Living Among The Dead

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This book crushed me.

My normal practice is to begin to write, immediately upon closing a book, to let my impressions flow to form my review, raw and real. My feelings upon closing this book would not allow for this.

Such a huge crushing weight settling on me made it hard to do anything at all for a while.

Like all members of my (baby boomer) generation, safe in my Canadian middle-class existence, I know and am appalled by the unthinkable acts of WWII that allowed for the conception, planning, engaging of support, and finally the execution of the egregiously heinous acts of the Holocaust.

This book provides an up close and personal account in the words of an actual survivor, – one who lived through the horrific experiences we can only imagine, and emerged, forever traumatized, on the other side, as one of the twenty or so young people remaining out of a town of 26,000, and the only living member of her extended family.

“Bubbie” Lichtenstien, beloved grandmother of the author of this novel, was born and raised in Wodzimeriz, Poland, where she lived with her “elegant and modern” mother, father, and two sisters. Her mother loved to dance, and taught her daughters dance steps in the kitchen. Her father, a literate and gentle man, owned a pharmacy and was passionate about gardening.

Bubbie also delighted in her father’s garden, finding joy in the beauty of the “three Cherry trees covered with pink blossom and the golden faces of sunflowers, tall and bright”.

As she grew, Bubbie and her sisters enjoyed the movie theatres, dance halls, and live theatre offered by their mainly Jewish town. Bubbie loved the music provided by their radio, a source of “immense pleasure” and longed to play the piano, although she knew the family could not afford one.

At 6 a.m. on the first of September 1942, Bubbie” Lichtenstein was twenty years old when the Germans began their first systematic “cleansing” of her home town of Wodzimierz Poland.

Bubbie would, miraculously, eventually survive three more “cleansing” attacks – the Germans carrying out each act of mass genocide with “soulless precision and intensity” until their “quota” of Jews to be exterminated was reached – until the eventual “liberation” of her town on July 20, 1944.

I had to take breaks in reading this, so overwhelming was it to hear and experience first-hand exactly how much evil can be enacted in a world gone mad. At the same time, it was impossible to turn away from the images spinning in my head.

“Nobody felt like a human-being any more.”

After “liberation”, Bubbie and the other survivors no longer had any feelings, dreams or desires. Wandering in a country which was no longer home, they went where-ever they were let in.

In one supremely touching scene, Bubbie returns to visit the family home, now in rubble, and finds her way to her beloved garden. Hanging on the fence, she sees what turns out to be her oldest sisters blue fuzzy slippers, dancing in the breeze. And in the distance – “our three little cherry trees stood blooming, as if proclaiming, in spite of it all – life goes on.”

Bubbie’s bravery in finding the words to tell her devastating story is summed up in her own words.

“I and the other survivors were meant to survive so we could remind the world of the atrocities committed and also tell the world that there once existed in Europe a rich Jewish life and culture, which due to one man’s madness was extinguished .”

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read this book. As difficult as it is to face these horrors (admittedly from the safety of my couch), how can we not arm ourselves with all the compassion we can bear, “using our voices”, now and every next time they are needed, in support of our core humanity.

“We must always take sides.
Neutrality helps the oppressor,
Never the victim.
Silence encourages the tormentor,
Never the tormented.”. (Elie Wiesel)

A great big thank you to the author, (and her heroic grandmother), for a review copy of this soul-crushingly life-affirming book, in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts presented are my own.


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