Daily Archives: June 13, 2015

Meet the Author – Wendy Holden

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MEET THE AUTHOR

WENDY HOLDEN

~BORN SURVIVORS~

Wendy

In the Fourth of a series of Meet the Author Interviews I talk to Wendy Holden about Born Survivors and the story of three courageous women who defied death to bring life and why this has become her ‘legacy’ work.

You have written a number of historical books, what made you want to write about the three incredible and brave women?

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I came across an online obituary of a woman who’d been in Auschwitz and who’d had a baby there that had died. It made me realise that I had never before read a book that gave a full account of any babies born during the Holocaust who had survived. I was staggered to discover that in 70 years no such book had been written to my knowledge, so I decided to investigate further.

 Born Survivors is about three women. Priska, Rachel and Anka who were all pregnant when they entered Auschwitz II-Birkenau. How did you come across their stories?

My research first led me to Eva, Anka’s baby, who happened to live an hour from me in Cambridge, England. After spending an emotional day with her as she told me about her mother, I asked if she would allow me the privilege of writing her story and that I believed it to be unique. She told me she had been waiting for me for 70 years but that five years previously she had discovered almost by chance that two other mothers who had shared the same journey as her mother had also given birth to babies who’d survived.  Each of them were only children and had since become “siblings of the heart”. Even though it would be three times the research, I knew then that I had to encompass all three stories into one epic volume.

What were the main challenges you faced during research and writing Born Survivors?

Keeping control of my emotions. It was extremely harrowing to visit Auschwitz and the other key places in the story with my three mothers so fresh in my mind. I have a vivid writer’s imagination and it was painful to see these sites through their eyes and walk in their footsteps knowing how frightened they must have been. But I also knew that unless I did that and felt some of their fear then I wouldn’t be able to convey that to the reader.

Their stories are remarkable & incredibly brave, how did they manage to keep their pregnancies secret?

Each of them would say that it was luck – luck that they were relatively young, fit and healthy when they were first sent to Auschwitz. Luck that they were thrown inappropriate random baggy clothing that hid their tiny bumps. Luck that they were fed little more than a liquid diet for seven months and each went down to under five stone (70lbs). Luck that they didn’t injure themselves or die of disease or lice infestation along the way. Luck that their pregnancies weren’t spotted by the SS guards who would have sent them back to Auschwitz and Dr Mengele.

The three women gave birth in differing circumstances. What happened?

Priska gave birth on a plank in the slave labour factory while her SS guards leered and took bets on the gender of the baby. Rachel gave birth in an open coal wagon on a 17-day train journey to be gassed, surrounded by dead or dying women. Anka gave birth on a cart full of dying women at the gates of the camp they were finally sent to.

The fact that all three women and their babies survived shows there was an element of luck as well as their mothers’ determination to make sure their babies survived ?

As discussed, luck played a huge part but knowing that they had a tiny life growing inside them and hoping that they would one day be reunited with the husbands they had married for love definitely kept them going.

In the end how were they liberated?

The Nazis had run out of gas by the time the mothers arrived at Mauthausen, the final camp, so they were left to rot or starve in the barracks as the guards fled. A week later the Americans arrived and were horrified to find such conditions in the camp. Although 40,000 prisoners were initially liberated at least 1000 died in the days following liberation – of disease or from eating food after months of ,starvation.

How poorly were the mothers and their new babies when they were liberated?

They described themselves as walking skeletons and were extremely vulnerable to typhus and other diseases. The babies were suffering from chronic malnutrition and both mothers and children were riddled with sores from lice bites

At the wars end, when they were finally allowed to go home, what happened to the three women and their children, with no home to go to, where did they finally settle and call home?

Going home was traumatic – they each lost large numbers of their immediate families their homes and possessions had been stolen from them so they had no money and nobody to support them. Rachel ended up in America after a few years in Israel, Priska returned to her home country – now Slovakia – and stayed there until she died, and Anka came to live in Cardiff, UK. Rachel and Anka remarried and all made new lives for themselves and all lived to a ripe old age.

We have been talking about Priska, Rachel and Anka and there newborn babies but what happened to their husbands. Did any of them survive the concentration camps?

Sadly, all three husbands were murdered by the Nazis and each almost at the end of the war having suffered great privation in ghettos and concentration camps. It was my dream to be able to find out precisely what happened to each of them and where they might be buried but I soon discovered the problem that so many survivors faced which was that it is likely that nobody wil ever know.

As the three children grew older did their mothers confide in them as to how and where they were born?

Each of them grew up knowing that their fathers were killed during the war. Many of their schoolfriends had also lost parents and grandparents in the war so it didn’t seem that unusual. Mark’s mother told him he had been born on a train and he assumed it was a regular passenger train until he discovered the terrible truth later. None of them discovered the full horror until they were teenagers and mothers fed them snippets of information over the years.

The story of Priska, Rachel and Anka and giving birth to their children under the most horrendous conditions is one of courage and hope, do you think that the fact the women were preganant helped in their determination to survive and give their babies a future?

Undoubtedly. I think they emerged from the war with something positive – unlike millions of others. In the early months they didn’t yet know about their husbands and still hoped for the best but by the time they learned the truth, they had small babies to care for and that helped occupy their minds.

Have the children been back to the places where they were born?

Yes. Priska has been to Freiberg and took Hana with her as a teenager. Mark isn’t sure exactly where he was born on the train but he has driven its route, and Eva has been to Mauthausen many times.

Looking back on your experiences during writing Born Survivors, what effect has this had on you?

I have developed a great passion for these women and their babies, Born Survivors has become my legacy work and much more than just another book. These ‘babies’ will be the last survivors of the Holocaust and I call them the ” voices of the voiceless”. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to chronicle what happened to them. I feel humbled.

Your book was launched on May 7 and has since been published in 18 Countries and translated into 14 Languages and you are also on a book tour at present, how is this going?

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It’s all been incredible – moving and emotional and exciting. We launched the book at the camp in Mauthausen, then came to London and appeared on multiple TV and radio shows, then we went to Chicago to launch the book at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and meet the sons of the U.S. Liberator of the camp, whose grave we visited. Then Eva and I have just been in Madrid. Next we go to Portugal and – later in the year – to Slovakia and hopefully the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and back to the U.S. We have also been invited to the Austrian Embassy in London for a special presentation. I am sure that there will be more invitations for us to talk about these amazing women as word gets out.

Any plans for a UK book tour during this year?

Eva and I will be attending several book festivals this year – at Dartington Hall in Devon, Henley, Southwold and the Isle of Wight. We will also be on tour as part of Jewish Book Week next year and making multiple other appearances including a book signing at Heffers book store in Eva’s hometown of Cambridge in September.

I am extremely grateful to Wendy for taking the time out of her busy schedule to take part in ‘Meet the Author’. If you would like more information on Wendy’s work or further details of Born Survivors or any of her previous best-selling books please visit http://www.wendyholden.com/

*Stop Press: As this interview was being published it was announced that Born Survivors is to be published in China making the total now 19 territories and 14 languages.

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Born Survivors by Wendy Holden

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Born Survivors by Wendy Holden

Review Date: 11 June 2015

Author: Wendy Holden

Release Date:  7 May 2015

Publishers: Sphere (Little,Brown Book Group)

ISBN 10: 0751557382

ISBN – 13: 978-0751557381

400pp

Available in Hardback and Kindle.

Authors Website: http://www.wendyholden.com/

The Last Word Review:

‘One of the most important Holocaust historical accounts of modern times. A story that had to be told. Deeply moving and poignant’. 

 

‘Good morning pretty lady, are you pregnant?’ These where the infamous words from Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death, at Auschwitz II–Birkenau concentration camp. If found to be pregnant then – with a flick of Mengele’s glove – the women would have been taken away to face certain death in the gas chambers.

Born Survivors is the story of Priska, Rachel and Anka, three women who had never met but were transported to the camp late on during the war. The book tells the story of how at the beginning they believed they would be fine and survive, then as the Nazis moved in to their respective countries how they then tried to stay free from capture.

All three young women were married by the time they entered Auschwitz that day in 1944. Little did they know what was to lie ahead for each of the three women and this is their story in a new book Born Survivors by Wendy Holden.

All three women were pregnant as infamous trains transported them to be met by brutal SS guards with their ferocious guard dogs. During the coming hours they were stripped and their heads shaved before standing naked as Mengele went through the selection process. When each of the women were asked if they were pregnant they instinctively replied “Nein” which saved them from the gas chambers.

All three women who were separated from their husbands with no knowledge of their whereabouts were deemed fit for slave labour. None of them knew from one day to another whether they would face being selected for the gas chamber or work.

This was just the beginning for each of the three women. Their food rations could only be described as dishwater and crumbs of bread. Living conditions deteriorated by the day as did their health. Priska, Rachel and Anka managed to hide their pregnancies from their fellow inmates, knowing if they were found they would face certain death at the hands of Nazi killing machine.

The emaciated and lice-ridden women faced  afurther ordeal as they were selected to help the German war machine by being transferred to Freiberg working as slave labours in a factory making parts for aircraft. During their time here the allies were advancing and bombing raids were daily, during which the women were locked in a room on the top floor of the factory while their Nazi captors hid in shelters. As their health deteriorated and being so thin the three women still managed to hide their secret. Rachel who shared a bunk with her sisters did not even dare tell them out of fear.

Then on April 12 1945 Priska gave birth to Hana on a plank laid on a table. The Nazi captors even joked and had bets as to what the sex of the baby would be.

With little food and water, the newborn was vastly underweight at 3 pounds. Then along with the other 1000 or so women they were evacuated from the factory as the Russians and Americans closed in. They were boarded onto trains with little or no food and water. How mother and baby survived on meagre rations living in rags at this time no-one knew. Nor did they know their destination with Allied bombing raids causing great confusion as bombs fell.

Rachel weighing under 70lbs and in one of the crammed open coal wagons with little food and water she gave birth to a baby boy she named Mark. They were halfway through their 17 day journey in hellish conditions when she went into labour, with only a rusty blade to sever the umbilical cord. In hope of saving her baby she told her guards the baby was born on Hitler’s birthday (April 20), so the SS guards joked ‘another Jew for the Fuhrer’.

Their final destination was the infamous Mauthausen Camp (known as the Bone-Grinder) situated in Austria close to the Danube. This camp had the reputation of being the final destination – once through the gates you entered hell never to leave alive. Many in Mauthausen died from the appalling conditions including hard labour, lack of food, illness, being gassed or from the sheer brutality of the SS guards.

It was on the final part of the journey to the camp that Anka gave birth to baby Eva on the back of a cart filled with the dead or dying women after being pulled off the train.

The war was close to its end and the Allies were closing in on the Nazi regime and the hilltop camp. The guards herded many of the latest arrivals into the gas chambers only to realise they had run out of Zyklon B crystals used to gas those they wanted to kill.

Within days the Americans arrived, spearheaded by the US Thunderbolts headed by Sgt Albert J. Kosiek a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. A hardened soldier, he had seen and witnessed much but nothing could prepare him or his men for what they found at Mauthausen. Many of the men broke down when the sheer horror unfolded in front of their eyes. The war was finally over, Priska, Rachel and Anka though nothing more than skeletons had survived with their babies despite the horrors that they were born into. Born Survivors indeed.

Many of the American servicemen who liberated the camp refused to speak of what they found at Mauthausen. The sheer horror would never leave them and would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

The three mothers who defied death to give life were eventually allowed to leave and head home to try and find their husbands and rebuild their lives. Their journeys would end in heartbreak as their husbands were never to return and their homes and possessions all gone. Some of the women  would be ostracised and had to move on to find a new home.

Priska, Rachel and Anka are sadly no longer alive but their memory lives on in their children Hana, Mark and Eva, almost certainly the last living survivors of the Holocaust.

Just very recently, on 10 May 2015, the Austrian authorities marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen in the presence of relatives of survivors and those still alive who helped liberate the camp. Also present were Hana, Mark and Eva, celebrating the day the Americans arrived to set them free.

The legacy of Priska, Rachel and Anka will live on through their children and their grandchildren and they deserve that.

Born Survivors is a book of defiance, courage and hope. The author Wendy Holden deserves the plaudits for the painstaking research for this book and also the accolades that surely will come.

For this reviewer I shed tears at the close of this book and the profound effect it has had on me. I for one will remember Priska, Rachel and Anka and their courage to defy death to bring life.

I would like to thank both Wendy Holden and the publishers Sphere (Little, Brown Book Group) for giving me the opportunity of reviewing one of the most important and historically significant books of 2015. This is a book that deserves to be read.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Meet the Author:

Wendy Holden

Wendy

Wendy Holden was a journalist for eighteen years, including a decade at the Daily Telegraph where she worked as a foreign and war correspondent.

She is author and the co-author of more than thirty books, including several bestselling wartime biographies, includingTomorrow to be Brave, Til the Sun Grows Cold, and Behind Enemy Lines.

She lives in Suffolk, with her husband and two dogs and divides her time between the U.K. and the U.S.

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