Based on the true story of a brave German nurse tasked with caring for Auschwitz’s youngest prisoners. Auschwitz Lullaby brings to life the story of Helene Hannemann—a woman who sacrificed everything for family and fought furiously for the children she hoped to save. On an otherwise ordinary morning in 1943, Helene Hannemann is preparing her five children for the day when the German police arrive at her home. Helene’s worst fears come true when the police, under strict orders from the SS, demand that her children and husband, all of Romani heritage, be taken into custody. Though Helene is German and safe from the forces invading her home, she refuses to leave her family—sealing her fate in a way she never could have imagined. After a terrifying trek across the continent, Helene and her family arrive at Auschwitz and are thrown into the chaos of the camp. Her husband, Johann, is separated from them, but Helene remains fiercely protective of her children and those around her. When the powers-that-be discover that Helene is not only a German but also a trained nurse, she is forced into service at the camp hospital, which is overseen by the notorious Dr. Mengele himself. Helene is under no illusions in terms of Dr. Mengele’s intentions, but she agrees to cooperate when he asks her to organize a day care and school for the Romani children in the camp. Though physically and emotionally brutalized by the conditions at Auschwitz, Helene musters the strength to protect the children in her care at any cost. Through sheer force of will, Helene provides a haven for the children of Auschwitz—an act of kindness and selflessness so great that it illuminates the darkest night of human history. Based on a true story, Mario Escobar’s Auschwitz Lullaby demonstrates the power of sacrifice and the strength of human dignity—even when all hope seems lost.
In the year 1943, Helene Hannemann is getting her husband and five kids ready for the day one morning when SS officers burst in and demand that the husband and five children be taken into custody. Helene's husband is Romani (making the children half so) but Helene is German, so she is encouraged to leave them and start a new life elsewhere. What kind of self-respecting mother abandons her family though? To the officers' bafflement she stays put, insisting she goes wherever her family goes.
I always wanted to believe that people would wake up and see what Hitler and his followers represented, but no one did. Everyone went right along with his fanatical insanity and turned the world into a starving, warring hell.
The entire family is put on a train headed to the concentration camps. Mother and children are sent to Auschwitz... or more specifically, Birkenau (aka Auschwitz 2), the Romani division of the imprisoned. Helene's husband, Johann, is sent elsewhere but where exactly takes some time for Helene to discover. In the absence of her husband, Helene's eldest son, Blaz, takes up the "man of the house" position, covertly eavesdropping / spying around camp for any intel that may help keep the family safe. The span of the novel covers Helene's time in the camp from May - December 1943. *Note: Chapter 15 jumps to 1944.*
He was still beautiful to me despite being battered by life... it was the beautiful face of the man I loved... it was incomprehensible to any but a woman in love who had just found her long-lost beloved. When you find the one you love, everything is on fire. The half of you that was destroyed and abandoned fits together again, and the pain and suffering become ghosts from the long-distant past.
When news gets out that Helene is a trained nurse, it reaches the ears of Dr. Josef Mengele. Helene is put to work in Mengele's hospital. She's heard stories of his evil side, but wants to do everything in her power to protect the innocent children in the camps.
Impressed by her skills, he offers her another position: he wants her to be the director of a school / nursery he is creating for the children of the camps. Though Helene has an inkling of suspicious regarding his motives, she remains optimistic that some good can come from such a project. For one, she's been promised that her children may be moved to a cleaner, safer housing area... so she hesitantly agrees. From then on it is a constant struggle for her, fighting for the welfare of the children while not angering Mengele too much to potentially hasten the end of her own life.
The novel opens and closes with the thoughts of Mengele, his memories of Helene, but the bulk of it is Helene's tale to tell. And what a story this is! As this is based on a true story, many of the "characters" you'll get to know here were actually real, documented people experiencing this time in history.
Sometimes the things we lack or the obstacles we face become allies that help us endure. I decided then and there I would not be beaten. I would fight to the last breath. With the world falling to pieces around me, I would stand firm.
Escobar's writing is concise yet quietly powerful, unshakeable, and moving. Parents and non-parents alike, Escobar has his readers thinking on how much we do and would sacrifice for our loved ones, the ends of the earth we would gladly travel across if it meant we could lighten their load even a little bit. Escobar gives Helene just the right blend of motherly warmth and inner heartbreak to instantly endear her and her struggle to nearly any reader. Nurses or nursing students will also empathize with her professional struggles, the situations she is forced to stomach. Particularly heartbreaking is the 5 day rule: any patient in the hospital still sick or injured after 5 days was recommended to the "elimination" list. Helene describes a child she'd grown attached to who was sickly but on the mend... but her bedrest had extended this 5 day rule. Imagine having to stomach this kind of scene!
This story is the quintessential lesson in familial loyalty, love and sacrifice. Helene's story as a whole burrowed into my mind long after I finished that last page. It's true what they say, not all heroes wear capes!
This novel is a perfect candidate for potential book group picks. For those interested, a list of discussion questions is included in the back of the book.
FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.