Monday, November 8, 2010

I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree: a memoir of a Schindler’s list survivor by Laura Hillman 2005

"There are many YA Holocaust memoirs, but few of them deal with a teenager's survival in the concentration camps. That makes Hillman's affecting account particularly noteworthy." from a review by Hazel Rochman in Booklist

Although the intended audience for this memoir which is written in simple and direct prose is young adults, Laura Hillman (born in 1923) writes well and a reader of any age would be moved by her story which covers the period 1942-1945.

When the story opens Hannelore, (the author's German name) who is the third of five children, is at a Jewish boarding school on the outskirts of Berlin and her two younger brothers are at a school outside of Cologne. Her older sisters were already out of the country, one in England, one in Jerusalem. Her parents thought that boarding schools would better protect them from the wave of anti-Semitism that accompanied Hitler’s rise.  The author’s childhood home had been in Aurich in Northern Germany, and  Hannalore’s father could not believe he could be a target of German hate because he had been a decorated veteran of the German army during World War I.

In the Spring of 1942 Hannalore received two letters from her mother. The first informed her that her father had been arrested and taken to Buchenwald where he was murdered. The second one sent a few weeks later informed her that her mother and the boys had been served notice that they were going to be deported “east.”  Hannalore, not quite twenty years old, decided to leave school and join the transport with her mother and younger brothers because she felt they needed her help.

During the rest of the memoir the author narrates their journey from camp to camp. All in all she was in eight camps. She lost track of her brother Wolfgang early in their journey, then her mother, and then her brother Selly. When she was transferred to Budzyn she met her future husband, Dick Hillman who was a Polish Jewish prisoner of war who seemed well-connected and tried to do what he could to protect her. She later learned that he was working with the partisans.  Here she was also reunited with her very sick fifteen-year old brother Selly who died shortly thereafter in the camp infirmary.

Hannalore and Dick were then both transferred to Plaszow and both were on a short list to become workers at Oskar Schindler’s factory in Brunnlitz. But it took many difficult months for that to happen and, although conditions in Brunnlitz were much better, it was a tense time with rumors constantly circulating about what was happening in Europe. But soon they were liberated, got married and immigrated to the United States.

Laura Hillman wrote and published this book about her younger self sixty years after the experiences she narrates. It took her many years to come to terms with what she witnessed and what she endured. It is likely that part of her motivation for revisiting and writing about her past was the release of the movie Schindler’s List in 1993. Because it was written for a young adult audience a lot of potentially useful historical/political background information is missing, so we don't get a lot of complexity, but she does not shy away from writing about the horrors of the camps nor about the prisoner hierarchy.

The memoir includes some family photos and a very useful map that charts Hannelore’s journey from her home town through the various camps. It is dedicated to the memory of her parents and brothers who all perished.

Click here to access the Yad Vashem website which has detailed information about Schindler and Brunnlitz with links to survivors' testimony and to Schindler's speech to his workers when the Germans surrendered.

Selly and Rosette Wolff – author’s paternal grandparents
    Martin Wolff – Selly and Rosette's son; married Karoline
        Rosel – Martin and Karoline’s daughter
        Hildegard – Martin and Karoline’s daughter
        Hannelore (Laura) – Martin and Karoline’s daughter; married Bernhard (Dick) Hillman; the author
        Wolfgang – Martin and Karoline’s son
        Selly – Martin and Karoline’s son
    Hannah – Selly and Rosette’s daughter; married Karl

Salo Walden – a cousin

Henriette – author’s maternal grandmother (had twelve children)
    Karoline – her daughter; married Martin Wolff; parents of author (see above)

Erich Neuman
Eugen Heiman
Eva Suesskind

Brunnlitz, Czechoslovakia
Plaszow, Poland
Auschwitz, Poland
Buchenwald, Poland
Majdanek, Poland
Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia
Fulda, Germany
Aurich, Ostfriesland, Germany
Weimar, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Cologne, Germany
Dr. Frankel’s Boarding School for Jewish Girls
Marienhafe, Germany

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