Last week I finished a book based on a circus in WW2 and lamented the fact that the author had completely omitted to add any content on the persecution of Roma by the Nazis, and how there really isn’t much fiction about the systematic murder of nearly a quarter of the European Roma population during WW2. So I was really glad to see that Mario Escobar had written Auschwitz Lullaby, a novel heavily based on the true story of Helene Hannemann.
There are many, many books, fiction and non-fiction, on the horrors committed on the Jewish population in Europe during the Holocaust, rightfully so, they should never ever be forgotten. But there are other people who were also persecuted due to their race, and I do think it’s important that they are not forgotten either. The Roma, who have been systematically persecuted and discriminated against for centuries, are one of these groups. I applaud Mario Escobar for telling their story.
Auschwitz Lullaby is the story of Helene Hannemann, her husband Johan who is Roma, and their 5 children between 1943 and 1944. In 1943 the SS come for her family, and while she is told she is free to go, due to the fact that she is not ethnically Roma, she obviously doesn’t want to leave her family. They end up in the “Gypsy” camp in Auschwitz, where Helene and her children are separated from Johan. After a request from Josef Mengele, Helene, due to her German “Aryan” heritage and training as a nurse, is put in charge of the children’s nursery in the camp, where for a while the imprisoned Roma children, as well as some Jewish children, are able to eat a little better and enjoy clean water and even movies. The nursery ends up being a front for Mengele to keep all of the children (mainly twins) he is using for his horrific experiments, but it keeps Helene and her kids relatively safe for a while, and in return she is able to keep other children safer than they would have been in the barracks alone.
This IS fiction, but it’s so heavily based on truth that it reads like a memoir in journal format. Helene’s voice is strong and powerful, her love for her children is warmth in such a terrible place, and her heart and will to continue despite everything so inspiring. Exceptionally beautifully written in parts, the tone is however often devoid of hope – Helene knew how it would all end, and focused on making each day bearable for her children, rather than dreaming of the future. There are terrible, true descriptions of acts of horror (which one should expect if one is reading a novel based on genocide and extermination camps), and if you are looking for a happy ending, this isn’t the book for you. If you are however looking for a truthful story based on the reality of what happened during WW2, then please read this book.
My only complaint (and it's a bit of a big one) would be the use of the word “Gypsy” all through-out the book. Granted, this was the word used to describe the Romani at the time, and often still is today, although the general consensus is that it is an ethnic slur and should be phased out. Maybe there should be an added note in the author’s note about this? It just jarred me every time I read Helene referring to another woman as a “Gypsy woman”, as well as all of the generic “Gypsy” terms.
I highly recommend this book, and some of the additional reading below. Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance copy!