What are the odds? Whatever they are, Mania Fishel Kroll seems to have beaten them more than once in her life.
As a little girl, she barely survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp long enough to be moved to a slightly less brutal Nazi slave labor camp a few dozen miles away. And she became the only member of her family to survive the war. By her own account, Mania should not have made it, and she did so only because of sheer chance and the intervention of perfect strangers at precisely the moment she needed to be rescued from certain death. One of those strangers, an SS guard by the name of Johanne, took a special liking to the little girl and risked her own life and reputation to slip her extra food and warm clothing. Mania came to believe that the woman even wanted to adopt her at the end of the war – but in the chaos associated with those final days, the two were separated before they even had a chance to say goodbye.
But perhaps even more astounding, is what happened to Mania in 1976, decades after she relocated to Canada to start a new life for herself. Mania, in need of someone to do housecleaning, hired a German woman who wanted to earn extra money before she moved back to Germany when her Canadian work visa expired. Mania is stunned to recognize that the woman is none other than Johanne, the guard who saved her life when she seemed certain to die at the hands of Hitler’s exterminators. Despite Mania’s efforts to reconnect with Johanne, the woman adamantly denied she was ever an SS guard and, when Johanne returned to Germany, the two lost touch for what turned out to be another 25 years.
When, in 2001, a Canadian documentary filmmaker became interested in Mania’s story, Lisa Birnie was invited to join the project. The result of her involvement is In Mania’s Memory, a memoir combining the memories and stories of two women, one a Jewish woman who lost her entire family to the Nazi rampage, the other a woman who might very well be the SS guard who saved the first woman’s life.
Beginning with Mania, Birnie allows the women to tell their stories in their own words, aptly capturing the personalities of both women in their choices of words and manners of expression. At appropriate times, as Mania and Johanne tell their stories, the author interjects her own thoughts about what she is being told and what she observes for herself while conducting the interviews. The book reaches its climax when Mania and the author accompany a film crew to Poland so that Mania can share her thoughts and emotions while visiting the sites of the camps she survived.
During the filming, the two women will come face-to-face for the first time since 1976. Will the German woman finally admit that she is the former SS guard that saved Mania from certain death? Or will Mania decide that her own wishful thinking sparked a case of mistaken identity? And what will happen to the two women next?
In Mania’s Memory is one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” stories that have to be read to be believed. What are the odds?
Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)