Friday, April 11, 2014

Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust by Elly Berkovits Gross

Published in 2009 by Scholastic, Inc.
Junior Biography

Elly Berkowitz Gross' Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust is a miraculous story of survival from Auschwitz II/Birkenau and later from a slave labor camp at the Volkswagen Factory in Fallersleben. Elly was born in Hungary in 1929 several years before Hitler rose to power and at the height of the depression. As a young child, she didn't have many material possessions and describes a tragic event concerning the only doll she ever owned that had been given to her by her father. She was an only child until her brother Adalbert was born and took pleasure in caring for him; she loved him very much. Even before the Nazis invaded her country, Elly experienced many instances of antisemitism, and she shares these experiences in her book.

When Elly was 13, her father was drafted into a forced-labor camp, and Elly describes his ordeal:
His group marched on foot with no food, water, shoes, or warm clothes. One day, his keepers forced the group into a trailer, locked the doors, and poured gasoline around the trailer. Then the soldiers put a match to the gasoline and burned the workers alive. My thirty-seven-year-old father was among the group of young men who died that day.
I forever missed my daddy, who, far from his family, suffered cold and hunger for months. And fire took my dear daddy's life (28).
She learned of her father's death after the war when she returned to her hometown (78).

The only picture of Elly (at the age of two)
that survived the Holocaust
Elly's story, like so many survivors of the Holocaust, is heartbreaking, but I believe their stories must be told and must be heard. This book is easy to read and has short chapters that make it perfect for young readers age 9 and up. In the center of the book, Elly includes many photos that document her story and her life.

In one of the most memorable scenes, Elly describes the day she, her mother, and brother arrive at Auschwitz. When the men in striped rags jump into the boxcar, one man tells her to say she is eighteen. Another tells her mother to give her son to someone else. A decision had to be made in a split second, and of course, Elly's mother holds on to Adalbert. Elly is sent to the right, and her mother and brother are sent to the left. They perish, and she survives. Elly describes how her memories still torment her to this day:
My mother, holding my brother in her arms, remained on the left. As I ran to reach the others, I waved to them. They looked in my direction. I relive this moment all of my life. We had arrived at Auschwitz II/Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
During my life, as problems arise, it crosses my mind that I made a terrible mistake. I am tormented with remorse. Why did I not say to my mother, "Give my brother to someone and come with me?" Why do I feel guilt that Mother was sent to the left? 
In my life, tragedies poured on me. I was robbed of my father at age thirteen. When I was fourteen, he perished in a forced-labor camp. When I was fifteen, my mother and brother were taken from me. Was I selfish by not speaking up at that moment? By not saying, "Mommy, please come with me?" You, Reader, be the judge. Did I do wrong (34-35)?  
In her book, Elly includes a photograph she later found of her mother and brother as they departed the train on that fateful day, June 2, 1944, the day they arrived at Auschwitz. It's a miracle the photo survived the war.

Elly believes that her survival during the Holocaust was due to a chain of miracles that occurred. She doesn't consider herself special, but she says that without those miracles, she would not have survived. Not many children under the age of 18 survived. The first miracle she attributes to the fact that she was born with blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin. Second, even though Hungarian laws forbade Jews to travel, she was able to secretly travel by train to an aunt's house to get food before her family was deported. No one on the train questioned her because of her appearance.

While she lived in the ghetto of Cehei, which held more than seven thousand inhabitants, Elly was assigned the job of peeling potatoes and was able to steal plenty of raw or boiled potatoes to eat. She also managed to smuggle a small pocketknife onto the train and was able to cut a small hole so she could breath. On several occasions, she used the knife as a means of survival and was never caught.

Miraculously, Elly survived the dreaded Dr. Mengel at Auschwitz when at the last minute he directed her to the right rather than the left. During one roll call, that often lasted for hours even in the pouring rain, she passed out and felt that "an angel held out her wings" and kept Dr. Mengele from seeing her. She was quickly taken inside and managed to survive. At the Volkswagen factory, a German Meister (factory supervisor) brought her some salt to stop her gums from bleeding, thereby preventing infection. Elly describes other "miracles" that spared her life.

Near the end of her book, Elly describes her liberation which took place on April 14, 1945, her struggle to rebuild her life after the war, her eventual marriage to her husband and birth of two children, and her new life in America, and in a final section, she shares nearly a dozen poems that she wrote describing her experiences.

Although I've studied the Holocaust extensively and have had the opportunity to attend conferences at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and visit Auschwitz, I had never before heard of this book. I was so glad to find this jewel in the junior biography section at my local library.

Source of Images
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