The Redhead of Auschwitz: A True Story
- Author: Nechama Birnbaum
- Genre: Biography
- Publication Date: November 28, 2021
- Publisher: Amsterdam Publishing
I received a copy of this book from Amsterdam Publishing in exchange for an honest review.
Rosie was always told her red hair was a curse, but she never believed it. She often dreamed what it would look like under a white veil with the man of her dreams by her side. However, her life takes a harrowing turn in 1944 when she is forced out of her home and sent to the most gruesome of places: Auschwitz.
Upon arrival, Rosie’s head is shaved and along with the loss of her beautiful hair, she loses the life she once cherished. Among the chaos and surrounded by her hopelessness, Rosie realizes the only thing the Nazis cannot take away from her is the fierce redhead resilience in her spirit.
This victorious biography, written by Nechama Birnbaum in honor of her grandmother, is as full of life as it is of death. It is about the intricacies of Jewish culture that still exist today and the tender experiences that are universal to all humanity: family, coming of age, and first love. It is a story that celebrates believing in yourself no matter the odds. This is a story about the little redheaded girl who thought she could, and so she did.
I’ve made a commitment to reading more nonfiction this year, and while I never enjoy reading biographies or memoirs about the Holocaust, it’s something I feel obligated to do. I’ve mentioned in other reviews that my father was a Holocaust survivor, and he often read other memoirs. He frequently mentioned how important it was to read these stories and share them, especially because we are the last generation who will be able to get in contact with these survivors. My father made it a personal mission to speak publicly about his own experiences every chance he got. I first became aware of this book through social media, which is a fabulous use of technology to share stories to an even broader audience. And I’m especially grateful to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book.
As many of these books that I’ve read, no two are alike. Each person has their own unique story of survival, and each one is a miracle. Rosie’s story is no different, and reading it and talking about it feels like my own way of honoring her life and ongoing legacy. She’s an incredible woman, and I loved her right from the start. She’s strong-willed, stubborn, and loyal, even as a child, and while she had some mischievous tendencies, it made her even more relatable and likable.
The chapters alternate between her younger years and her time during the Holocaust, when she was in her late teens. Despite her father dying when she was young, growing up poor, and experiencing some losses, her childhood was full of happy memories and love. It’s a stark contrast to being torn away from her family and uprooted to what basically amounted to Hell — first a ghetto where she was forced to work while being starved, and then to Auschwitz. But through it all, she never lost her fierce sense of determination and hope. That, more than anything, speaks to an immense inner strength. The Nazi system was designed to dehumanize and break people down, but Rosie never succumbed to it. She is a survivor in every single sense of the word.
“All destruction comes from thinking about others as different from you. To be cruel to someone, you cannot think of them as yourself. So, we make them a stranger in our eyes. As if we don’t all have the same blood in our veins, as if we don’t breathe the same air. No one can be cruel unless they really view someone as different but that rips the world apart.”
For this book, I chose not to include content warnings, because I’m guessing that if you decide to read this, you’re already aware of what you’re in for. It’s brutal and heartbreaking, and full of loss and pain. But even through all of that, it’s full of beauty and hope and love as well. Even in the darkest times, Rosie found ways to let her inner self shine through. She never gave up hope that she’d be able to go home, even when everyone around her despaired.
“‘Be realistic, Rosie, I don’t think anyone goes home from here. It won’t be a bad thing to die, you know that.’
‘I am going home!’ I almost yell. And then I lower my voice. ‘Leah, we are going home from here.’ They look at me as if I am crazy. But I know, I am going home from here.”
Even when they were forced to get numbers tattooed on their arm, Rosie was still focused on her ultimate goal of going home. Rather than staying on the line where the tattooer was nervous and giving out large, uneven numbers, she risks everything to switch lines:
“I look over at the prisoner girl at the next table. She seems calmer. She does not look at the girl in line in the eye, but she gently pushes her sleeve up and slowly writes small and even numbers. Her arm looks much prettier than the other one. I am not having those big numbers on my arm. Without thinking, I run to the line next to me. An officer shouts but no one shoots.”
While Rosie does survive and thrive, the effects of the Holocaust never truly go away. Her story does have a successful resolution, but as always, it’s still tinged with pain. I can absolutely relate to this — my father struggled every single day with the influences of the handful of years that he experienced, and they colored the rest of his long life. Rosie, and all the other survivors dealt with this as well:
“She did not have an easy life, or a happily ever after, even when she got home. The Holocaust ruined many more years than the one year she lived through. There were nightmares and trauma, and irreparably shattered people. As immigrants, they struggled to find themselves, to restore their culture, and to make a living. My grandmother fought paranoia for her entire life, and my grandfather was racked with guilt because he survived while his family didn’t.”
This is such a moving and personal story, and I’m incredibly grateful to this family for sharing their own personal tale with the world. At the end, Nechama, Rosie’s granddaughter shares her own thoughts about writing this story, and how her grandmother feels about it. And the important thing to remember is that the Holocaust wasn’t just caused by one person. It was caused by a society, and it isn’t distant history. It hasn’t even been 80 years since this occurred, and it’s especially important to learn our lessons from the past, before we find ourselves in the same position we once swore to never let happen again.
“Evil does not only happen when a person is abnormally bad. Evil happens when good people do not see the good in other people. Evil happens when we judge each other. Evil happens when we put ourselves higher than others. Evil happens when we stand by someone else’s evil and do not speak up.”
Categories: Book Review