Book Reviews

Inherit the Truth. A Memoir of Survival and the Holocaust. 

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. 145 pp. Appendices. $35.99 (hardback), ISBN 0-312-2089-9.

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

Inherit the Truth was first written to preserve family history for Anita Lasker-Wallfisch's children and grandchildren and was originally intended to be read solely by relations.

In her Foreword the author disputes the commonly held idea that survivors of the Holocaust do not wish to talk about their experiences. Instead she states that directly after World War Two few people wanted to hear about the Holocaust and that eventually she felt completely silenced on the topic. However, in 1985 events precipitated a change of heart. While in Rome on a concert tour two young colleagues expressed real interest in the author's past, she was then asked to speak about them on the BBC which led to the idea of the publication of a book.

As Lasker-Wallfisch was completing the writing she came across a box of family correspondence spanning the years 1939-1946. These letters then became the narrative frame for her memoir.

The writing of Inherit the Truth was the breaking of a long silence on the topic of the Holocaust and its effects on the Lasker family. Another factor that had contributed to Lasker-Wallfisch's hesitation to write her story was the challenge of putting her experiences into words. The author feared trivializing the events and felt the responsibility of speaking when so many millions had been silenced.

In her Ph.D. thesis " Mimesis to Metaphor: Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Photographic and Installation Art" Carla Shapiro discusses this challenge in relation to visual art and argues that artists have developed a range of approaches to depicting the Holocaust ranging from graphic to oblique. In these terms Lasker-Wallfisch takes a mostly oblique approach. Throughout the work she is careful to emphasize that verbal description cannot possibly encompass the event of the Holocaust. As a result of this concern Inherit the Truth is built up around letters sent by the Lasker family from Germany to Marianne Lasker in England. Through these letters the reader follows the rising tide of Nazism through the eyes of the Lasker family. This correspondence, which is the centre piece of the book, evokes a real sense of the period free of anachronisms that tend to creep in with hindsight. The reader shares in the limited knowledge of the correspondents as they struggle to come to grips with the events following the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. The letters show the dawning sense of danger for the Laskers, a middle-class assimilated German Jewish family, and then the desperate attempts made by Alfons and Edith Lasker to ensure their daughters' safety through escape from Germany. The indifference of the international community to the plight of the Jews comes through clearly in this documentary evidence.

In 1942 Lasker-Wallfisch's parents were deported and subsequently murdered. Anita and her sister Renate, sixteen and eighteen respectively, were left to fend for themselves as the juggernaut tightened. While working as conscripted labourers at a paper factory both girls engaged in resistance work forging identification papers for French P.O.W.s. Eventually they were arrested while attempting to escape to Paris and were charged with " 'forgery', 'aiding the enemy' and 'attempted escape'". Ironically, the fact that the Lasker sisters were imprisoned contributed to their survival as they were not immediately sent to a concentration camp. However, in December of 1943 they were transferred to Auschwitz.

While being inducted in the camp some fateful impulse prompted Anita to tell the woman registering her that she played the cello. Lasker-Wallfisch was shocked by the woman's instant reaction as she was asked to stand aside and told " You will be saved".

Lasker-Wallfisch was then introduced to Alma Rose the remarkable violinist and conductor of the Lager or Camp Orchestra. This group of inmate musicians played outside the main gate of Auschwitz every morning and evening for the prisoners who worked outside the camp. The marches they played were intended to keep the workers in step and the author referred to these concerts as "Music for the Inferno". The orchestra also played for their Nazi captors. Lasker-Wallfisch states categorically of her membership in the orchestra " I can safely say that the cello saved not only my life but my sister's life as well." As a result of her position in the orchestra Anita was exempt from selection and managed to help her sister Renate gain employment as a Lauferin (Messenger). This job resulted in better rations and housing and saved Renate when she was still recovering from an almost fatal bout of typhus. 

On a more subtle level the ability to play in the orchestra also prevented Anita from feeling entirely dehumanized. As she writes playing the cello "helped me to maintain a shred of human dignity" along with a sense of individuality which the tattoos and shaved head had been an attempt to efface. Playing music under the strict instruction of Alma Rose also proved a distraction and Lasker-Wallfisch noted that the conductor's iron discipline actually helped the musicians to concentrate on something other than the misery all around them. Despite conductor Rose's harshness, or perhaps because of it, the author credits her with being "instrumental in helping us to keep sane."

However, upon the death of Rose in 1944 the protection of the orchestra became more tenuous and as the war progressed and the Russians advanced the prisoners were moved to Belsen. Lasker-Wallfisch describes this camp as Dante's Inferno where 50, 000 prisoners were starved as warehouses sat full of food and medicine sent by the Red Cross. Thousands also died of typhus.

Finally, on April 15, 1945 Belsen was liberated by British troops. Renate remembered that when the tanks rolled in that they looked at their liberators with silent suspicion, " we simply could not believe that we had not been blown up before the Allies could get to us."

Despite their miraculous survival the odyssey of the Lasker sisters was not at an end. They were now classified as Displaced Persons and their attempts to be reunited with their sister Marianne in England were stymied by bureaucratic wrangling and indifference for eleven months. In 1946 Anita gave evidence at the Luneburg trials which led to the execution of eleven high ranking Nazi officials. During this period both sisters worked as translators for the British Army and formed strong ties with many of the personnel. Inching towards their goal of immigration to England, Anita showed her usual ingenuity in creating the necessary paperwork to get the two of them out of Germany.

Lasker-Walfisch noted that the various challenges were promptly dealt with as "old combatants like us are not so easily deterred by such details." Finally in March 1946 they made the crossing from Brussels to England where they were met by their sister and cousin.

In writing Inherit the Truth Lasker-Wallfisch makes it clear that she was not attempting to write a full account of the Holocaust. In the chapter related to her experiences at Auschwitz she acknowledges that many books have already been written on the subject saying, " I feel that the best contribution that I can make here to talk about my life." As a result the book is an extremely personal memoir and contains little in the way of historical context. The author presupposes knowledge of World War Two and the Holocaust. Inherit the Truth contains a great deal of period detail due to the use of documentary sources such as letters, official papers saved by the author and newspaper articles. This gives the reader something of an insider's perspective as the letters look at events through the eyes of particular individuals. Through detail rather than extensive description Lasker-Wallfisch evokes the horror of living under the Nazi regime.

In Appendix One the author includes a Declaration of Possessions, a list of household goods that her father was forced to fill out just prior to his murder. Lasker-Wallfisch notes that the Nazis retained their "obsession with order in the midst of theft and murder". These lists allowed the Gestapo to then pillage the homes of Jews with greater efficiency. Through the inclusion of this document the author illustrates starkly the combination of bureaucracy and barbarism that typified the Nazis.

The use of documents and letters from the period also emphasizes how history was profoundly changed by the Holocaust. Letters written by British army personnel reveal their attempts to grasp what they were witnessing. It is difficult now to imagine a time before the word genocide existed in the English language, but the survivors and their liberators both had to struggle to make sense of a world so utterly changed. Lasker-Wallfisch also reveals in her description of the court scenes at Luneberg that traditional modes of justice proved inadequate to deal with the crimes committed. It was during these proceedings that the author understood, " how incomprehensible to the rest of the world were the events that had led to the Lunegberg trial." The experiences of the sisters after the war also revealed the inadequacy of international policy which had to adapt to the problem of Displaced Persons and nation states that murdered their own citizens. Anita was first classified by the British Home Office as an "enemy alien" due to her German birth and this slowed down the immigration process. Through her own experiences Lasker-Wallfisch illustrates how the Holocaust marked a fundamental turning point in Western history.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch's work succeeds on its own terms. It is the memoir of a remarkable woman, and the personality of the writer comes through very clearly. Her ingenuity, courage and fighting spirit, as well as her dry sense of humour, are all evident throughout the work. Inherit the Truth contributes to the ongoing documentation of the Holocaust. Luckily for us Lasker-Wallfisch felt it her duty to share her life with the public. In accounting for the fact that she proceeded despite misgivings the author describes her sense of responsibility towards those who perished. Lasker-Wallfisch states that " the millions who were murdered rely on those survivors to bear witness to their existence." Through her personal account Lasker-Wallfisch bears witness for those who cannot.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2003.
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