Born Survivors tells the story of three remarkable young women whose lives were first diminished, and then devastated, when the Nazis swept through Eastern Europe intent upon their annihilation, but which they somehow found the resilience to outlast and survive.
Among millions of Holocaust victims sent to Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1944, Priska, Rachel, and Anka each passed through its infamous gates with a secret. Strangers to each other, they were newly pregnant.
Born Survivors follows the mothers’ incredible journey – first to Auschwitz; then to a German slave labour camp; and finally, as the Allies closed in, their hellish 17-day train journey with thousands of other prisoners to the Mauthausen death camp in Austria.
While Priska, Rachel and Anka all make the journey from Auschwitz to Mauthausen, these women start out as strangers to each other and remain so even once the war is over. They may have been aware that there were other (expectant) mothers on their transport but they weren’t about to seek each other out and bond over their shared status when its very existence was the difference between life and death.
Wendy Holden sets herself a difficult task in telling all three stories in one book but it’s something I think she manages to do extremely well. Some readers may not like the repetition that arises from the commonalities within their stories but I believe it’s there for a reason, and had the desired effect on me.
Taking each woman in turn, Holden first details what their lives and those of their families would have been like from a time when the Nazis were still only considered to be a German problem, right up until each woman’s arrival at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
These opening sections are longer than others in the book but vitally important for two reasons: they helped me build a picture of the women’s lives before the Nazis took control, the individual hopes and dreams of the young women, their aspirations, and their family’s place within their local community and society as a whole; and then I watched as the Nazis came in and introduced each new restriction which systematically dismantled and destroyed all of that. It was truly chilling.
That each woman comes from a different part of Eastern Europe only serves to emphasise how organised and methodical the Nazi regime was when stripping so many people of the freedoms they once enjoyed, limiting their lives and livelihoods until they’re so restricted they practically have neither and confining them to live within ever decreasing spaces.
This reduction continues even after the women reach the now infamous concentration camp and beyond. It’s chilling to see how each petty deprivation or calculated humiliation only serves to chip away at the women’s humanity and reduce them to a nominal existence. I felt a part of me die inside each step these women took towards resembling something more wraith-like than human.
And yet, despite this bleak existence, Priska, Rachel and Anka each defy their persecutors to try and bring another life into the world under the most hostile of conditions. Their hope for a future with the children they’re carrying and determination to see those babies born has stayed with me since reading Born Survivors. They might not have been able to control much during these horrific times but they show incredible fortitude while striving towards the life-affirming outcome we all crave for them.
Wendy Holden tells a remarkably moving story of resilience and hope with great compassion and I’m very grateful to her for writing about Priska, Rachel and Anna and their Born Survivors. Theirs is undoubtedly an important and affecting story from the Holocaust and I’d urge you to read it, if you can.
Born Survivors by Wendy Holden is published by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown. It is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead where each purchase helps to support your local independent bookshop. For more on Wendy Holden and her writing, visit her Author Website, or over on Facebook, on Instagram or on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy.
Originally published in 2015, Born Survivors is an international bestseller, published in twenty-two countries and translated into sixteen languages. This special commemorative edition marks their babies’ seventy-fifth birthdays and the seventy-fifth anniversary of the ending of the war. I’m taking part in the blog tour for the Commemorative Edition, full details of which are below.