BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
THE THIRTY-SIX: A story of a boy's miraculous survival in wartime Poland, by Siegmund Siegreich
, November 28, 2009
Against all odds
A story of a boy's miraculous survival in wartime Poland
by Siegmund Siegreich
(Random House Australia)
Paperback: 371 pages
Rec. price: AUD$34.95
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
After more than six decades, Sigi Siegreich, now living with his family in Australia, has finally been able to bring himself to tell the remarkable story of how he survived the Holocaust.
His account differs from many other Holocaust memoirs in that Sigi was not a survivor of infamous death camps such as Treblinka, Belzek and Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his parents and 167 members of his extended family were exterminated; instead, he spent much of the war as a slave labourer in the camp of Skarzysko-Kamienna, which produced munitions for Germany.
Sigi was raised in Katowice, western Poland. He was only 15 when the Germans invaded in September 1939 and he and his family were forced to flee for their lives.
Unable to return to Katowice because it had been incorporated into Hitler's Reich and declared "Jew free", Sigi lived in various localities until he was seized by a German soldier, narrowly escaped being shot and ended up being sent to Skarzysko-Kamienna.
What with other Polish and Jewish inmates being killed at random, Sigi realised that his chances of survival were slim. He managed to escape and was re-united with his mother.
For the next few months, he managed to evade capture and survive. He ran a bicycle courier service between various Jewish ghettos in Poland, and also joined the Polish resistance.
Unfortunately, on one occasion, he happened to be in a particular ghetto in which his mother was located. The Nazis rounded up the inhabitants, and Sigi was separated from his mother, who was sent to Auschwitz where she was killed. Deemed fit to work, Sigi was sent back to Skarzysko-Kamienna.
Upon arrival, his biggest fear was that he would be sent back to the camp section, Werk C, from which he had escaped. In that event, he was bound to be recognised as an escaped prisoner and executed as a deterrent to other would-be escapees.
Luckily, Sigi was able to bribe camp officials to be sent to another section, Werk A, and changed his surname from Siegreich to Morgen.
Paradoxically, Sigi was to develop skills as a machine-operator and gain the trust of the Germans who were supervising him. Against all odds, he survived beatings, torture and typhus.
As the Russians advanced, Werk A was relocated to Czestochowa where he was able to change the calibrations of the equipment producing ammunitions so that bullets were produced which did not fire properly.
When the Germans finally detected his sabotage, a girl called Hanka, with whom he had fallen in love, managed to hide him from the German SS until the camp was liberated by the Russians at the end of January 1945.
The very next day, he and Hanka were married, and later returned to Sigi's family home in Katowice to try to rebuild their lives.
They had two daughters (the elder one, Evelyne, being the first Jewish child born to Holocaust survivors in Katowice).
The family migrated to Australia in 1971, and, today, Sigi and Hanka, his wife of the past 64 years, are well established in their new homeland. They have, in addition to their two daughters, two sons-in-law, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Throughout his remarkable memoir, Sigi constantly attributes his survival to the miraculous. At key points in his life, from early in the German occupation when he survived being shot as part of a mass execution, because another victim shielded him from the bullets, people or circumstances aided his survival.
The title of the book, The Thirty-Six, comes from the belief among Orthodox Jews that there are at any time in the world 36 righteous people who live largely obscure lives and who suffer for the sins of humanity, an idea that is also explored in what is arguably the finest novel about the Holocaust, The Last of the Just (1959) by the French-born Jewish novelist André Schwarz-Bart.
Sigi's mother was convinced, for example, that the man who gave up his life to shield her son from the bullet was one of the Lamed Vav (the Hebrew for 36).
Sigi maintained his morale during the terrible ordeal of the war largely due to his mother's belief that he would survive. He was reminded of this at critical points in his quest for survival by dreams he had in which his mother urged him to survive.
The Thirty-Six is a highly moving narrative - and one that this reviewer found particularly hard to put down - of the author's struggle for survival against all odds.