Helen Waterford and Alfons Heck were born just a few miles from each other in the German Rhineland. But their lives took radically different courses: Helen's to the Auschwitz extermination camp, Alfons's to a high rank in the Hitler Youth. This book tells both of their true stories, side-by-side, and shows that two people, cast by fate as mortal enemies, can emerge from war with respect and empathy for each other. (Summary and Image from goodreads.com)
My Review: Two lives. Two radically different fates. Helen Waterford, born in Germany, married and fled to Holland in fear of the newly elected Nazi regime is a working mother, a wife, and a Jewish woman doing her best for her family. Alfons Heck, only ten years old, is a little boy being raised by his grandparents in a farming community, seduced by the power, prestige, and allure of the Hitler Youth. Eleanor Ayer has captured their stories, two very different journeys, and presented them side by side in this amazing, chilling, book.
When I was in sixth grade, it was my ambition to learn everything about the Jewish Holocaust I could. World War II history has always fascinated me and I frequently return to the genre. However, although I have read numerous stories of survivors, I had never, ever picked up a book telling the story from the other side. Heck was only a boy when Hitler came to power and was only 17 when his world crumbled and the War ended. It was fascinating to read his story - the measures that the Nazi regime took to brainwash a generation, the methods that were used to insure their devotion, blind obedience, and willingness to serve the Third Reich, and the overwhelming guilt and self-discovery he had to endure as he saw the lies unravel.
Juxtaposed with Helen Waterford's story, entering into hiding, only to find herself betrayed and sent to Auschwitz, (look for some names you definitely know from history) miraculously surviving the war, finding her young daughter safe (but unsure of this woman claiming to be her mother) and fighting to reclaim her life, this book was a heart-wrenching and enlightening one.
Waterford and Heck both immigrated to America after the war, and met up, years later, by happenstance. They were able to find forgiveness, form a friendship, and embark on lecture tours nationwide as they shared their stories of the war.
This is a difficult book to find, but it is definitely worth the read. The chapter on Heck's journey to Nuremburg, as he witnessed the trials and sentencing of men he viewed to be heroes, then as he came to grips with the reality of the Nazi goals and struggled to find peace and forgiveness are haunting. His story, and the story of an entire generation, are largely untold. The victors write the history books, and all. But his struggle to forgive himself, to change his own mind about the lies he had been fed, was heart-wrenching.
My Rating: Four and a half stars
For the Sensitive reader: There are brief descriptions of the concentration camp conditions. As fas as Holocaust books go, however, it's rather mild.