Book Reviews

Anna Heilman. Never Far Away. The Auschwitz Chronicles of Anna Heilman.

Edited by Sheldon Schwartz. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2001. x + 148 pp. With Foreward and Afterword. No suggested price (cloth), ISBN 1-55238-040-8.

Reviewed by Gillian McCann, Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies, University of Toronto.

A Sacred Act of Remembering: The Holocaust Memoir of Anna Heilman

Never Far Away is the luminous memoir of Anna Heilman, a survivor of both the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Auschwitz and Birkenau. This work, a labour of love expertly edited by Heilman's son-in-law Sheldon Schwartz, is both an important historical document and a movingly personal account of the Holocaust's effect on one woman and her family. It is also a testament to the vivifying and sustaining power of love.

Anna Heilman's chronicle begins with a description of Warsaw before World War Two; a city which in 1939 was 29% Jewish. Heilman rebuilds this vibrant and lost world with her clear and evocative prose, describing a beautiful city and a rich cultural life. The author was raised in a loving middle-class, assimilated Jewish family with her two sisters Sabina and Esther (Estusia). Heilman is honest in her portrayal of her family and describes them with flaws intact. Her remarkable parents, Jacob and Rebecca Wajcblum, were both completely deaf, and her father ran a factory which provided a standard of living which allowed them to hire a nanny, also deaf. The Wajcblum household is described as prosperous, noisy and vital and seemingly immune to any threats from the outside world.

With the German invasion of Poland September 1, 1939 this sense of security was shattered irrevocably. Jacob Wajcblum's factory was seized by the Germans and the family were immediately forced to struggle against lack of food and persecution by the Nazis. The walls of the Warsaw Ghetto were erected around their home and Heilman renders the slow starvation of the Jews now trapped in the Ghetto, ignored by their fellow Poles, in heartbreaking detail. It was at this point that Anna joined a Jewish, socialist youth group called the Hashomer Hatzair (Youth Guards). Under the tutelage of this organization she was taught her religious and cultural heritage.

As more and more people were transported from the Ghetto to concentration camps, the members of the Hashomer Hatzair began to organize a underground resistance movement. With guns provided by the Polish Workers' Party and the Polish Socialist Party, Anna and her sister Estusia participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. This was their last stand before the Germans burned the Ghetto to the ground. In May 1943 Anna was transported with her mother, father and sister Estusia, (her elder sister Sabina had escaped into Russia,) to Majdanek concentration camp. Here Anna's parents were immediately murdered. The sisters managed to remain together and were transferred to Auschwitz.

Throughout Heilman's description of the conditions at Auschwitz, one is continually struck by the spirit of resistance and will to survive of all the prisoners under the most extreme conditions. Heilman does not whitewash the situation in the camp and describes the collaborations, betrayals and compromises that typified life under constant threat of death. Despite this the prisoners struggled to maintain their humanity and the relationships that were formed often made the difference between life and death. It is clear that Anna Heilman's love for her sister was pivotal in her ability to retain her will to live and to fight even under seemingly hopeless circumstances.

Anna and Estusia began work at a munitions factory in the summer of 1944, having managed to live through disease, starvation and the constant threat of selection, which meant instant death, by so-called doctors who worked at the camp. Word was spread at Birkenau and Auschwitz that the Soviet Red Army was closing in on Warsaw and the war was nearing an end. An underground was formed in the camp to plan a uprising and Anna and Estusia worked with this group collecting matches, gasoline and wire cutters. Anna then conceived a plan to smuggle gunpowder from the section of the munitions plant where Estusia worked. In October 1944 the Sonderkommando (Crematoria Workers) revolted and blew up one of the crematoria with handmade grenades. They were all immediately killed by the SS and the gunpowder in the explosives was traced back to the munitions factory. After torture and beating one of the munitions workers broke down and denounced Estusia and her co-worker at the factory.

On January 5, 1945 Estusia and three other women were publicly executed for their part in the October uprising. This tragedy, which Anna was forced to witness, pushed her beyond her ability to cope. It was only due to the devotion of her camp sister Marta that Anna survived. Marta dragged her bodily out of Auschwitz and on the death march to Nuestadt-Glewe.

Anna Heilman remembers thinking during her years in Auschwitz-Birkenau "why can't I close my eyes to everything that is going on around me? Instead it is just the opposite. I see it all, I feel it all". But it is precisely because Anna could not numb, herself, refused to be dehumanized that she retained her will to resist. The incredible force of her resistance to the evil surrounding her, despite the odds, shine is a thread throughout her memoir.

Anna Heilman went on to live in Israel, marry, gain a degree in social work, have two daughters and move to Canada. But as she alludes to in the title of her book the memories of her experiences were never far away. In 1991 her old friend Marta insisted that she join a group of survivors who were working to have a monument erected in the Memorial Garden of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. At first reluctant to face painful memories she conceded because " I owe Marta my life. I had to obey her wishes". On June 19, 1991, a monument was dedicated to the memory of Esther Wajcblum, Ala Gertner, Roza Robota, and Regina Safirztajn with both Anna and Marta in attendance.

This book is a beautifully written chronicle of a woman possessed of the greatest courage, integrity and resilience. It depicts her refusal to be broken, her strength of character, and her unshakeable sense of compassion for the suffering of others. But most centrally this memoir tells the story of a bond between two sisters that could not be dissolved even by death.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.
All rights reserved.