From all the books about the Holocaust that I have read so far, this was the most insightful, educational one.
I Shall Live tells the story of the Orenstein family – it’s the true recounting of the author’s experience. What makes this book different, from my point of view, is that the author presents life before, during and after WWII. But more than that, he tells us how life was for Jews as a group in his hometown before the war, but also about his personal experience with anti-Semitic Polish people.
At the beginning of the war, fearing that male Jews were in danger the most, Henry and his father leave their hometown, Hrubieszow. After a while, the whole family, including the two sons who were living in different cities, is reunited in Poland again, trying to hide. After a while, they are caught in 1942, and the parents get separated from their children, heading towards certain death.
Hanka, the only daughter, is separated from her brothers, since females and males usually had different quarters inside the camps. As the years pass, less and less information about their sister reach the three brothers. Felek, Sam and Henry always tried to stay together and help each other.
H. Orenstein’s detailed recount makes one cringe, especially when learning how the three brothers hid their money, or how during the “death march” they cut meat from the dead horses on the side of the road and carried it in their jacket, blood staining their clothes. There are also the stories of the lavatories and the unusual manners of fellow prisoners.
“In the brutal atmosphere of concentration camps, there could be no pretense, no concealing one’s true nature; it was there for anyone to see.”
The author was surprised to see how other Jews would treat their brothers, forgetting who they are and where they come from. It was all about survival. He mentions that in some cases, no matter the harsh condition, some prisoners kept to their honor, while others became either hopeless or brutal, trying to survive.
As with most sad stories, there are also seeds of hope. There were a few people, like Mrs. Lipinska, who risked their own life in order to help Jews escape. The author explains how they were surprised to see this particular woman take a chance and help them so much, evidently because she cared about them. It is easy to lose hope in situations in which you have no assurance you will be alive tomorrow, but acts of kindness (or humanity, to be fair) give people hope and will to go on.
“I remember looking at the blooming trees and flowers and thinking of how incongruous is the beauty of nature against the ugliness of man.”
I shall live was a book hard to put down, and as I was nearing the end, I hoped it would go on and on. It was certainly the book that taught me the most about Holocaust up to now. The reader can easily paint a picture in his mind about how life was before, during and after the War for the Orensteins – and the Jews in general, really. The author often included stories of other Jews, Polish or War prisoners, which offers a more insightful observation. Yes, it is a subjective story, but the inserts about these people who weren’t even close to the author give the story depth.
The style of writing immersed me into the story, moving me to tears several times. Sometimes everything seemed so cruel, so surreal, that when I remembered that it was all true, that everything really happened – it struck me so hard, that it was difficult to go on. As much as I loved reading the book, I sometimes had to put it down, just to take a small break from the depressive story.
As you may know, Orenstein became an inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist after the end of the War.
“[…] Orenstein became a toymaker who convinced Hasbro to start producing Transformers in the U.S. He holds over 100 other patents, the best-known of which gave Orenstein the exclusive right in the United States to detect and display a player’s hidden cards to the audience in poker games, one of the principal reasons that televised poker is so popular today. Orenstein is the creator and an executive producer of the Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament as well as the popular TV show High Stakes Poker. In 2008 he was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.” (source: goodreads.com)
It is inspiring how someone who survived the most horrific experience, went on to become such a successful man. It only shows that human beings can resist so much more than we think. All it needs is a sane brain, desire to live (even if it’s to see Hitler suffer – as Orenstein confesses in the book) and a strategic sense. I also appreciate that Orenstein decided not to let the Holocaust experience define him. He’s not just a survivor, he is a man that had a terrible experience, shared it with the world, and now lives his life to the fullest.
Side note: In the book, Orenstein tells the story of a Chemical Commando which him, his brothers and a few other prisoners took part of, as a fake cover up to save Jews. Their affiliation with this group protected them from the most horrific experiences of the camps, and also saved their lives several times. There is not much information on the Internet about this, so I chose not to speak too much about it since there was some speculation on the subject and I am not informed enough on it.
Hope you enjoyed the review, any opinions or input is welcomed in the comment section. Thanks for reading!