Friday, October 19, 2007

From Ashes to Life by Lucille Eichengreen

I've long had a passion for books about the Holocaust. Don't ask me why. It may well have to do with The Devil's Arithmetic, which I read somewhere around the seventh grade. Ever since I actively seek out books about the Holocaust both fiction and non-fiction. Maybe because of the importantance of remembering, maybe because I want to see the triumph of the human will to live, maybe because of those moments that crop up when ordinary people - despite overwhelming odds and certain danger - step up and do the right thing for their fellow man. These moments make reading these books, however difficult it may be, always worth the least for me.

From Ashes to Life is a book I bought during college for a class on the Holocaust. At the last minute, the teacher decided to use a different book and gave us the option to return this one. Instead, (and I was probably in the great minority among my classmates), I kept it to read on my own time. And I'm glad I did.

Lucille Eichengreen was born Cecelia Landau in Hamburg, Germany. From Ashes to Life chronicles her Holocaust experience from the first moments of foreboding as antisemitism becomes more prevalent in Germany until after the war when she serves as a valuable witness against those who had committed such atrocities and then moves on to begin a new life in America. Eichengreen's story is told in spare, almost childlike prose that serves to avoid any destraction from the horror of the events described.

Eichengreen chronicles her experience in the Lodz ghetto, where she lost what was left of her family, and in various concentration camps including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. However, what sets this memoir apart from the others I have read is her elaboration on what happened after her liberation from Bergen-Belsen. Eichengreen's memoir goes on to tell us about her role in bringing 42 SS members to trial for war crimes and her experience testifying against them in court. Eichengreen's bravery in facing her opressors in court is astonishing, and she helps us to see both how necessary she believed it to be, how strange it was to have roles reversed, and how painful it was for her to take on this role.

Additionally, Eichengreen tells of her new life in America and of a visit paid to Hamburg long after the end of the war. I was disappointed, as she was, by the relative lack of regret or remembrance she found in Germany and Poland. It was also shocking to see how the Jews that remained continued to conform to a persistent, if not always obvious, view of themselves as lesser humans that continued to exist in Germany and in Poland. Eichengreen spotlights what seems to be a reluctance to learn from history that is frightening.

Eichengreen's Holocaust experience but more importantly her emergence from the Holocaust to a new life is difficult but necessary reading. Her post-war experience includes some unforgettable scenes, including meeting a former kapo in a New York store. From Ashes to Life is important reading for those who would learn about the Holocaust and who would strive to eliminate those attitudes that could keep history from repeating itself.

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