Title: From tragedy to triumph
Author: Mira Szalmuk
Publisher: Puma Press
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 1997
Location of Book: Rare Books Collection, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Baranowicz, Bialystock, Schopau, Warsaw, Auschwitz, Blizin, Majdanek, Theresienstadt, Treblinka
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative
Szalmuk presents a whole life autobiography: 28 pages discuss the pre-war years in Bialystock, Poland , 56 pages describe life during the Holocaust, and 68 pages focus on life after liberation. Szalmuk’ biography was composed late in life. Although written in slightly imperfect English, it was published in its original format in order to preserve the voice of the author. It is simple, yet powerful, accessible reading.
The first section, outlining Szalmuk’s childhood in pre-war Bialystock, Poland begins with her birth in 1928. She describes her adored parents, the close-knit Jewish community, her successful education at a prestigious school, her much anticipated vacations to Polish towns and her favourite past-times. Szalmuk also tells of her ‘adoption’ by her aunt and uncle in 1939, after her terminally ill mother is moved to Vienna for medical care, where she later dies.
Chapter two commences with the Russian occupation of eastern Poland in 1939, and the family’s consequential move to nearby Baranowicz. Her wealthy father is arrested, and shortly after presumed dead. Szalmuk then resides with her remaining family until Russian rule ends two years later.
Under German occupation in June 1941, Szalmuk and her family are sent to the Bialystock ghetto. She describes the starvation and suffering, the sadistic German methods, and her numerous escapes to the Aryan home of a family friend. Szalmuk discusses the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and the inspiration it gave Jews in Bialystock.
In August 1942, the family is transported in cramped cattle carriages to Treblinka. However, her carriage, containing doctors and their families, continues on to the Majdanek concentration camp. Soon after, they are again transported, this time to the working camp of Blizin. Szalmuk describes the dehumanising, degrading and primitive existence. Here, inmates live by whistles, which regulate eating, working and punishment. They exist on watery broth that makes most ill. Hundreds die daily from epidemics, including her grandfather. She describes the horrific process, of separating families and taking the children for extermination, which claimed her cousin. This caused her uncle to have a mental breakdown, from which he never recovered.
Sometime later, Szalmuk is unsure of the exact date, she and her aunt Ida are transported to Auschwitz, where they are shaved and dressed in the rags of the deceased. Here, she notes the black sky and grey grass, and the sickening smell of burning bodies. She documents Nazi cruelty in demanding pointless tasks be performed in freezing temperatures, whilst insufficiently clothed, and starving. She also recalls the dread of Mengele’s ‘selections for extermination, or experimentation. Nevertheless, Szalmuk cites attempts to maintain spirit through good humour, although she sometimes contemplates death as a better alternative.
After two years in Auschwitz, Szalmuk and her aunt Ida are transported to Schopau, near Dresden, where they work in a nearby ammunition factory under dangerous, although less brutal conditions. Here, she experiences some sympathy from a German guard who advises her to only work whilst she is watched. In February 1945, they are transported to Theresienstadt, and liberated by the Russians three months later. After returning to Bialystock, they stay briefly with friends before moving to Warsaw and then to Paris. Szalmuk describes the small communities of Jewish survivors, which developed in Europe and Australia.
Finally, Szalmuk and her aunt migrate to Australia, where they both marry and re-establish their lives. Szalmuk and her husband begin their own business, raise three children and finally find happiness and prosperity.