LONDON — Wendy Holden thinks “Born Survivors” is the most important book she has ever written, and as the author of more than 30 books she would know best. But the British writer goes further. The book, she says, is not just important, but she feels she was destined to write it.
“Born Survivors” is a meticulously told work of the true stories of three babies born to Jewish Nazi concentration camp inmates as World War II stuttered and stumbled to an end.
In April 1945, Priska, weighing only 70 pounds (31 kilos), delivered Hana on a table in a factory before she and 1,000 other women were deported to Auschwitz. Rachel, just as gaunt as Priska, gave birth to tiny Mark in an open coal wagon, halfway through a seemingly interminable 17-day train journey to the Austrian concentration camp of Mauthausen with hardly any food or water. Anka gave birth to Eva on a cart full of dying women as all three mothers arrived at the camp’s gates.
Miraculously, the babies, and their mothers, survived through a combination of luck, circumstance and perseverance. None of the mothers was aware of the other’s dire situation, and none of the three surviving children knew each – believing they were the only ones to be born in the camps – until they met for the first time 65 years later.
Holden is a former war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in the UK and has vast experience writing about violence and oppression.
“My father fought the Japanese in Burma and my mother lived through the London Blitz,” she says, adding that she has always had a great curiosity about World War II and the Holocaust. But she freely admits that even though she has written many books with harrowing scenes, she cried copiously through the writing of “Born Survivors” – even though it is one of the few Holocaust-related books with a relatively happy ending.
The genesis of the book was an obituary Holden happened to read online, which mentioned that the woman who had died had been pregnant in Auschwitz – although her baby had not survived. Intrigued, Holden looked everywhere she could to see if anyone had tackled this subject before – and, surprisingly, nobody had.
“That was my first piece of luck,” says Holden. The second was discovering that Eva Clarke, the youngest of the three “babies” she would write about lived not that far away from her, in Cambridge, England.
“I contacted her to see if she would be interested in my telling her story. And Eva replied, ‘I’ve been waiting for you for 70 years,’” says Holden.
The “babies,” Eva, Mark Olsky and Hana Berer Moran met for the first time at a ceremony in 2010 to mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation by American forces of the Mauthausen camp in Austria, where they instantly bonded. All three were eager to have their stories recorded and Holden regards the book as a legacy and testament to their survival.
Holden’s journalistic background came into full flourish as she began the mammoth research behind the book. Her study, she laughs, “began to look like Churchill’s wartime bunker. It was just covered everywhere with maps and books as I plotted out how to tackle the book.”
She turned into a “forensic detective” and visited 11 countries in pursuit of essential witnesses to the three young mothers’ remarkable experiences. Inevitably, she says, though she thought she had learned so many stories about the Holocaust, things still cropped up during her research which amazed her.
One such story came from the small town of Horni Briza in the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia. A “death” train carrying hundreds of Jews, including the three young mothers – two of whom had already given birth at that point – stopped there en route to Mauthausen on April 21, 1945.
‘They spoke about what they saw, which no one else had ever heard them discuss’
It was a rainy Saturday night and the stationmaster of Horni Briza’s train station, Antonin Pavlicek, was appalled by the conditions of those on board. After prolonged arguments with the Nazi officer in charge of the train, Pavlicek managed to organize an astonishing humanitarian effort the next day by the local townspeople, who brought food, drink – and even baby clothes when they heard the cries of newborns – to the train wagons. (There were a number of other babies on the train besides Hana and Mark, but none are believed to have survived.)
After learning about the Horni Briza response, Holden wrote to the town’s mayor asking if she could talk to him about what happened there during the war. The mayor agreed to the meeting, and to her surprise, when she arrived – expecting only to see the mayor – she was led into a room with 10 other people, including two elderly men aged 84 and 79, who had been young boys when the train stopped in Horni Briza in 1945.
“They spoke about what they saw, which no one else in Horni Briza had ever heard them discuss,” Holden recalls, “how they saw the train stop and how they watched the stationmaster arguing with the SS commandant in charge of the train.”
Of the three mothers, Hana’s mother Priska and Mark’s mother Rachel died several years ago. Anka, Eva’s mother, died aged 96 just six months before Holden made contact with her “baby.”
“But I felt I knew Anka – and Rachel and Priska,” says Holden. “I really felt it was such a privilege to chronicle their stories.”
Author Wendy Holden and Holocaust survivor Eva Clarke will be appearing at Jewish Book Week in London in February.