(photo the Independent.co.uk)
Imagine Christmas in a concentration camp in 1944. It is wartime Europe and one of the coldest winters in recorded history. You are starving, frozen and filthy. Your thin clothes are riddled with lice, and malnutrition sores cover your body. Snow is piled up against the bleak barrack walls and the grey sky looms overhead. You have been taken from your home, your family, your friends. You have been imprisoned and abused and you are still a young woman whose only crime is to be the victim of racial hatred. What reason is there for hope? What joy could possibly be found in such horrendous circumstances?
For Krystyna, even in the hellish surroundings of Ravensbrück concentration camp there are some small things that stand out as memorable. Things she would remember all her life.
“Only one good thing I remember during my time at the camp,” said Krystyna. “That was Christmas 1944. The women had parties and a puppet show for the poor children. Somehow they got permission to do that. It made me think of my own childhood in Warsaw. I remember once that my sisters and I brought home a Christmas tree and we shouldn’t have had one, being Jewish, but my parents allowed us to keep it. Then my uncle came to visit and he was very angry. There was a terrible row and the tree was thrown out. I remember at the camp there was a tree. Someone on a work detail had cut it down, a lovely little Christmas tree, just perfect. They made decorations for it out of tin foil that they got from the Siemens factory—that was where some of the women had to work. For once the SS were in a good mood. They even gave small gifts of food to the children. But some of us thought it was because they were afraid.”
“The SS? What were they afraid of?”
“The Soviet army approaching from the east.”
“Did you get news of what was happening elsewhere?”
“We heard things, rumours mostly. I got the feeling that the Germans were getting nervous. There was a different mood in the camp. Something was happening in the outside world and it had unnerved them.”
To read more of Krystyna’s story and how she survived the Holocaust why not download the book this Christmas and curl up in your favourite armchair with your kindle.
In 2012 when young Polish immigrant Agnieszka visits fellow countrywoman Krystyna in a Peterborough care home for the first time, she thinks it a simple act of kindness. However, the meeting proves to be the beginning of a life-changing experience.
Krystyna’s stories about the past are not memories of the good old days but recollections of war-ravaged Europe: The Warsaw Ghetto, Pawiak Prison, Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, and a death march to freedom.
The losses and ordeals Krystyna suffered and what she had to do to survive are horrors Agnieszka must confront when she volunteers to be Krystyna’s biographer.
Will Agnieszka be able to keep her promise to tell her story, and, in this harrowing memoir of survival, what is the message for us today?