THE MIDWIFE OF AUSCHWITZ HISTORICAL NOTES
A shortened version of these notes can be found at the back of the novel, but there is so much to say about the people and places who inspired this work of fiction, that these extended notes are here for anyone who is interested.
Writing about the holocaust is an honour and brings with it a huge responsibility to the truth. Whilst this novel is a work of fiction, I have worked hard to ensure that all details are as close to reality as possible to faithfully represent the terrible suffering that was endured by those, like my characters, who were interred in ghettos and camps by the Nazi regime.
Many of the characters featured in this novel are real. I have done my best to be faithful to what we know of them from testimonies and historical record but I hope it is worth recording a few more details here for any interested readers.
Stanisława Leszczyńsk was the original inspiration for this novel and, whilst The Midwife of Auschwitz does not purport to be fully biographical, I have stuck tightly to many details of her astonishing story.
As shown in the novel, Stanislawa was a midwife in Lodz when war broke out and she and her family worked to help the Jews stranded in the ghetto and were sent to the camps as a result. Her husband and older son, both called Bronislaw, escaped capture and made it to Warsaw where, as shown, her husband died fighting in the tragic rebellion there towards the end of the war.
Stanislawa was sent to Auschwitz where she stood up to Sister Klara and her sidekick, Pfani – a red-headed prostitute – refusing to allow them to murder those babies she could save and from that point on she worked to deliver every possible child safely. It is a recorded fact that she delivered around three thousand babies in Birkenau and that not one of them died during the birthing. Tragically, given the horrendous conditions and the fact that the Nazis did not allow the babies any rations, very few survived for long afterwards. Stanislawa is known to have cared for all mothers with calm professionalism and to have stood up to the camp authorities, including the fearsome Josef Mengele, to enable her to do her job to the best of her considerable abilities in terrible circumstances.
Having returned to Lodz after the war and worked as a midwife until 1958, Stanislawa talked little of her experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau until she was persuaded by her middle son to give a brief report of her time there (which can be found in full on the internet). In it, she states that around thirty babies survived to the end of the war, that Klara and Pfani drowned over fifteen hundred and that over a thousand died of cold and hunger. She also states that from May 1943, blonde-haired, blue-eyed babies were regularly taken for the Lebensborn programme (see below for more) and that she devised a way of secretly tattooing them in the hope of one day reuniting them with their mothers. ‘Many a mother was consoled by the thought that one day she would find her lost child,’ she said and this gave me the seed of Ester’s fictional story.
As I’ve said, many of the details in this novel are based as exactly as possible on what we know of Stanislawa’s life but here, for clarity, are a few key elements in which I used poetic licence:
Stanislawa had a daughter, Sylwia, who was captured and sent to Auschwitz with her. This young woman was a trainee doctor and worked with her mother to help deliver babies, as well as nursing in the hospital. She served as the inspiration for Ester and in the end I decided, reluctantly, that there was not room in the narrative for both women. I hope that the relationship between Ester and Ana goes some way to demonstrating Stanislawa’s care for her real daughter. One survivor’s story reports that Sylwia was once so weak with TB that she was selected for the gas chamber but was saved when her mother clung to her tightly, refusing to let her go without taking her too. It must stand as testimony to the regard that the doctors at Birkenau had for this remarkable woman, that Sylwia was saved and survived.
Details of exactly which blocks Stanislawa worked in are not clear – prisoners seem to have been moved round at random from time to time – but I found testimony that she worked in both Block 17 and Block 24 so chose to use those two for simplicity. Interestingly, there is a hut still standing at Birkenau that visitors are told was her maternity section but it has no brick stove down the centre and Stanislawa testified herself that it was this stove she used as a primitive birthing bed. I therefore used that hut as her and Ester’s initial Block 17 and then had them move into the fuller ‘maternity section’ in Block 24 shortly after arrival.
Stanislawa’s prisoner number was 41355. I chose not to use that number to honour her own identity compared to my fictional version and went instead for 41401 for Ana and 41400 for Ester. Those numbers, like most, are on record to other Jewish Poles - Mayer Szac and Abraham Sukerman - both of whom were murdered in Auschwitz. I thank them and hope they will forgive me the use of their numbers to tell this vital story.
Stanisława Leszczyńska was a truly inspirational woman – a calm, kind, God-fearing professional with the courage to stand up for what she believed in the face of terrible persecution. She is honoured in Poland – including at Birkenau where the road running along the front of the camp is named for her – and is a candidate for sainthood in the catholic church. She stands, I believe, as a wonderful example of kindness, professionalism, modesty and bravery and I would like to finish this section, as I hope she would appreciate, in her own words:
‘Among all these ghastly memories there is one thought that lingers in my mind. All the babies were born alive. They all wanted to live… Contrary to all expectations and in spite of the extremely inauspicious conditions, all the babies born in the concentration camp were born alive and looked healthy at birth. Nature defied hatred and extermination and stubbornly fought for her rights, drawing on an unknown reserve of vitality.’
Stanislawa, I would say, was a hugely important part of that vitality and I hope this novel does her justice.
Chaim Rumkowski was the Nazi-nominated Eldest of the Jews, running Lodz ghetto and is a divisive figure in its history. On the one hand, he worked hard to run the ghetto in the most efficient possible way, meaning that it stayed in place long after many other, less work-focused ghettos had been disbanded and their people sent to their deaths. On the other hand, he took many privileges for himself that he denied the suffering people in his care. He was always well-dressed and fed and rode around in a white carriage, almost like a royal. He also promoted his family and friends, ensuring inequality and unfairness in a place already defined by those horrors and was hated enough by his people that he was, as shown in the novel, battered to death by them when he finally lost his battle to stay in favour with the Nazis and was bundled into one of the final cattle-carts bound for Auschwitz.
Perhaps the most horrific element of his leadership of Lodz ghetto was his ‘give me your children’ speech in the terrible clearing-out of the elderly and children on September 1st 1942. Those sections of his speech in the novel are verbatim from the real one which can be found online, both in text and movingly performed by actors on YouTube.
Irma Grese came to Birkenau from Ravensbrück women’s camp in March 1943, aged just 20, and was a woman as beautiful as she was sadistic. Reports talk of her extreme vanity, her promiscuity with various camp doctors, and her enjoyment of tormenting prisoners. One survivor’s story reports that she “went around in camp, her bejeweled whip poised, picked out the most beautiful young women and slashed their breasts open with the braided wire end of her whip,” a story I used in the novel to illustrate the horrific sadism of this young woman. She left Birkenau with the death marches but was captured by the British, stood trial, and was executed for war crimes in December 1945.
Dr Josef Mengele has gone down in history as a particularly evil Nazi in a heavily populated field, perhaps because of his coldly scientific dismissal of the Jews in his ‘care’ as nothing more than lab rats for his own experiments. Known as the ‘Angel of Death’, he is infamous for his cruel experiments, especially on twins. He seems to have had several brushes with Stanislawa and perhaps respected her (as much as he was capable) for standing up to him. Contrary to popular perception, he was not the only, or even the main doctor in Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was initially head physician (if such a word can be used) for the Roma camp and was not put in charge of the women’s camp as a whole until the Roma were all sent to their deaths in August 1944.
Mengele was certainly an evil man and has become almost the personification of Nazi cruelty in the camps, perhaps especially resented because he managed to escape capture. He lived out his life in Brazil, dying of a stroke whilst swimming in 1979, aged 68. Buried under the false name of Wolfgang Gerhard, his remains were disinterred and positively identified as Mengele by forensic examination in 1985.
Maria Mandel (also spelled Mandl) came to Birkenau as Lagerführerin (Camp leader) in October 1942, aged 30, having impressed in her first role at Ravensbrück. She was in charge of all staff and prisoners in the women’s camp. Efficient, intelligent and every bit as sadistic as Grese (although less sexual in her cruelty), she was known as ‘The Beast’. She was awarded the War Merit Cross 2nd class by the Nazis but that helped her little when she was arrested by the United States Army, tried in Krakow, and hanged in January 1948.
Mala Zimetbaum was also a real woman, of Polish Jewish descent, who had grown up in Belgium and who was brought to Auschwitz in September 1942 and registered as prisoner number 19880. A talented linguist, she got work as an interpreter and courier which gave her privileges such as wearing her own clothes, keeping her hair and being relatively well fed. Despite that, she devoted herself to helping other inmates, getting them assigned to easier work if they were unfit, warning of upcoming selections, and sneaking photographs that inmates' relatives had sent to them – such as I show with Filip’s letter to Ester.
She had a ‘courtship’ (in the sense that they talked enough to fall in love) with Edek Galiński, a mechanic who was allowed into the women’s camp to do jobs. The story of their escape is faithfully told in the novel. They truly did manage to get out with Edek dressed as an SS guard and Mala as a prisoner going to install a washbasin. She wore a dress beneath her overalls, so that once away they could pretend to be an SS guard and his girlfriend on a walk. The plan worked for three days until Mala was caught trying to buy bread and arrested. Edek, watching from a distance, turned himself in as they had promised not to separate and there are stories, as told in the novel, of them singing to each other in their cells in the Auschwitz main camp.
Edek was hung shouting "Long Live Poland!" and later that afternoon Mala was marched out in front of the camp and, taking a razor blade from her hair, slit the veins on the inside of her elbows. Accounts vary as to what happened next with some witnesses reporting that she said they would soon be liberated, others that she slapped a guard, and others that she shouted at the assembled prisoners to revolt. Clearly it was a chaotic moment.
She seems to then have been put on a wheelbarrow by Mandel to be wheeled to the crematorium, possibly to be burned alive. The nurses in attendance reportedly bandaged her arms slowly to allow her to die. Some said she bled to death on the cart, some that she also had poison, and others that a guard shot her. I chose to synthesize these accounts into something that I felt fitted with her character and did not prolong the action too far and I hope that it satisfyingly represents a bold and brave ending to a noble woman.
Vrba and Wetzler
Rudolf Vrba (Prisoner number 44070) and Alfred Wetzler (No 29162) were the two brave Slovakian men who managed to escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944, as described in the novel. They did this with much help from the camp underground who worked hard to supply them clothing and supplies for the escape as well as proof of what was going on inside to take to Allied authorities. On the eve of Passover, they climbed into a hollowed-out space in a wood pile between the inner and outer perimeter fences, sprinkling the area with Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline to put the guard dogs off their scent. They then hid there for three nights and four days – the length of time the Nazis searched for lost prisoners – before finally crawling out of the pile under cover of darkness and making their escape. Using a map taken from Kanada, they made it 80 miles to Slovakia on foot.
Once there, they urgently warned the Slovakian Jewish council about the liquidation of the Jews from Theresienstadt and the imminent killing of the Hungarian Jews. They described the crematoria, camp administration, everyday life of prisoners, connections between SS and companies and gave intimate details of dates and deaths. Their report was sent out to the World Jewish Congress but not acted on, even when information was added to it by Czeskaw Mordowicz and Arnost Rosin, two more Slovakians who escaped on 27th May 1944.
The dossier reached Allies in mid-June 1944 and even got to neutral Sweden and the Vatican. The BBC, Swiss press and American papers and radio stations reported it increasingly from mid-1944 and American surveillance planes photographed Auschwitz but the Allies still took no direct action. The camp was not bombed and neither was the clear railway link into it. Why? It is not my place to comment but it is certainly a tragedy that the killings could not be stopped sooner than they were. Perhaps, despite all the evidence, the inhuman crimes being perpetuated at Auschwitz and the other concentration camps was still too terrible to truly be believed.
I approached writing about Auschwitz with some trepidation, very aware that it is almost impossible to truly convey the horrors of life for the poor prisoners – the vocabulary simply does not exist. I endeavoured, instead, to show readers what happened there for their own imaginations to flesh out and would like to assure you that, whilst some characters and all dialogue may be fictional, every incident in this novel comes from research. It is perhaps worth listing a few to make it clear that I have not in any way exaggerated the barbaric cruelty of life in Auschwitz-Birkenau:
The food supplied was, as many witnesses have testified, truly as limited and terrible as described – ersatz ‘coffee’ for breakfast, thin soup for lunch and a crust of bread for supper. How anyone survived on that, especially whilst working long days in hard physical labour, remains impossible to conceive.
Conditions in the barracks were as barbaric as I have shown, with prisoners often sleeping piled in together, at least ten to a bunk on hard wooden boards with at best a scrap of blanket each. Uniforms were not adequate for the freezing conditions in the camp in winter and one especial cruelty seem to have been taking away prisoners’ socks and shoes and forcing them into hard wooden clogs. Like the numbers and the shaving of heads, it was all a way of dehumanising them and it is little wonder that a rampant black market, usually involving ‘organised’ goods from Kanada developed.
The hospitals were even worse. The prevalence of sickness and diarrhoea and a severe lack of latrines, water and disinfectant truly did mean that patients were often left to lie in their own bodily fluids and, if they were on one of the lower of the three-tiered bunks, to have those of others drip onto them. Rats as big as cats proliferated, often nibbling on patients both alive and dead, and lice were impossible to get rid of. Again, how anyone lived is testimony to human endurance and spirit.
Lice plagued the camp and the doctors did line up all prisoners naked and dunk them in super-strength disinfectant in a futile attempt to get rid of them. Mengele was also highly commended for his ‘brilliance’ at an early point in his time at Auschwitz for clearing lice by the simple expedient of sending all occupants of the first hut to the gas chamber to de-louse it and move those in the next hut, suitably disinfected, into the cleansed area and so on down the camp.
‘Selection’ is another well-documented but still almost impossibly horrific truth about Auschwitz and Birkenau. Although the Auschwitz main camp was originally a labour camp, it did not take long for a gas chamber to be built to start exterminating inmates and Birkenau was purpose-built as an efficient killing camp. From the start, new arrivals were selected into two columns with the fitter ones being put to work and the weaker being despatched straight to the chambers. They were usually lured in with the deception that they were going for showers – this for efficiency not kindness – but those working in the camps were under no such illusions and anyone selected from within knew they were going to their death.
The trains: When my characters Ana and Ester arrive in April 1943, the train was still dropping people off outside the gates of Birkenau but by X the train track had been extended into the middle of the camp itself – as shown when Tomaz arrives – to speed up the process. The selection was always overseen by a doctor, under some obscene medical pretence, and by all accounts Josef Mengele was the only one who could do it sober and who, indeed, seemed to relish it. This is not in any way to excuse the others, simply to emphasise the horror of the cold-blooded mass exterminations.
The Greek Jews had perhaps the hardest time of all in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Greece was occupied by Germany from April 1941 and almost immediately Jews were subject to all the terrible restrictions and privations seen elsewhere. The largest Jewish community was in Salonika (Thessalonica). Established way back in 1492 as a home for Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain, about 50,000 Jews lived in the city and were politically, economically, and socially well-integrated into Greek society- until the Nazis arrived. Originally forced into ghettos, in 1943, around 54,000 Greek Jews were deported to extermination camps, mainly Auschwitz-Birkenau. The majority of these were from Thessalonica and more than 90 percent of the city’s Jewish population was murdered.
The Greeks were powerless to stop the occupiers, although there are wonderful tales of brave defiance by various authorities. Around two-thirds of the Jews in Athens survived thanks to Archbishop Damaskinos (the only major European church leader to openly stand up against the Nazis) and Police Commissioner Angelos Evert, who issued many fake baptism and identification cards for Jews and implored Athenian citizens to help them. In Zakynthos, Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Loukas Karrer, ordered at gunpoint to hand over a list of Jews residing on the island, presented only two names – their own. The bishop bravely told the Germans, “If you choose to deport the Jews of Zakynthos, you must also take me, and I will share their fate.” Meanwhile all 275 Jews on the island were safely hidden in mountain villages and not one person on the island ever revealed their whereabouts. Sadly for the Jews of Thessalonica, there was no mercy. Their journey to Auschwitz was terrible. Their trains were, like others, as shown in the novel, packed too tightly to even sit down, but their journey took a nightmarish three weeks. It’s believed that around 50% died en route, some went mad, and most were unable to stand upon arriving at Auschwitz.
Even those who reached the camp struggled as, unlike most central European Jews, they could speak no German (or indeed Polish). They also found the unfamiliar Northern climate hard to bear and, already weak and terrified, died in their thousands.
As soon as I read about their terrible story, I knew I wanted to include it in some way and so Naomi was born. It is, thankfully, true that some of the Thessalonica Jews escaped into the mountains and from there either to safer Athens or to neutral countries like Switzerland, so I chose to save Naomi’s father and sisters in that way. Only around 2000 Greek Jews made it home from the camps after the war, so my fictional Naomi is one of just a very few survivors of this far-reaching part of the Nazi holocaust.
The family camp was an area set up in Autumn 1943 to take deportees from the ghetto of Theresienstadt. Theresienstadt had been set up as a form of transit camp for sending Jews to ‘the East’. Initially it housed a number of famous Jews, plus ‘mischlings’ (people with only one Jewish parent) and those who had fought for Germany in World War I, though it soon filled up with many others. It was not an extermination camp, although thousands died from starvation and cold, and, with its own Jewish rule, was part of the Nazis propaganda attempts to make the world believe their camps and ghettos were truly just for internment and labour.
This is a lie that was perpetuated in Auschwitz-Birkenau when some 30,000 Jews from Theresienstadt were sent there in September and October 1943. Parents and children were allowed to stay together and keep their luggage, they were given a school and a kindergarten, and were not all sent to work. Their section was filmed by the Nazis as a cynical PR exercise for the rest of the world but these enviable (at least for the rest of the inmates) privileges lasted only about six months before the SS disbanded the camp. They actually did this in two batches, sending vast numbers to the gas chambers in both March and July 1944, although I showed it as all happening in March for narrative simplicity.
The Sonderkommando revolt of October 7th 1944, was planned and executed by the Sonderkommando (work group) in the crematoria. Theirs was an especially terrible job, being forced to burn the thousands of corpses generated by the crematoria every day. Plus, their own work group was systematically killed approximately every four months, so they had little to lose and many of them were involved in underground resistance. At various times they tried to smuggle information out of the camp and they helped with the escape of Vrba and Wetzler but when the outside world did not come to the camp’s rescue, the twelfth Sonderkommando took matters into their own hands in a highly organised and planned rebellion.
They were helped by female prisoners working in a munitions factory within the Auschwitz complex who, for months, smuggled out tiny packages of gunpowder which they used to create makeshift bombs and grenades. At around 3pm on the appointed day, they rose up against the guards in all four Crematoria. Those in Crematorium IV managed to detonate demolition charges in the oven rooms, blowing up the building. Some SS guards were killed and some prisoners managed to cut the perimeter wire in the confusion and escape into the woods.
Sadly, the rebellion did not last long. The SS came in with machine guns, suppressing the internal revolt and all escapees were captured, tortured and eventually killed, including four Jewish women implicated in acquiring gunpowder who were hung in January 1945, shortly before the camp was liberated. Around 250 prisoners were killed in the rioting and about 200 of the twelfth Sonderkommando (those not taken for interrogation) were lined up and shot – their bodies burned by the poor thirteenth Sonderkommando!
The only lasting effect of the brave uprising was putting Crematoria IV permanently out of action but the following month the Nazis began to destroy the other three themselves to cover up their crimes in the face of enemy advances, so even that was futile. I felt that by using this brave rebellion as a way of letting Naomi hide her son in the novel, I granted it another, albeit fictional, impact it well deserved.
The death marches are a well-known final horror in the Auschwitz story and show the depths of both Nazi cruelty and delusion at the back end of the war. Some of the sickest patients were left behind to die and Stanislawa, along with several others, did persuade the Nazis to let them stay to tend them. Having agreed, the Nazis did turn off the electricity, lock up the kitchens and set fire to Kanada to pointlessly deprive those left behind of any final comforts. Children were left, though it is hard to discover how many of their mothers might have been with them, and there is testimony of people avoiding the marches by hiding under piles of corpses as Naomi does in the novel. The only thing I altered slightly was the timeframe. In reality it took two full days to hound all the remaining prisoners out onto the frozen roads but I shortened it a little for dramatic simplicity.
Beyond the dreadful confines of Auschwitz-Birkenau there are a few other aspects of the world portrayed in this novel that perhaps bear a little more elucidation:
To my shame, I must confess that I did not know very much at all about the ghettos into which the Jewish people of so many cities across Europe were pushed, most especially in Poland. Lodz (pronounced something like Wudge) was one of the largest and longest lasting – mainly because of Rumkowski’s fierce policy of work (see above) – and was in place from February 1940 to August 1944. Life in there is well documented from an official ghetto record, as well as several personal diaries, survivor interviews, and some astonishing photographs. I could describe it for far too many pages here, but would instead urge people to look up those sources themselves as they are more eloquent than I could ever be.
Although most of the characters I present in the ghetto sections of the novel are fictional, I have done my best to ensure that conditions and events are as real as possible. Food was in short supply and of terrible quality, fuel was so short that people were forced to burn their furniture to cook and keep warm. The initial overcrowding was made immeasurably worse when more people were shipped in from smaller, less profitable ghettos. Schools were closed and people forced into workshops and, from late 1941, many many Jews were shipped out, first to the gas vans at Chelmno and then to Auschwitz – a few to work but many straight to their deaths.
The only good thing is that my representation of the people working to help those in the ghetto are also true to life, with Stanislawa and her family being among a number brave enough to join the resistance against the Nazis.
The Lebensborn Programme
This brutal programme was set up as part of the crazed Nazi belief in the purity of Aryan blood and sought to put children with Aryan traits into German homes to ensure that they were brought up in the Nazi way. Thousands of children were taken from their parents, especially in Poland, and ruthlessly shipped to Germany to be handed to German couples or put into special Lebensborn homes. Many were so young that, after the war, they had no recollection of their real parents or life.
To add to this, in an astonishing programme of state-sponsored prostitution, young Aryan women across the German occupied lands were lured into big houses where they were encouraged to mate with ‘good’ Aryan men (usually soldiers) to provide children for the Fatherland. They were then usually kept there until they gave birth, and sometimes after, with the children either being brought up in the homes or given to married couples to adopt. Tragic numbers of these children were rejected and horribly stigmatised after the war, perhaps especially in Norway where they were seen as living evidence of shameful collaboration, and had terrible lives.
Taking ‘suitable’ babies from the concentration camps was a relatively small part of the Lebensborn programme but no less distressing for the mothers involved. Originally only non-Jewish babies were taken but there is clear evidence that as the war went on and the German authorities became increasingly concerned about the number of young men being slaughtered on the Eastern front, conditions of acceptance were dropped with the tacit agreement that anyone blonde could not be truly Jewish.
It is hard to track the fate of many of the adults who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and even harder with children. Despite my best efforts I did not find a concrete story of any of the babies who were tattooed by Stanislawa and her helpers being directly reunited with their mothers. There are, thankfully, some touching stories of other babies on the wider programme finding their parents so it is not impossible that it happened but in the end, dearly as I would have loved to reunite Ester and Pippa at the end of this novel, it did not feel true to the terrible loss of the mothers in Birkenau and so I chose to trace Oliwia instead. In my heart I hope my fictional character did, eventually, find her daughter but that is perhaps for the reader to decide for themselves.
It has only truly struck me in researching the ending of this book, quite how many lost people were in transit all across Europe in the months and, indeed, years after the war. There were so many refugees, evacuees, prisoners of war, internees and troops trying to get home and so many people who had no idea if they had a home – or any family – to come back to. In our modern world, where we are in touch with the whole globe from a permanently updating device in our hand, it is impossible to imagine years without any information on where our husbands, wives, parents or children are. The battle to find them again was all too often a sorrowful one.
I was heartened to discover a large number of charitable organisations working really hard to try and match people up with their loved ones. One thankful feature of the hateful Nazi regime was the meticulous keeping of records which did at least mean the masses they shipped into concentration camps could be traced. Some attempts were made to destroy those records as the Germans retreated but in the scramble many survived and helped groups like the Red Cross, the Jewish Relief committee and the American United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to do their work.
Most cities, it seems, had repatriation offices and the Jewish groups were a focal point for this. Lodz truly does seem to have been a vibrant city in the months after the war- a replacement capital for devastated Warsaw – and one thing that struck me was that much regeneration of even things like theatres, was already taking place by the May of 1945. The end of the war came earlier for Poland than it did for Britain – but, oh, they needed it. The poor country suffered terribly and the stories I read of the notes all along the walls of the offices of the Jewish relief committee in Lodz were heart-breaking. Too many people never had a reunion and remained torn apart by war forever.
It felt important to me that readers were able to find out the fate of various of the characters, perhaps most vitally that of Filip. Like Ester, he is a fictional character but what he experiences at Chelmno towards the end of the war is based on known fact. A number of men were taken there when it as re-started as a killing operation in April 1944 and were kept on as workers to burn the corpses and scatter the ash into the river at the end of each day. It is also true that a marquee was set up to sort the prisoners’ belongings and that a handful of the more talented tailors in the group were taken on to alter items that took the fancy of the SS officers’ families. This kept a few men alive until Chelmno was shut down in the face of the advancing Russians.
The story of Filip and Noah’s dramatic escape from the barn is also based on survivors’ testimonies with those prisoners on the lower floor being shot and those on the upper defying the Nazis and escaping into the woods. It is a small story of hope amongst so much tragedy and I was very glad to borrow it to get Filip back into Ester’s arms at the end of the novel.