Book review

I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson (1999)

This is a book for those who really feel they need to know what happened to Jews in Nazi Europe during the Holocaust. It is written by one of the very few who survived a term in the death camp Auschwitz. Her story is told in the form of the memoir of Elli Friedmann, who was thirteen years old in March 1944 when the Nazis invaded her homeland, Hungary. It is a truly shocking read, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't read it.

It can be quite difficult to pick up a book like this and start to read because you fear the nightmares, so I'll try and tell you what to expect.

The first part of the book deals with the invasion and occupation of Hungary. Slowly, and in calculated detail, the Nazis strip the Jews of all their status in society, and their possessions. For Elli, this means having to take her brand new birthday bicycle down to the Town Hall to hand over to the German authorities. It means having to wear a yellow star of David sewn onto her jacket. It means having to hand in all spare clothing.

I do not leave the house for nearly a week. Mummy pleads, her voice gentle and sad, 'Elli, let's thank God for being alive. Let us thank God for being together, in our own house. What's a yellow star on a jacket? It does not kill or condemn. It does not harm. It only says you're a Jew. That's nothing to be ashamed of. We're not marked for being criminals. Only for being Jews. Aren't you proud of being a Jew?

But worse is to come. In due course Jews are deprived of their freedom. They are summoned and herded together in ghettos, enclosed and overcrowded camps, running out of food, watched over by armed guards, waiting and wondering what will happen next.

This is distressing because you know something that the characters don't know, which is where it is all going to end. In fact, during the Holocaust something like six million Jews were murdered. Elli and her family know they are being humiliated for being Jewish, but never in their wildest dreams do they contemplate 'the Final Solution'.

There is only one way out of the ghetto, and that is into a labour camp. Elli's father is called first. Separated from the rest of the family, she never sees him again.

The second part of the book takes Elli, with her mother and brother and Aunt Serena, to the dreaded concentration camp, Auschwitz. At the gates, they are sorted: Aunt Serena goes to the gas chamber. Elli's brother, Bubi, goes off with the men. Elli and her mother are put to work:

An abyss separated us from the past. The rapid succession of events this morning was an evolution of aeons. Our parents and families belonged to the pre-historic past. Our clothes, our shoes, our hair - had they been real? The homes we left only recently were in distant lands, perhaps of make-believe.
We were new creatures. Marching expertly in fives at a rapid, deliberate rhythm, we were an army of robots animated by the hysterics of survival.
We survived the entry into Auschwitz. Unknowingly, we survived the selection of the diabolical Dr Mengele, the handsome psychotic monster who had tenderly stroked my 'golden hair' and in a kindly voice advised me to double-cross his SS machinery and lie about my age to save my life.

What follows is an account of the unimaginable cruelty which was everyday life in a concentration camp. Elli and her mother survive because they have each other, and their survival is miraculous. Bubi survives too, and the three are re-united shortly before their liberation.

At the moment of her liberation, Elli is approached by a local German woman:

'We didn't know anything. We had no idea. You must believe me. Did you have to work hard also?'
'Yes' I whisper.
'At your age, it must've been difficult.'
At my age. What does she mean? 'We didn't get enough to eat. Because of starvation. Not because of my age.'
'I meant, it must have been harder for the older people.'
For older people? 'How old do you think I am?'
She looks at me uncertainly. 'Sixty? Sixty-two?'
'Sixty? I am fourteen. Fourteen years old.'
She gives a little shriek and makes the sign of the cross. In horror and disbelief she walks away, and joins the crowd of German civilians near the station house.
So this is liberation . It's come.
I am fourteen years old, and I have lived a thousand years.

What can I read next?

If you are thinking about what happened to the Jews during the Second World War, you might also like to look at this one by Hans Peter Richter:

Or this one by Reinhardt Jung:

If you are interested in life as a refugee, you could have a look at this one by Bernard Ashley:

Or this one by Gaye Hicyilmaz:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

I Have Lived A Thousand Years features in these lists: