10 British Pris­on­ers of War Saved My Life

Han­nah Rigler
  • Review
By – November 11, 2011

Like many Jew­ish girls, Sara and her sis­ter, Han­nah, lived hap­pi­ly with their par­ents and extend­ed fam­i­ly in a small East­ern Euro­pean town (Shav­el, Lithua­nia). Their pleas­ant life came to an end when the Rus­sians invad­ed. Their first vic­tims were Sara’s father and his broth­er, own­ers of a leather plant, cap­i­tal­ists” in Russ­ian eyes. With her father’s tri­al and sub­se­quent two-year incar­cer­a­tion, Sara’s order­ly life came to a close. Their home had to be shared with a Russ­ian pilot and his wife. Sara’s oth­er focus, her Hebrew school, also end­ed, with Hebrew for­bid­den and only Yid­dish allowed. Resist­ing escap­ing to Rus­sia due to her father’s ear­li­er dire expe­ri­ences with the Rus­sians, the fam­i­ly, assum­ing the Ger­mans to be a cul­tured peo­ple, await­ed its des­tiny under a far worse occu­pa­tion, that of the Third Reich. 

In June, 1941, the Ger­mans invad­ed Lithua­nia. It wasn’t long before the Jews were forced to wear the iden­ti­fy­ing badge, a Jew­ish star. Her father was again jailed, but this time, shot. The fam­i­ly and the rest of their town fol­lowed the dead­ly cir­cuit of ghet­to, cat­tle cars, and ulti­mate­ly four dif­fer­ent con­cen­tra­tion camps. Mirac­u­lous­ly, Sara, her moth­er, and her sis­ter remained togeth­er. What final­ly sep­a­rat­ed the trio occurred toward the end of the Death March, which began in Decem­ber 1944 with a thou­sand women and end­ed in Jan­u­ary 1945 with few­er than three hun­dred. How Sara attempt­ed to get food for her starv­ing fam­i­ly, an attempt which ulti­mate­ly result­ed in her sep­a­ra­tion from them, is con­tained in a dra­mat­i­cal­ly writ­ten pas­sage of this memoir. 

She was res­cued by a group of British pris­on­ers-of-war, their own safe­ty pre­car­i­ous at best, who chanced all to save a half dead, scarce­ly human Jew­ish teenag­er — some­one who resem­bled lit­tle more than refuse in a barn, where they found her when she fled from the police. The author’s por­tray­al of her sojourn with the sol­diers and in local homes where they placed her is spell-bind­ing, while her descrip­tion of life under the Russ­ian lib­er­a­tors” is con­trary to every­thing Sara expect­ed — not safe­ty and a warm wel­come, but attempt­ed rape and bru­tal­i­ty instead. 

After a brief return to Lithua­nia, Sara emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States, where she became Han­nah, in trib­ute to her sis­ter and the six mil­lion Jews who did not sur­vive. She has been active in pol­i­tics, in the strug­gle for Sovi­et Jew­ry, and in many edu­ca­tion­al and phil­an­thropic endeavors. 

This is a book to read for its writ­ing, sen­si­tiv­i­ty, adven­ture, and grace­ful mes­sage. It is a wel­come addi­tion to the broad range of the Jew­ish ouvre, not lim­it­ed to Holo­caust and memoir.

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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