In 2016, I was blessed to travel with my son Gabe and STMA Catholic Youth Ministry to World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland. Southern Poland is a wonderful place for a Catholic pilgrimage; so many ancient and modern saints lived and died in so small a region that every day it seemed we visited another sacred site in another blessed city. The big three, of course, were 20th century saints: St. John Paul II, St. Faustina Kowalska, and St. Maximilian Kolbe.
In the case of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we were blessed to visit his religious community at Niepokalanów as well as the concentration camp where he gave his life at Oswiecim (Auschwitz). I say blessed truly, but not in the typical sense of the word. On a sunny summer day, Auschwitz is still and green and peaceful as an cemetery, but still more somber and hushed; the fences, ruins, and the dreadful sign above the gate, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Free You), bear silent witness to the cruelty of which humanity is capable.
As we left the camp, we passed a small booth selling items commemorating the place—most prominently, a book entitled Hope Is the Last to Die by Halina Birenbaum. Born Halina Grynsztajn to a Jewish family in Warsaw, she survived the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi occupation, followed by four prison camps in succession: Majdanek and Auschwitz in Poland, and Ravensbrück, and Neustadt-Glewe in Germany.
I bought the book, as the most appropriate way to recall the place and what happened there. I finally found the courage to read it this Lent.
It is a gut-wrenching and harrowing tale, told in first-person from the perspective of a young (and by her own admission, somewhat sheltered and selfish) teenage girl, who does not understand and cannot believe what is happening, first to her city, then to her family, then to herself. Most of us have some basic knowledge of the kinds of atrocities inflicted by the Nazis upon their victims, but this simple yet vivid account underscores the sheer arbitariness and senseless brutality used to turn human beings into beasts who would betray and destroy each other to avoid starvation for the chance to work themselves to death or be executed.
That Birenbaum lived to tell of the countless trials and tortures she endured is a miracle, but also a beautiful testament to her mother. Early in the story, her father seems resigned and despairing, as a man rendered completely powerless to provide for or protect his family might become. Birenbaum’s mother, however, refuses to go quietly where the Nazis would lead, and proves herself clever, resourceful, self-sacrificing, and strong in ways even her older and more worldly sons cannot fathom. By the time the family is finally found hiding in the Ghetto and the women are deported to Majdanek, young Halina has begun to embody enough of her mother’s dignity and canny instincts to keep her just above baseness of her surroundings and just strong enough to survive against all odds.
Birenbaum makes little attempt to moralize and offers little judgment except that their tormentors (the Nazis and their collaborators, including Jewish “authorities” in the camps) were wicked, and a few souls she encountered were still kind. A few saved her life, and many disappeared just as suddenly as they appeared in her existence. Ultimately, she writes to reclaim herself, to take ownership of a past stolen from a young girl, along with the lives of so many people she knew and loved.
This is not an enjoyable book, but it is difficult to put down—high praise, when you already know the protagonist survives and could walk away and content yourself with that. I am glad to have read it.
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