Book Reviews

Triumph of Hope
From Theresienstadt and Auschwitz to Israel.
Ruth Elias

Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1998. Published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. ix+271 pp. No suggested price, ISBN 0-471-16365-1.

Reviewed by Gillian McCann, Ph.D.

Ruth Elias's memoir Triumph of Hope charts the author's experiences as a child growing up in Czechoslovakia through her years in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, Auschwitz and Nazi labour camps and ultimately to her finding a true home in Israel after World War Two. Elias's story reveals much about the experience of the Holocaust and provides insight into the psychology of survival. This work also reveals in a stark light the ways in which women were especially vulnerable to Nazi atrocities. This is also the story of an indomitable woman who coped with intolerable circumstances while retaining her humanity. Elias's decision to share her story clearly comes at great personal cost. The impetus behind her willingness to revisit these traumas stems from a desire to tell the whole truth for the benefit of her family and society.

Ruth Elias came from a middle-class Zionist, Jewish family who were kept somewhat apart from the rest of the community due to the divorce of her parents. Elias, along with her sister Edith, did however participate in synagogue, were close with members of their large extended family, and Ruth became an accomplished musician. At this stage, with the two sisters poised on the edge of adulthood, historical forces exploded forever the normalcy of their lives. The Nazis entered their hometown of Ostava, Czechoslovakia on March 14, 1939. Elias's father's factory was seized by the Germans, all the Jews of the city were issued identity cards and were barred from restaurants, theatres and government buildings. They were then ordered to surrender all their valuables to the Gestapo. Meanwhile, the author's father, Fritz Huppert was attempting to secure immigration for his daughters to England. He miraculously managed to obtain exit permits for them but both refused to leave their ailing father. By September of that same year any immigration had been rendered impossible by the beginning of the war.

In an attempt to escape the Nazis the Huppert family fled to the village of Pozorice where they lived as Gentiles and worked for a farmer and his family. This year and half was a somewhat idyllic time, a reprieve before the terror, in which some degree of regularity asserted itself. Ruth's sister fell in love with a Czech and the author writes poignantly, " I'm glad Edith was able to have this love, even if only for a short while." In the spring of 1941, just as Ruth had begun a relationship with a young man named Koni, the Gestapo arrived in Pozorice and the Huppert family was ordered to report for transport to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Elias notes that it was discovered that the villagers had known all along that the family was Jewish and had kept their secret. Along with 55,000 to 60,000 other Jews, the Huppert family were forced to live in what had been a tiny military encampment meant for 13,000 soldiers. Of the 141, 000 prisoners taken to Theresienstadt, approximately 33, 500 died in the ghetto, 88, 000 were deported and of these 3, 5000 survived. Here without newspapers, radios or any access to news from the outside they waited in increasing apprehension to be sent on the Osttransports (transports to the East). The author makes it clear that is such insane circumstances denial was the only way of maintaining a sense of hope, even as they began to hear about the existence of concentration camps. When the rest of her family was scheduled to be sent east Ruth became seriously ill and as a solution married Koni in order to stay behind. This was the last that she saw of her family.

While remaining in the ghetto with her new husband Ruth became pregnant. Recognizing how this would effect her chances of survival a ghetto doctor advised her to terminate the pregnancy. She tried desperately to obtain an abortion which was prohibited in the ghetto. In December 1943, she and Koni were put on a cattle car to Auschwitz and Ruth Elias's fight for her life began in earnest. The author notes in this section of the book that help often came from unexpected places such as the hangman of the camp who upon seeing she was pregnant offered her extra food. However, she became rapidly estranged from her husband who was unable, or unwilling, to offer her any consolation during their brief meetings in the camp. The prisoners kept their spirits up by cooking imaginary meals and participating in group discussions knowing intuitively that " if we gave up spiritually and intellectually we would be giving up all hope of survival." Ruth consistently acted with resourcefulness in order to escape selection as along with the other women she tried to remain alive physically and emotionally under the constant threat of rape and death.

Despite the fact of her being systematically starved and suffering from night blindness brought on by vitamin deficiency, Elias's pregnancy progressed and became increasingly difficult to hide. Eventually she gave birth with the help of a Polish mid-wife who was also a prisoner. The scene evoked is one of terror and pathos as these women reduced to skeletons participated in the birth without water or even towels. With the birth of her child Ruth Elias was chosen as a participant in an "experiment" by the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele. This part of the book takes us into a realm beyond human understanding. In the moral twilight that was the concentration camp Ruth Elias was forced to make a choice that is unimaginable to us. Under a regime that upturned all the most sacred rules of the human community, she reached out for survival with the help of Maca Steinberg, an interned doctor. This part of the book is not for the faint of heart and took a great deal of integrity and courage to write. Elias is clearly determined to tell the full truth of her experience.

With the support of two other inmates, Ruth regained her will to live and was sent to Taucha labour camp in Germany. Here conditions were marginally better despite the heavy physical labour. Her resilience also reasserted itself and she began to smuggle extra bread to her fellow prisoners taken during her trips outside the camp. Away from the gas chambers, and with the end of the war in sight, the spirits of all the prisoners began to lift. During this period Ruth met Kurt Elias who was to become her husband. In April of 1945, when they were ordered to evacuate the camp, Elias instinctively offered to stay behind to nurse the sick and thereby avoided becoming part of one pf the infamous death marches the preceded the end of the war. Even after liberation by the Americans life remained challenging as Ruth and Kurt were placed in a reception camp for former prisoners. Czech nationals were then repatriated and Ruth returned to Prague in an attempt to find members of her family.

The author's desperate search for her family members cast a pall over her happiness at being free and adjustment to post-war conditions proved difficult. Upon finding that none of her immediate relatives had survived she became seriously depressed and was finally institutionalized. As she writes, " The prospect of being reunited with those I loved, kept me from giving up", but without that hope she was now adrift. However, as she had always done Ruth Elias drew on some mysterious store of inner strength. The psychiatrists were of course unable to help as they had no solution to her problem. Instead a sense of hope for the future pulled the author back into the world and she ultimately married Kurt Elias. Aware of the darkening political situation in Czechoslovakia under the Soviets, and the continuing anti-Semitism, the Elias' decided to emigrate to Israel and throw in their lot with the new Jewish homeland. When their ship arrived in Haifa Ruth writes , "Holding my head high, I descended the steps of the ship's ladder and swore never again to bow down before anyone." The part of the book describing her first years in Israel is fascinating and one wishes it were longer. Perhaps, it requires a whole other book. Life in Israel was far from easy, but Ruth entered into with great élan and her typical courage. Here with the birth of her sons Ruth was able to finally put down permanent roots and begin to heal.

Elias's memoir offers a unflinching look into the heart of darkness that was Auschwitz. Throughout her ordeal Ruth retained a fighting spirit that also included compassion for those around us. Her story also shows that in such extreme circumstances, "everyone had to show his true character". The results were often surprising with aid coming from the most unlikely sources. Elias's character was also clearly shown as she retained a sense of conscience no matter what the external circumstances. In her unrelenting honesty she has also, no doubt, made it easier for others to tell their stories. Finally at home in Israel, Ruth Elias has been able to put her experiences down on paper as a testament to a spirit that could not be vanquished.

Copyright © 2004 Judy Cohen, all rights reserved.