Book Review: Trapped in Hitler’s Hell

Trapped in Hitler’s Hell
by Anita Dittman with Jan Markell

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Memoir

Anita Dittman was a child living with her family in Germany when Hitler and the Nazis started to make life increasingly difficult for Jewish people. Anita, her mother, and her sister were Jewish, while her father was not. He abandoned them to save himself, and though Anita’s sister managed to escape to England, Anita and her mother were moved into a ghetto, and later, work camps. As a Christian Jew, Anita found comfort in her relationship with Jesus, even before she really understood what it meant to have that relationship. Her story is told in Trapped in Hitler’s Hell.

I have read accounts of Jewish people and resistance workers in countries that were occupied by the Nazis, but I believe this is the first I’ve read of a Jewish family living right in Germany. Anita and her mother had some protection because of Anita’s non-Jewish father and because Anita and, eventually, her mother were Christians, but life was still difficult and dangerous, and much worse lay ahead.

While books like this can often make the reader question, “What would I do if this happened to me?” the question this most brought to my mind was, “How can I be as trusting and faithful with my witness in my life right now as she was during such hard times?” Though often told to stop talking about Jesus, Anita just couldn’t help herself, so great was her love for God. And no matter what bad thing happened, she would always be the first to express that God was still in charge. I do wonder about the wisdom of her tendency to always assume that God would keep her and everyone she was with safe and intact, since God does not promise earthly safety, especially during times of persecution. Not that he doesn’t ever keep someone protected, alive, even healthy, against all odds, but if we believe that will always be the case and it’s not, will our faith be shaken? Despite that concern, this book is worth reading for anyone interested in Holocaust accounts, especially those from a Christian worldview.

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Book Review: Night

Night
by Elie Wiesel

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Memoir

Elie Wiesel’s account of his time in death camps during WWII is told simply, without unnecessary prose. As a teenager in an unthinkable situation, Wiesel clung to his father, while losing all faith in his God. One of the things that strikes me most after reading this book is the constant uncertainty the author and his fellow Jews were faced with—will it really get that bad before the war ends? Are the rumors we’re hearing of camps true? Where are we going? What will happen when we get there? Which is better, left or right? To stay with family or to go where directed? To fight to survive or to let it be over? To join the evacuation march or to be left behind in the hospital? Not that this hasn’t all come up in other Holocaust books I’ve read, but for whatever reason it stuck out more to me in this book. That Wiesel was struggling to come to terms with what happened to him and millions of others even in the writing of this book is evident, and it certainly makes the memoir raw and personal.

Reading this book was one of my earliest exposures to the horrors of the Holocaust, as I’m sure I read it around high school age. I even found a couple of notes that I’d written in the book back then, which I don’t remember doing. While there are a lot more books out there about the Holocaust, both fiction and non-fiction, than there were when this was first published, I think it is a classic in the genre, and a good starting point for anyone newly diving into the genre.

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Book Review: Things We Couldn’t Say

Things We Couldn’t Say
by Diet Eman with James Schaap

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Memoir

Diet Eman, along with her fiance Hein Siestma, watched as the Nazi’s occupied their country, started imposing rules and restrictions, and then began to persecute the Jewish people living there. What started as quiet, minor resistance turned into a movement, with Hein and his brother leading their own group. Both Diet and Hein were arrested and spent time in prison, and then concentration camps. Fifty years later, Diet tells her story in Things We Couldn’t Say.

This is the third book I’ve read now that centers on Dutch resisters during WWII and the Holocaust. I was fascinated to hear about the citizens’ reactions to the occupation and the royal family fleeing in advance of the invasion, followed eventually by the realization that the royal family’s decision hadn’t necessarily been as cowardly as first thought. Diet also talks about why it was so natural for people in her country to resist, as she explains how stubborn the Dutch tend to be, easily forming splinter churches if there’s a difference of opinion.

In 2015, upon receiving the Faith and Freedom Award from the Acton Institute, Diet Eman said, “…you think it’s something special. But when your country is taken—and Hitler had said he would respect our neutrality, and then he marches in and he starts killing all of the Jews—and we had so very many Jewish people in our country. So, you would have done the same there, when you had friends who were Jewish and they were in danger.” However, from this book, it’s clear that not everyone would do the same thing. Even as Diet tried to find people who would help her early in her work, she was disappointed in her Christian friends who valued their own safety over that of others.

Diet was in the same prison, and then later, the same concentration camp, as Corrie & Betsie ten Boom, and though she didn’t meet them at the time, her observances of these fellow Dutchwomen of faith only strengthen my admiration of the ten Boom family (their story can be found in The Hiding Place). It’s inspiring to read how Diet’s faith grew during the toughest times and how she continued with her resistance work even after suffering very difficult things. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in true WWII resistance or Holocaust accounts, especially those from a Christian worldview.

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Book Review: Return to the Hiding Place

Return to the Hiding Place
by Hans Poley

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Memoir

During the time of Nazi persecution, a Christian Dutch family called the ten Booms welcome into their home various people who were hiding from the Nazis, both Jewish and not. 18-year-old Hans Poley was the first guest, hiding to avoid being sent to Germany to do hard labor in replacement of Germans who’d been sent to fight. Here he tells the story of his time at the ten Booms’ house and his own arrest that took him to a prison, then a concentration camp.

Having read The Hiding Place earlier this year, it was really interesting to see the Beje and the ten Boom family from the perspective of one of their “guests.” Not only does Hans Poley echo Corrie ten Boom’s assertions about the incredible faith of her father and sister, he shows Corrie herself as more open and giving than she portrayed herself in some areas. For example, when her room was chosen as the location for the secret room in her book, she tried to protest it. According to Poley, however, she “readily agreed.” I think we’d all be surprised to find out how others view us, compared to how we view ourselves, and in this case, Corrie ten Boom may have been a little hard on herself. Another small thing I noticed that didn’t match up between the books is that both authors claim to be the one who gave Eusi, one of the most prominent long-term Jewish guests, his fake name, and I wonder if this, and any other possible discrepancy, is simply due to faulty memories.

Yet again I was struck by how incredibly selfless this family was, giving up their own comfort and safety to help so many others. And Casper ten Boom, Corrie’s father, is even more inspirational to me after reading this. He repeatedly expressed a desire to help the Jewish people as if it weren’t even a choice to make. If you’ve read The Hiding Place, you should consider reading this too. Overall, though, I recommend it to anyone interested in true Holocaust accounts, especially those from a Christian worldview.

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Book Review: Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List
by Thomas Keneally

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Nonfiction historical novel

Most people have at least heard of this book, or the movie that was made from it, about the war profiteer turned savior of over a thousand Jews during WWII. I watched the movie in high school and then tried to read the book, but gave up due to how long and dry it was. That’s probably the biggest mark against the book for most people–it’s slow and plodding for at least the first several chapters. And throughout the entire book, the narrative is bogged down by so many names of locations and people, all of which are foreign to at least some of us (mostly Polish names, some German) and difficult to pronounce. However, I’m not sure Keneally should have done it differently, and if that is the only downside to the whole book, I would say there’s a lot of reason to push through it and keep going. It does pick up a little after some of the early chapters, and in the end, I’m really glad I read it.

One thing that’s always struck me about Schindler, and did even more so while reading this, is that he’s not necessarily the type of person you would picture as a “savior.” He was gruff, prone to fits of anger, and frankly had absolutely no respect for women at all. And yet, when he saw injustice and brutality happening, he was spurred into action. And while his motives for helping are examined multiple times in the book, it’s clear that it’s not just a matter of profit that he fights to keep his workers, considering the lengths he goes to at times to not just keep them but also to keep the SS from brutalizing them in his factory.

Though Schindler’s actions are the focal point, the book also takes an up-close look at some of the people eventually saved by him. The book reads like a series of vignettes about Schindler himself and various of the different Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews). Keneally states that he did his best to include only facts, while filling in conversation here and there, but because he couldn’t possibly have every single detail, the story at times reads more like looking down on a scene, rather than being right there in it while it happens, as we’ve come to expect from novels. He makes it clear, though, when he couldn’t corroborate a story, that it might be more legend than fact, and even this only happens a few times. Overall, the book is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and clear picture of one man who was completely unextraordinary most of his life, yet did an incredibly extraordinary thing during a dark and terrifying time in human history. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, I recommend reading this book to pretty much everyone who’s remotely interested in the subject matter, even if it does take you some time to get through it. It’s worth it.

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Book Review: Maus II

Maus II
Book #2
by Art Spiegelman

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Historical non-fiction graphic novel

The 1st volume of the story of Polish Jew Vladek Spiegelman took him right up to the gates of Auschwitz. In this second volume, Vladek and his wife survive the horrors of two of the deadliest camps the Nazis ran, but at what cost? As seen in their lives after the war, as well as in the life and psyche of their son, coming out alive at the end of the Holocaust was just the first battle (though granted, a very, very difficult battle).

The previous book was rough enough in some ways, but this one is like a gut punch. The images portrayed of Vladek and those around him, the death and torture, can be difficult to handle. Add to that the depression that Art Spiegelman himself goes through as he works on putting his father’s story on paper, and it is not a book to be taken lightly. Amidst the terror, I am still fascinated to read about Vladek’s ingenuity, the tricks he used to stay alive. Sometimes it was pure luck, but often it was intelligence and quick thinking.

The emotions were heavy when the separated Vladek and Anja manage to even simply hear word that each other is alive. That hit me hard, thinking about my husband and me being in a similar situation. When I finished the book, I was left with a feeling of heaviness that was hard to shake. There’s just no way to be able to imagine a fraction of what those involved in the Holocaust went through, living easy lives as we are. I think it’s important for us to never forget what humanity is capable of, lest we begin to believe something like this could never happen again. I would recommend this to be read by anyone interested in this part of history, even if you don’t normally read graphic novels. I don’t either, but these books have captivated me for years.

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Book Review: The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place
by Corrie ten Boom with John & Elizabeth Sherrill

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Memoir

At 50 years old, Corrie ten Boom lived a simple life with her older sister, both of them unmarried, and their elderly father in a small house in Holland. When the Nazis invaded and occupied their country, Corrie quickly saw the need around her as Jews began to be shipped out. The ten Boom house and watchmaker shop became part of the Dutch Underground, helping those who were persecuted find a safe place, even to the point of building a small hiding place in their own house. In this book, Corrie shares much of her life before the occupation, including the faith that led her and her family to help those in needs, culminating in the arrest and imprisonment of many members of her family, and later to her time in a concentration camp alongside her sister Betsie.

This book is incredible in so many ways. It’s inspirational, and not only because of what the ten Booms did to help others. It’s the reason behind their desire to help, the way that it really wasn’t even a question about whether or not they would help, and the way that they affected everyone around them, even in the darkest of places. The strong faith in God that Corrie’s parents had, exhibited, and passed on to their children shows through every page of this book. Corrie herself struggled the most in this area, constantly learning from her other family members and being surprised by their heart for the oppressors. Yet she never questioned whether or not she should help the Jews around her at the risk of her own well-being.

Not many Holocaust-related accounts that I have read are from a Christian perspective, and I really appreciated seeing the little and big ways that Corrie and Betsie could see God involved in their plight. Though they never demanded that He help them, they trusted Him (again, Betsie more than Corrie) and gave Him credit when they saw Him work. I can only hope that in my everyday life, and even moreso when times of difficulty come, I can have the wisdom of Mr. ten Boom, the love of Mrs. ten Boom, the hope of Betsie ten Boom, the courage of Corrie ten Boom, and the faith exhibited by all of them.

Below are some quotes from the book that I marked to remember.

Casper ten Boom (Corrie’s father) upon the realization that Holland would soon be invaded:

“…I am sorry for all Dutchmen now who do not know the power of God. For we will be beaten. But He will not.”

Corrie discovered that a large piece of sharp debris had landed on her pillow while she was out of bed:

“Betsie, if I hadn’t heard you in the kitchen–“

But Betsie put her finger on my mouth. “Don’t say it, Corrie! There are no ‘if’s’ in God’s world. And no places that are safer than other places. The center of His will is our only safety…”

And the one that stuck out to me the most, from an elderly member of Corrie’s family who spent much of her life running clubs, writing tracts, always trying to further God’s kingdom. When she learned she didn’t have long to live, her family members told her she was going to the Father with hands full, due to all of her work. She replied:

“Empty, empty! How can we bring anything to God? What does He care for our little tricks and trinkets?”

And then as we listened in disbelief she lowered her hands and with tears still coursing down her face whispered, “Dear Jesus, I thank You that You have done all–all–on the cross, and that all we need in life or death is to be sure of this.”

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Book Review: Maus

Maus
Book #1
by Art Spiegelman

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Historical non-fiction graphic novel

The story of Polish Jew Vladek Spiegelman, as told to his son, is not an easy one. In this 1st volume of 2, we’re shown in images what Vladek’s life was in the time leading up to and in the early days of the Nazis’ suppression of Jews in Poland. In tandem, Art shows his research process with his father, as he tries to interview him about his past and get along with him at the same time. The 1st volume takes Vladek right up to the gates of Auschwitz, and takes Art to the brink of despair with his tormented father.

The horrific things that happened during the time leading up to the Holocaust (and some of the beginning) is difficult enough to read about, but to see it in this format can make it even more difficult. Spiegelman doesn’t pull any punches in his father’s account or his own. It’s a depressing story, yet I’ve always appreciated reading about the amazing ingenuity of survivors of the Holocaust. Even while we see the depths of human depravity, we also see a shining light as those who are basically safe (the Germans may not have been rounding up the average Polish citizen, but they weren’t exactly making life easy on them either) risk their own safety to help those who are being persecuted.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories like this, preferring real accounts to fictional ones, and it’s difficult not to imagine myself in that situation. While the characters in this book are depicted as animals, in a way, this adds another layer to the realism while also making it a little more palatable (though just a little). I would recommend this to be read by anyone interested in this part of history, even if you don’t normally read graphic novels. I don’t either, but this book, and it’s follow-up, have captivated me for years.

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