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Karmel, Ilona


KARMEL, ILONA (1925–2000), Holocaust survivor and author. Born in Cracow, Poland, to Hirsch and Mita (Rosenbaum) Karmel, Ilona Karmel was taken to the Cracow ghetto in November 1942. Later that year, Karmel, her mother, and her older sister, Henryka, were deported to the nearby slave labor camp in Plaszow. In 1943, they were transported to Starzysko Kamienna, a labor camp near Leipzig, and then to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Karmel attributes her own and her sister's survival to their mother's pro-active protection at critical moments. In the final days of the war, a German military vehicle ran over Karmel and her mother, apparently deliberately. Karmel's mother died from her injuries, and Karmel's legs were crushed so severely that she spent two years convalescing in a Swedish hospital.

While in the camps, the Karmel sisters composed poetry on stolen paper. In 1947, they published a volume of these poems, Spiew za Drutami ("Song Behind the Wire"), depicting the inner life of slave laborers and their struggle against dehumanization. In Sweden, Karmel studied English by correspondence course and began writing fiction in English. Upon reaching New York in 1948, Karmel enrolled in Hunter College and continued writing. One story, "Fru Holm," was awarded the 1950 prize for college fiction by Mademoiselle magazine. Karmel transferred to Radcliffe College, graduating with honors in 1952 under the mentorship of the poet Archibald Mac-Leish. Her first novel, Stephania (1953) emerged from her experiences in the Swedish hospital.

Karmel's masterpiece, An Estate of Memory (1969), was the product of a 10-year immersion in wartime memories. Set within a labor camp resembling Starzysko, the novel depicts the physical and psychological pressures on four women who form a surrogate family. Three of the women dedicate themselves to sustaining the secret pregnancy of the fourth. The novel explores their moral struggles and fear of degenerating. One character reflects, "Two kinds of evil … were at work here. The first came from outside … lurking in hunger, in typhus and the bitter dust. The other evil was new. It came from within" (121).

Karmel, who remained close to her sister, Henia Karmel-Wolfe, also a novelist, married physicist Francis Zucker, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1938. The couple lived in Belmont, Massachusetts, taking frequent trips to Germany for Zucker's work. Karmel taught creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she received the Dean's Award for Distinguished Service in 1994. M.I.T. further recognized Karmel by establishing the Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes to mark her retirement in 1995. Karmel died from leukemia.

[Sara Horowitz (2nd ed.)]

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