2021 Reading List: Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope by Wendy Holden

Every so often I pick up a book about the Holocaust. It’s a heart-wrenching reminder of the strength and fragility of human beings. I can’t remember where I saw this book recommended but it was probably on a list somewhere. Seems that other people find these stories to be moving as well.

Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope, by Wendy Holden, is perhaps more impactful and meaningful to me now, as a mother myself, than it might have been a few years ago. This is a shockingly true story of three women who were in the early weeks of pregnancy when they were sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Amazingly, all three mothers and all three babies survived. This book is their story.

This book takes readers through each of the women’s lives, telling us where they grew up and went to school, how they lived with their families, their hopes and dreams, their skills and values and religious views. One chapter at a time, we learn about their backstory and who they were before the Holocaust changed their lives forever.

Every story of a Holocaust survivor is heartbreaking. It’s horrific and unimaginable. These stories are perhaps more so.

While each of their stories are unique, they converge in similar ways once they are stripped of their rights as citizens, once they are marked as Jewish and sentenced to a life beneath others, once they are essentially sentenced to die. They tell stories of losing their homes, seeing their families torn apart. They had chances to leave and escape, but they had faith in their families staying together and they never believed the worst could happen. They were sent to ghettos, put to work, given pitiful rations, and treated like animals.

Miraculously, through it all, they had hope. That must be how they survived the horrors they were put through. They had love and family and friends. The women were each married and loved their husbands very much. Even in midst of war and uncertainty and in the middle of the ghetto, they wanted to start a family. The women wanted to be mothers and grow their love and see a better future in their babies’ eyes.

They managed to avoid the shipments “East” until the very end. In the fall of 1944, they were sent from their various homes and ghettos to Auschwitz, each of them carrying an unborn secret. They were separated from their husbands and families, stripped of their dignity and humanity, and became less than human.

Crucial to their and their babies’ survival, they were sent to work in a Freiberg factory, instead of remaining at the Auschwitz concentration camp where the threat of death by gas chamber hung heavy. The factory work nearly killed them, but somehow, they stayed alive through the harsh, freezing winter.

They birthed their babies, one at a time. In the factory, on a cargo transport train, at the gates of the final concentration camp destination. The women weighed between 70 and 80 pounds. Their babies weighed less than 4 pounds. They lived. Read that again – they lived.

These women who were starved, overworked, diseased, and malnourished somehow managed to stay alive, and their bodies supported the life and growth of a baby. These babies, who didn’t have proper nutrients from their mothers, could barely grow, somehow survived without any detrimental defects.

It’s insane to me. In our modern world of maternal medicine, we see doctors monthly, and more as the pregnancy progresses. We get ultrasounds to check on baby’s growth. We get tests to check for abnormalities and defects. The rate of miscarriage is higher than we know. And for some, we get through all that and think we have a healthy baby and the unthinkable still happens, either late in pregnancy, during birth, or shortly after. Maternal death is higher than it should be. And we have so much technology and support to monitor and prevent all of these things.

These women had none of that. They had none of the prenatal vitamins, none the recommendations to eat healthy or eat more calories. Even if there were those things somewhere, these women weren’t getting anything at all. They were eating grass and rotten potatoes, drinking muddy, contaminated water, sleeping in dirty quarters, infested with lice and catching all kinds of illness and disease. The women and their babies were medical miracles.

I think it’s too easy for people, especially in today’s America, to forget the details of the Holocaust. We sit here in our comfy 2,000+ square foot houses, sipping wine and reading books, and ordering Amazon and DoorDash. It’s a wake-up call, every time I pick up another book, a reminder that we have it easy. There are worse things in the world than wearing a mask to the grocery store so we can prevent Covid. There are worse things than the hockey arena limiting the number of fans for a game.

It’s appalling, every time I pick up a book about the Holocaust, that any one person could have decided that others are not worth living. It’s appalling that anyone would see that and allow it to happen. It’s sickening and disgusting that so many people in the world were bystanders, looking the other way, while human beings suffered and died for no reason.

This book is a reminder to be grateful for your life and everything in it. It’s a reminder of the strength and resilience of the human soul. It’s a reminder that things can always be worse. A reminder that life is truly a gift.

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