Originally, Lales's story was told as a screenplay which was lauded at several international competitions. Heather then reshaped the story into her debut novel. In documenting Lale’s story Heather has captured the internal battle of a man who sees his survival in the Nazi death camps as an ultimate triumph over Hitler's evil mission to eliminate the Jews and other minority groups. Heather’s talent for piecing together Lale’s memories of his time at Auschwitz is extraordinary. The reader can only imagine how fragile the elderly man’s recollection may have been. Heather proved to be an excellent listener, clearly winning Lale’s trust as he shares his intimate thoughts with the reader.
Elements of Lale’s story resonated strongly with me. My mother-in-law was a Polish War Orphan. Hania (Anna) never really told her story to her family, I imagine this was because the story she lived was painful. I met Hania (Anna) after I had met and fallen in love with her eldest child, James. We didn’t meet each other until our engagement was announced, and she was saddened to lose her eldest son to another woman. We never became friends. She was a difficult woman to get to know, mostly because she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and struggled with many aspects of daily life. She was, however, devoted to her three children.
In 2015 I began the process of discovering Hania’s story so that I could facilitate my husband and older children applying for their Polish Citizenship. I was not prepared for the story I was about to learn.
In 1939, following German and Soviet attacks on Poland (see Polish September Campaign), the territory of the Second Polish Republic was divided between the two invaders. Eastern Poland was annexed by the Soviet Union, and soon afterwards Moscow began a program of mass deportations. Hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens were forced to leave their homes and were transported to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and other parts of the Soviet Union. There were several waves of deportations during which whole families were sent to different parts of the Soviet Union.
The fate of the deported Poles improved in mid-1942, after the signing of the Sikorski–Mayski agreement. An Amnesty for Polish citizens in the Soviet Union was declared. The Anders' Army was formed. Between March 24 and April 4, 33,069 soldiers left the Soviet Union for Iran, as well as 10,789 civilians, including 3,100 children. Thousands died along the way to Iran mostly due to an epidemic of dysentery, which decimated men, children and women. Hania’s parents were just two of so many that died before the family reached safety. In September 1944, the orphaned children were loaded onto warships and transported to New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Hania and her sisters and brother were sent to New Zealand.
Along my journey to understand my mother in law, I came into the possession of a copy of a handwritten record of the children’s lives before the war and their subsequent deportation to Serbia, journey to Iran and new life in New Zealand. The story that Hania’s sister tells is of simple people surviving in extraordinary times. It details the evil that can exist when people in power seek to fulfil their diabolical manifesto on the innocent.
Lale’s survival has a familiar story, a noticeable difference being that his captors were German. Like Hania, Lale had no inkling of the fate that awaited him when he was first ordered onto transport that would take him to the death camp. Once there, his existence relied on his capacity to live one day at a time, and his will to survive. Indeed, Lale saw his survival as a sure sign of his captors' defeat. He tells his story without judgement, occasionally hinting at the hatred he felt toward the German guards and camp officials.
Stories like Lale and Hania’s have been told and retold. Each time the horror that mankind can inflict such depravity on each other tests our understanding of the world. How can such evil exist? What causes one man to turn against another with such deadly consequences? How does the human spirit survive?
As I read the book I felt that Lale was willing me to examine my capacity for compassion. He challenged me to judge the actions he took to survive Auschwitz kindly. After all, how would we know what lengths we would go to just to survive?