Olga Horak

Title: Auschwitz to Australia: survivors memoir
Author: Olga Horak
Publisher: Kangaroo Press
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 2000
Location of Book: Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Czechoslovakia: Bratislava, Marianka, Sered, Pilzen, Poland: AuschwitzHungary: Budapest, Szombathely, Germany: Bergen-Belsen, Trachenberg, Kurzbach, Gross Rosen, Dresden
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative

Olga Horak’s memoir is a moving account of a young girl maturing into womanhood during the years of Nazi oppression in Slovakia. The first 36 pages deal with Horak’s early life and conditions under Nazi occupation in Slovakia and Hungary; 38 pages describe the hardships in concentration camps in Poland and Germany. The final 37 pages tell of Horak’s difficulties after liberation and her eventual immigration to Australia. Horak, who wrote her memoir in her early seventies, had to overcome her lack of schooling and a subsequent immature writing style to preserve this powerful survivor’s memoir. It was edited by historian and theologian Paul O’Shea and published by Kangaroo Press in Sydney in 2000.

The first section of the book deals with Horak’s early life in Bratislava, Slovakia. Horak, born in 1926, attended an exclusive German-speaking high school for girls in Zivnodom, but her studies were cut short after the Nazi occupation began, when she was banned from the education system because she was Jewish. She presents a detailed account of her strong family bonds and the effects of anti-Semitic laws introduced in Slovakia in 1940. At this time, Horak and her family were smuggled into Hungary. Soon, however, the Nazis occupied Hungary as well. Once things began to get worse for Olga’s family there, they decided to return to Slovakia. Whilst it was dangerous, at least they would be in a familiar place, with people whom they knew.

In the summer of 1944, when Horak was seventeen years old, she and her family were rounded up by the Nazis; Horak and her mother were sent to Auschwitz. In her book, Horak subsequently depicts life as a prisoner in the camps, describing in detail the impossible conditions and the daily fight for survival. She tells of her experiences in Auschwitz, her subsequent transfer to Trachenberg, her time labouring in the village of Kurzbach, and finally, she describes her time in Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated by the British on April 15, 1945. During her time in the camps, Horak endured bouts of typhus and diphtheria, witnessed death all around her, and was forced to perform difficult labour with little subsistence.

Paul O’Shea, the theologian and historian who assisted Horak in editing her memoir, articulately sums up his observations of the book in his introduction:

No two survivors’ stories are the same. Olga Horak’s testimony is a moving account of a young girl maturing into womanhood during the years of fascist and Nazi oppression in Slovakia. Many of the events she recounts occurred when Olga was in her early teenage years. Readers need to remind themselves that Olga’s memories are those of a young girl emotionally unprepared for the horrors unleashed upon her and her family. Her story is precisely that—it is Olga’s story. One of the effects of the Holocaust on her life was the fact that she was banned from attending school classes because she was Jewish. Consequently readers may find Olga’s style different from others—but her experience has shaped within such parameters. Rather than diminish her testimony, Olga’s written style reminds us of the awful power wielded by those who engineered and executed the ‘Final Solution’.