this camp and so many others whose inhabitants the Nazis thought so little of that they could exterminate them indiscriminately, use them for propaganda, work them to death and experiment on them ruthlessly.
The emotions brought about by reading Auschwitz Lullaby is a testimony to the excellent writing by Mario Escobar, bringing Helene Hannemann to life and making us feel the pain and anguish she felt while imprisoned in Auschwitz. An excellent piece of historical fiction based on fact that everyone should read.