Friday, July 8, 2016

Michael Kraus' Memories of the Holocaust


Last night, my daughter and I had the privilege of hearing Michael Kraus speak about his childhood spent in concentration camps. He's written a book about it, re-creating the diaries he kept while he was held in Terezin, then Auschwitz and Birkenau. His diaries were taken and undoubtedly destroyed, but once the Americans liberated him in 1945, he traveled back to his hometown in the Czech Republic and wrote them all again. He was fifteen.

We've heard other survivors speak about their experiences. Most famously, Elie Wiesel. But Michael Kraus spoke candidly about the conditions and horrors he lived through and shared with us some insights that most of us probably never thought about.

He talked first about how gradual things were. The Jews near Prague were slowly sent to the Terezin Ghetto. I visited there last year and was disturbed to learn that it was used as a model camp to fool the world into thinking that the conditions they were keeping the Jews in were humane.

Kraus, of course, said that the conditions there were much more bearable than when his family was sent to Auschwitz and I remembered hearing at Terezin that they kept the Jews so isolated and unaware of what was happening that once they started deporting people to the extermination camps, they were able to do so easily by promising them they could stay together with their families. So many of the prisoners there volunteered. Kraus' family was one that traveled to Auschwitz together, but then were segregated by sex once they arrived. He was glad to be with his father, but his father died not long after their arrival. He says it was the thought of his mother that kept him going. He knew she'd been deported to another camp and when he thought he couldn't bear any more, he thought about his mother and how devastated she would be if she learned he had perished. Sadly, his mother died in a camp in December 1944.

Kraus shared some insights that were news to us. He said in the beginning at Auschwitz, the Germans had the families write and postdate postcards to people they knew, saying that they were fine and conditions were good. I had not heard this part of their scheme, but easily believed it. Kraus' family was also spared being inspected/examined by Dr. Mengele by pure luck. That's what Kraus credits most of his survival to: pure luck.

Toward the end of the war, he and others were marched 80km out into a forest that was completely shaded from view as British and American planes flew overhead. The forest was muddy and they were emaciated. He felt that the Nazis had taken them there to leave them to die and break any association with them. That is where he was rescued by Americans and taken to a military hospital in Germany.

Some of the things that he shared about his experience after the war were the most interesting to me because they are things that we might not give much thought to.

First of all, he had to walk back to his hometown near Prague. He says it was not as laborious a walk since he was now free, but until July, it all seemed to be very much a war state. However, people shared food with him as he made his way back and he was taken in by a family friend who was the sole survivor of his family. Kraus returned to school even though he'd only had a 4th grade education by that time. He believes the schools turned a blind eye as these survivors returned to school. They clearly hadn't the formal education to enter at that stage, but they allowed them to continue their education. The remarkable part to me is that Kraus said no one ever spoke about it. He was still very isolated from society. Other students knew what he'd been through, but couldn't relate. They didn't know exactly what conditions he'd survived and they didn't talk about it, or recognize that it had happened to him. No one really talked to him at all. Partly due to language barriers, but partly because no one ever spoke of it.

Including Kraus. He married an Israeli woman and they had two children. He never spoke of his Holocaust experiences with them. His wife is the one who told them what he'd been through. He just suffered through the horror of those war years and then went on with his life as if it hadn't happened. I can't imagine what that was like. I can understand not wanting to talk about it or relive it, but it also seems almost impossible not to; to go on as if it had never happened.

But then, a decade ago, a woman in the Czech Republic learned of his diaries and persuaded him to publish. They worked on it together and he now speaks publicly on occasion. He is very matter-of-fact when he speaks, but also very honest about the atrocities he witnessed and survived.

How lucky we were to hear his story firsthand. How brave he was to tell it. It's a piece of history that many of us may never make sense of, but it's important we bear witness to these incredibly strong survivors and listen to them while we can.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Book Review: I Almost Forgot About You


I Almost Forgot About You
It's been a few years since I read a Terry McMillan book and I'm glad I finally remedied that. I'd forgotten what a master she is at writing about relationships and all the power dynamics and minutiae that changes over time. I was immediately caught up in Georgia's saga of looking up her old loves to see how they were and tell them that they'd meant something to her once. Each man and each of her girlfriends are such unique characters; complex, distinguishable from each other, and are characters you almost love or hate. They seem like real people.

Now that I've finished this book, I need to go find some of her older titles that I may have missed. She has an easy writing style that keeps me reading much later into the night than I ever intend to.




*The book was provided by BloggingforBooks in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Book Review: Liar

http://images.randomhouse.com/cover/9780553448061?width=125&alt=no_cover_b4b.gif

I'm a sucker for memoirs and this one drew me in immediately. I honestly couldn't put it down!

The author's story unfolds in bits and pieces and in a swirling, non-chronological order that would normally drive me nuts. But it worked for this story. It was like entering the author's rapid-cycling bipolar mind. Or any of our minds, really. We let our thoughts drift off to all sorts of periods in our life as we move through our days. That's what it was like to read this story.

Rob Roberge is many things: a writer, an addict, a drifter, a husband, and a person afflicted with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder that often leads to early dementia. It is this concern that seems to have lead him to write down his tale, memory-by-memory, before they are gone.

What a life he's lead! Much of it dysfunctional, but riveting in the way many stories are when people are able to put their lives in perspective and see how out-of-control things had been. Every time I picked up this book, I couldn't put it down. I thought I'd just read one more vignette. Then one more. Maybe one more. And before I knew it, I was done.

It's hard to find something else to read after a book like this. That's the mark of a great book to me.


*I received this book in return for my honest review. Lucky me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book Review: The Little Paris Bookshop




I love the premise of this book. Monsieur Perdu runs what he terms a "literary apothecary" -- a bookshop aboard a boat docked in Paris. He believes that books can heal people if they know the right books to read. Naturally, he knows exactly what books they need and suggests titles when those in need enter his shop.


I once fancied myself a Monsieur Perdu of sorts.


I used to work for Scholastic Book Fairs and traveled to area schools to do Book Talk assemblies. I'd highlight several of the books that would be featured on the book fairs, giving the students just enough information to entice them to read the books without giving away any endings. I often heard that such-and-such didn't like to read and I thought: he/she just hasn't been given the right book. And I'd try to find just the right book, whether it be Guinness World Records or Junie B. Jones, that would suddenly spark an interest in reading in that child.


I loved my job.


So I was naturally drawn to Monsieur Perdu and his literary apothecary. Especially when the first customer he treated was so like me.


A woman came into his shop and wanted to buy a popular bestseller, but Monsieur Perdu persuaded her not to buy it because it wasn't the right book for her; it wasn't what she needed. She was taken aback but finally consented and asked what book he would prescribe for her.


"You need your own room. Not too bright, with a kitten to keep you company. And this book, which you will please read slowly, so you can take the occasional break. You'll do a lot of thinking and probably a bit of crying. For yourself. For the years. But you'll feel better afterward. You'll know that now you don't have to die, even if that's how it feels because the guy didn't treat you well. And you will like yourself again and won't find yourself ugly or naïve."


Oh my god! I felt like the author, Nina George, had reached into my life and my psyche and pulled out exactly what I needed. I just went through a divorce, started redecorating, and told my daughter we'd get a kitten. I didn't care about the woman in the book. I wanted to know what book I needed to read that would touch me this way.


Monsieur Perdu's book reco?  The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which has been sitting on my shelf unread for a year.


I couldn't wait to read the rest of this literary novel and see what other books he'd prescribe. I knew I'd have a stack of books to be read by the time I finished. But really -- what could be better than that? The only bad part about reading an engrossing novel like The Little Paris Bookshop is wondering what in the world you can follow it up with. Now I know. I've accumulated a whole little library to delve into next.






*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Book Review: Hyacinth Girls






The storyline of Lauren Frankel's Hyacinth Girls hit a little too close to home. It is a disjointed story of a young girl being bullied and the lack of awareness by the adults as to what's happening.


Recently a 13-year-old middle school girl in our town killed herself after being bullied. The other kids called her all kinds of things, said she was gay, and made up websites to torment her. Her parents and the school officials were seemingly unaware. Her suicide is such a horrible tragedy.


I could not help but think of her as I read this book. But, the main character in Hyacinth Girls is a girl named Callie who was first a bully her self and then was bullied. She was completely unlikeable. I had trouble drumming up any sympathy or empathy for her, even as she moved toward suicide as the only way out. It's hard to like a book that doesn't let you care enough about it's middle-school-aged character to care whether she lives or dies.


Plus, the book had a lot of flashbacks to her caregiver's younger days and I found that storyline completely uninteresting. What kept me reading was the fact that I was trying to wade through the facts and figure out whether my narrators were even reliable. I didn't entirely trust that what they were telling the reader was true.


Thought-provoking.


*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Book Review: The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly




I could not put this book down! I read the entire memoir in one day and felt like I was on a roller coaster ride the whole way through.


The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly is Matt McCarthy's memoir of his first year of residency at Columbia Hospital. He starts off with one of his first medical diagnostic mistakes; one that haunts him for months (maybe years?) to come. We see immediately how vulnerable these young, fresh-out-of-school residents are and how much they have to learn on-the-job -- which is scary because the only way they can learn to practice medicine is by literally practicing on people!


I have never wanted to work in the medical profession and never will. But recently, my son has decided that he wants to go to medical school and he has already completed a year of EMS training. I couldn't picture my son as a doctor until I read this book and saw so much of him in Matt -- the idealism, the high's and low's, the curiosity, and the sureness that you are making a difference in the lives of these people.


I was appalled as I read some of it. Like the time Matt had to insert a large IV tube into a cardiac arrest patient and missed the spot three times before getting it. Or the time he pushed on the tender belly of a drug mule to assess whether any of the heroin-filled balloons inside her had burst. Both instances turned out fine, but I was as nervous about these things as he was.


Then there was the time that he drew blood from an HIV patient and accidentally pricked himself with the needle right afterward. I won't tell you what happens from there. You have to read the book yourself.


Matt McCarthy is actually a man of many talents. He started out as a baseball player, then went into medicine, and has proven himself a talented writer as well. I don't know what he'll go on to do with his life, but I hope he keeps on writing!




* I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

5 Years of the Same Question




I love this little gold journal! I'm on Year 5 of my Q&A Diary and it's been much more insightful than I could have ever imagined.


I learned early that it's best to provide a detailed answer to each daily question. Some questions seem like they only need a one-word answer:
  • Are you a student or a teacher?
  • Are you happy?
  • When was the last time you exercised?
You could answer with one word, but if you add a little more information, it's so much more interesting to look back and reflect on how you've changed year-to-year.


There are other, more provocative questions, such as:
  • What would you like to say to your father?
  • Who is your nemesis?
  • What would be your theme song?
I always give detailed answers for these and am amazed at how many times my answer is the same. For instance, my nemesis stayed the same for 3 years in row. It was a co-worker of mine who finally left the company. Each year, I included some detail on why she was my nemesis again, and then finally had to identify a new one this year. (Sadly, it wasn't hard.) More insightful to me was that I've chosen the same song as my theme song for 2 of the 5 years: 'Wide Open Spaces" by the Dixie Chicks. And that was without reading my previous answers first. I always answer the question of the day before I look to see what I said in my answers before. To do otherwise seems like cheating.




I was thrilled to receive another copy of this little book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review because I'm about to start Year 6 and now won't worry that I'll miss a single day. In fact, I've bought copies of this diary for my whole family. I truly love this little book!