Category Archives: WWII

Why? #BookBytes 7

For BookBytes today I have picked this quote from Jet Lag by Ann Birstein. Talking of Auschwitz the author says:

The million and half Jews had been shipped from all over Europe for the privilege of being murdered here. From all parts of Poland, of course, but also Hungary, Slovakia, Greece. Why? Why go to all that trouble? Why not shoot them on the spot? But I was thinking in terms of Nazi efficiency. I had forgotten the other why. Why murder them all?

Jet Lag, Ann Birstein

This is something I have often wondered. Why take the trouble of transporting millions and millions of Jews only to kill them? And again I have to remind myself that the bigger question here is ‘Why kill them at all?’.

Although the book didn’t move me as much as other WWII literature, it is worth a read. You can read the detailed review of the book here.

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If you stumble upon a quote, a line (or two) or even a passage from a book that leaps out at you demanding to be shared join in with #BookBytes.

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Jet Lag #BookReview

Book: Jet Lag
Author: Ann Birstein

I took up JetLag on a recommendation from Sonali’s Book Club. That it was a World War II book was of course another big reason.

This is a travelogue..

..by the author who signs up for a European Discovery Tour – a trip that would take her to Jewish sites across Eastern Europe. She feels the need to explore her Jewish roots, to see the ‘origin’ as she puts it.

Along with her on the tour is a group of people each prompted by their own reasons. They travel from Warsaw and Auschwitz to Lithuania, Chez Republic and Hungary visiting all the sites of the horrible tragedy that was WW II. In Lithuania she visits the Yeshiva (Jewish Educational Institution) where her father had studied and tries to imagine what his life would have been like.

What I liked

The book brings home the tragedy in all its horror. Through Ann and her erudite guide we get to know of countless stories of life in the ghettos. These are stories of horror of course yet also of hope because people continued to believe that the madness had to end.

The Jews led almost regular lives, at least initially. They ran libraries, taught music and organised children’s operas. It is amazing how people kept on living ‘normal’ lives even in the most cruel, abnormal conditions. It shocked me to realise how easily we adapt to and accept whatever circumstances we are forced to live in. And that, I believe, is the biggest lesson history teaches us – to protest an unfair act no matter how small.

Many of them defied the rules too. They did it systematically and repeatedly till even that became their new normal. Above all, they wrote and photographed, constantly chronicling whatever was happening around them, leaving it all for posterity even as their numbers depleted day by day with groups of them being transported to the ovens.

Some instances talked about in the book will stay with me for a long time.

There were mentions of people like Emanuel Ringelblum the Warsaw Ghetto chronicler, Photographer George Kadish from Kovno, Lithuania and Abraham Sutzkever with his lyrical yet terrible descriptions of the holocaust. I spent hours looking each of them up on the Net and following their pictures.

The statistics are stunning in their enormity.

What could have been better

While the ghetto stories were inspiring as well as heart-breaking, the memoir didn’t draw me in. The narrative never became personal hence turned dull in parts.

Also, the people on the tour didn’t really come together as a group. I missed the warmth, the mutual sympathy that comes through a shared tragedy. Most of them had back stories but they were rather tenuous ones and I couldn’t connect with them with the exception of Rita and Max. They had both been at the concentration camps when they were young. Rita, as an 18-year-old, was incarcerated at Auschwitz and her husband Max was on the Schildler’s List. Their stories were moving, their dignity in the face of trauma, impressive. A book from their perspective would be worth a read.

I struggled with Yiddish terms and was glad I was reading it on the Kindle so I could look up the words as I went along.

Last thought: This one certainly deserves a read, however it is more of a fact file on WWII than a personal narrative.

Linking up with the Write Tribe Reading Challenge – This is my review for ‘A book written by a female author’.

Click here to buy this book

Salt to the Sea – A #Review

Book Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Septeys

The more I read about the Second World War, the more I realise how little I know. So here’s another WWII story, another perspective, another group of people displaced from their homes and homeland in search of peace.

The Story

The War is almost at an end. Germany is on the back foot, though refusing to acknowledge it even as the Russian Army advances, raping and killing along its way. Through this terrifying chaos, four refugees – two Germans, a Pole and a Lithuanian – with dark tortured pasts, try to escape the war, making their way to the coast of the Baltic Sea in an attempt to board a ship to safety.

Even after they board the Wilhelm Gustloff their struggles don’t end. For one, they still have secrets to hide. Also the German ship is a target for Russian torpedoes even if all it carries are wounded soldiers, women and children.

Four protagonists, Four POVs, Many stories

The story is told through four points of view, with each of the characters getting two or three pages at a time. It took me a few pages to get used to it but then narrative caught pace and didn’t flag till the very end.

The success of a book like this one depends on how much and how soon the reader gets invested in the characters and their lives. I found myself gripped by not just the four main ones but by many others too. I wanted to know their stories, their families, their background and the past they were hiding. The secrets were revealed slowly over the pages leaving me horrified and amazed by turns. I wanted them desperately to find the safety they craved, I mourned them as much as their friends in the novel.

The journey

A large part of the book talks about journey of the four protagonists to the ship. It is a passage plagued with fear. The biggest threat is from the Russians who are technically the liberators, but are just as vicious as the Nazis, claiming all they find as victors’ spoils. There are the Nazis themselves who wouldn’t hesitate to persecute a Polish girl or a deserter as also the old and disabled. Above all there’s hunger and cold. Septeys descriptions brought home how cruel, how persistent and how insidious the two can be, cutting through layers of meagre clothing, freezing and starving victims to death.

On the ship

Images of surging desperate crowds anxious to board the ship with their belongings, often reduced to a single bag, were heart wrenching. There were moms throwing their children onto the ship hoping they’d get to safety or ‘buying’ children hoping they’d be their passport for the voyage – those are scenes that’ll remain with me for a long time. Desperation makes one act in ways one never thinks of. It brings out the best in people and also the worst.

I must mention that though Salt to the Sea talks about struggle and fear and loss, it isn’t a sad book. It has moments of warmth and genuine goodness that make it worth a read.

Last Thought: This one has to be read.

To buy the book at Amazon click on the picture below.

Last Train to Istanbul #Review

Book Title: Last Train to Istanbul
Author: Ayse Kulin
Translated from Turkish by: John W. Baker

Stories of the second World War hold a very special place in the hearts of most bibliophiles. These are stories of heartbreak, of atrocities and of cruelty beyond imagination and also stories of friendship and love and bravery beyond reason.

If like me, WWII stories fascinate you, then The Last Train to Istanbul is a must read. Each time I stumble upon a book like this I realise just how many countries and how many lives were part of the War.

I had no idea Turkey was home to so many jews. Way back in 1492 Don Ferdinand, the King of Spain, commanded all Jews to leave the country (giving up all their material possessions) because they were considered non-believers. The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey at that time, Beyazid II made them welcome in his country and that’s how a large number of them made it their home.

That’s just a side-story of course. But isn’t it interesting? The history of the Jews is so full of struggle. It’s amazing how they manage to pick themselves, and by sheer acumen, rise up again and again.

Getting on with the story..

The Last Train to Istanbul tells the story of two sisters Sabiha and Selva, daughters of a well-to-do Pasa in the Turkish Government. While Sabiha falls in love and marries a diplomat Macit, Selva falls for a Jew, Rafael Alfandari. The Jews had lived for centuries in Turkey, but marriages between the two communities were not accepted. In order to get away from parental disapproval Selva and Rafael move to Paris which is already home to a thriving community of Turkish Jews. When War arrives in France and the Nazis take over, Jewish families are no longer safe.

The Turkish government, then negotiates a safe passage for its people from Paris to Turkey, to get as many of them as possible on that last  train to Istanbul. In doing so it saves not just Turkish Jews but as many people as it possible could.

What I loved

Most of the WWII stories I’ve read have had to do with the lives of ordinary people – how they hid from the Nazis or survived the concentration camps. I had little idea of what went on in the diplomatic circles. The Last Train to Istanbul gives a glimpse of talks and negotiations across the table through Macit’s eyes, who is a high-ranking diplomat.

What a delicate line it must have been for neutral counties to tread! In the end of course no one remained neutral but there were countries like Turkey that only wanted to save their people Jews or not, without giving in either to all-powerful Germany or to Britain and Russia; countries which did not have a big enough army yet did not want to the compromise their freedom.

The political intrigue is wrapped up with Sabiha and Selava’s individual stories and that made it more interesting.

I loved the early bits in the book about life in Turkey. Come to think of it, Turkey is a rather unique country positioned as it is between Asia and Europe. It mixes up a variety of cultures to come up with something quite its own.

The book also tells stories of people like David, a carefree young man who steps out for an evening with his friends only to be rounded up by the Nazis and sent to camp. There’s Siegfried a brilliant scientist who disguises himself to escape the Germans and there’s Ferit an active member of the secret service that helps the Jews.

What could have been better

Sabiha suffers from depression and there’s a whole episode with her psychologist that I thought was completely irrelevant to the story.

Also, the final train journey turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. While I did understand the danger the people were in as they passed through Germany from right under the noses of the Nazis, much of it was built up without help from the author, simply because I had so much WWII background. The book itself threw up few surprises and the climax was not developed at all leaving me disappointed.

Yet, I will say, this is a book that should be read.

Last Thought: A must read for behind-the-scenes intrigue that goes on between world leaders during war.

To buy the book click the image below.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you buy the book on Amazon through this link, I will get a referral fee, at no additional cost to you.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – A Review

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

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This one came highly recommended by friends. One of the readers said she wanted to go settle in Guernsey by the time she was through with the book. That thought impressed me. The book  did have the most intriguing title. It was a book about book-lovers, I thought I’d like that. And so before I knew it I was at Amazon placing my order.

I came away with mixed feelings.

The story

We follow the story through a string of letters that go back and forth between Juliet Ashton, a quirky World War journalist turned writer, and a group of people who lived in Guernsey during World War II. The war has just ended and a book once owned by Juliet lands up in the hands of Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey. The book has her name and address and the new owner writes to her asking her for the name and address of a London bookshop so he could order books. Dawsey belongs to a Literary Society called the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Intrigued by the name Juliet sets up a correspondence with Dawsey and then with each of its members. She is scouting for ideas for her new book and sensing a story in Guernsey, she travels there and finds much more than inspiration for her book.

What I liked

The book written in an epistolatory form (That’s what you call a narrative expressed through letters) was å first for me. I enjoyed the style though it took a little getting used to but then it was refreshing in its difference. I found myself waiting for the letters to come in. I loved the eclectic bunch of characters and their reading quirks.

I liked the joie de vivre that Juliet exudes. I like how she slowly gets to know the people of Guernsey through the letters and I liked the quiet contrast of Dawsey’s character.

I’ve said it before, I never can have enough of life during WWII. The book does give an account of life in Guernsey under German occupation – the shortages, the hunger, the hiding, the heartbreak of separation, the dread of being caught during night curfews.. all of it.

What I didn’t like

My first impression of the book was ‘How sweet is this’ and that ended up being my biggest problem too – it was far far too sweet; sweet in a simplistic, superficial kind of way. There is barely a cloud on the horizon. You know way before the end that things will fall into place. Everyone is just so nice. I like happy endings but only when they come after a decent plot and some twists and turns.

Also, the ending: as usual the ending is way too predictable and completely unbelievable. Those aren’t contradictory. Consider this – Juliet – a fairly high-profile writer based in London, being wooed by a flamboyant suitor (and enjoying it too), used to nights of fine dining and dancing in pretty clothes should give it all up and settle down in a quiet village with a man who unloads ships for a living. Romantic? Sure. Plausible? Hardly!

It seems unlikely that Juliet would enjoy the quiet life forever. Forever is a long time.

However, if you like a fresh, frothy, witty, easy read with snippets of the second World War you’ll like this one.