Hope Is the Last to Die: A Coming of Age Under Nazi Terror (Nadzieja Umiera Ostatnia)

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Memoir by Halina Birenbaum, 1967

Hope Is the Last To Die, published in English translation in 1996, is the autobiographical account of Polish-Jewish writer Halina Birenbaum's adolescent journey through the horrors of the Holocaust. Beginning with the occupation of Warsaw, she recounts the constant fear and dangers of the ghetto and later the camps: Majdanek, Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Neustadt-Glewe. In outline it is a familiar story, but in her telling it is fresh, startling, and powerful. First published in Polish in 1967, Hope Is the Last To Die has been through three editions in that language and translated into several more, including multiple editions in English and German.

Like any successful travel narrative, it has a primary level that is spatial and geographical. It also, however, describes a journey on psychological, emotional, and spiritual levels. Set against external events—imposed and controlled by the alien forces of the Nazi occupiers—are the narrator's personal and internal experiences, which punctuate her accelerated growth as an individual. These experiences are primarily built around a series of personal relationships, first with family members, the most important of which is with her remarkable mother. When all the members of her immediate family have been exterminated or have disappeared, there are periods of isolation and alienation. Each time, however, she overcomes the inclination to despair and resignation and reaffirms her belief in and attachment to humanity through the establishment of new relationships, all of which reflect the need of the adolescent narrator to recreate her essential familial linkages.

Although it was written more than 20 years after the events, Birenbaum attempts to maintain the naïve perspective of a young adolescent. This difficult stylistic challenge has eluded many highly accomplished writers, but Birenbaum manages it with considerable success, primarily because her natural narrative voice has the directness, humility, and unpretentious sincerity of a child. Meanwhile, the pacing—combined with naturalistic detail of description, psychologically astute analysis, and emotional sincerity—carry the reader eagerly along.

The tone of the work is one of a profound belief in the enduring value of humanity and in the ability of the human spirit to overcome the most overwhelmingly evil obstacles. The writing is not artistically sophisticated—it occasionally lacks structure, is frequently uneven in its delivery of descriptive passages, and its characters are not equally well drawn. At the same time, there are characters and scenes that are unforgettable and powerfully drawn. In particular, the psychological description of the author's mother and of the mother-daughter relationship stands out as a noteworthy achievement. There are also scenes from the ghetto, transport trains, and camps that are simply unforgettable for their emotional power and sharpness of detail. For example, in a delicately understated passage reminiscent of Russian writer Varlam Shalamov's bleakest accounts of Soviet labor camps, Birenbaum describes hiding for hours on narrow shelves in a closet to avoid detection by the Nazis. Bringing together a remarkable mix of poignancy, tension, and absurd horror, she recounts how the younger children on the shelves above are unable to refrain from urinating on her, and she, a girl of 12, is unable to move or even to sigh. Like so many people of her generation, she was robbed of her youth, and one of the key sources of dramatic motivation in the story is the constant image of her forced to pretend to be 17 years old when she is actually only 13; the success of the stratagem will determine whether she lives or dies.

Obviously the writing of such a personal account is both painful and redemptive. Much of the success of the work lies in the balance Birenbaum strikes between the two processes. She does not refrain from describing evil acts and their perpetrators and effects in plain language. She also does not shield the reader from the fact that not all the evil was carried out by Nazis and describes the despicable things done by Jews and Poles as well. But, her true motivation is suggested in the title of her account and in the descriptions of acts of courage, selflessness, and compassion on the part of Jews, Poles, and others. She even tries to locate humane virtue in some of her oppressors and successfully puts a human face on both perpetrators and victims; her characters are human first and ethnically or racially grouped only secondarily. In a recent untitled poem she questions whether it is possible, through love and tears, to burn the old forms of evil and from their ashes to resurrect something better and of higher value. Birenbaum concludes that since she does cry and does love, it must indeed be possible.

—Allan Reid

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Hope Is the Last to Die: A Coming of Age Under Nazi Terror (Nadzieja Umiera Ostatnia)

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