Her­ta, age nine on left. Renee, age ten and a half, on right. All pho­tos cour­tesy of the publisher. 

In 1944, ten-year-old Renee Hartman’s her fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty are round­ed up and sent to Auschwitz; her one remain­ing rel­a­tive is her deaf younger sis­ter, Her­ta. This con­nec­tion becomes more pre­cious, her last link to nor­mal­i­ty and family.

When they first return from the farm where they were hid­ing for the past year, the sis­ters wan­der the streets of Bratisla­va and sur­vive by eat­ing garbage. They do not under­stand why they see no oth­er Jews on the streets. Have they all been sent away to be killed? Renee won­ders. I don’t want us to be the last ones alive. She takes her lit­tle sis­ter by the hand, walks to the near­by police sta­tion, and announces they wish to join their par­ents. The police take them to the load­ing plat­form and put them in a cat­tle car filled with oth­er Czech Jews. The sis­ters do not see their par­ents and are not aware they were already deport­ed to Auschwitz and mur­dered. After a jour­ney of sev­er­al days with only one slice of bread each, Renee and Her­ta arrive at con­cen­tra­tion camp Bergen-Belsen.

Today, Renee Hart­man is near­ly nine­ty years old and her sis­ter Her­ta died last year, at age eighty-sev­en. In a recent inter­view, Renee describes that her most vivid mem­o­ry of child­hood is immers­ing her­self in books, a habit that led in lat­er years to her career as a poet and mem­oirist. Her sto­ry, Signs of Sur­vival, is writ­ten for mid­dle-grade read­ers and ref­er­ences both the sign lan­guage she used to com­mu­ni­cate with her deaf sis­ter and par­ents, as well as indi­ca­tors that she was still alive in Auschwitz: fero­cious­ly pro­tect­ing Her­ta from Nazi doc­tors, writ­ing clan­des­tine diary entries on a roll of toi­let paper, learn­ing words in Yid­dish and Pol­ish to gath­er infor­ma­tion from oth­er pris­on­ers that alert­ed her to what to do and what not to do in order to sur­vive. Renee does not recall the day of their lib­er­a­tion in April 1945. She was deliri­ous from typhus fever and would not have sur­vived, had British forces arrived a day later.

Mem­oirs such as Renee’s under­score, as no oth­er doc­u­men­ta­tion can, the indi­vid­ual human expe­ri­ence of the Holocaust.

Mem­oirs such as Renee’s under­score, as no oth­er doc­u­men­ta­tion can, the indi­vid­ual human expe­ri­ence of the Holo­caust. It is a point of entry of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance for mid­dle-grade stu­dents, who are old enough to begin form­ing an impres­sion of the Holo­caust. Sto­ries of the Holo­caust show the human spir­it and also the fail­ure of that spir­it; these nar­ra­tives show acts of hero­ism and also the unheroic acts Jew and oth­er vic­tims of the Nazis had to do just to stay alive.

Signs of Sur­vival offers an added dimen­sion for the edu­ca­tion of mid­dle-grade read­ers: the descrip­tion of Renee’s time dur­ing the Holo­caust absorbs only one-half of this short book. The sec­ond half doc­u­ments Renee and Herta’s expe­ri­ences arriv­ing in Amer­i­ca, such as the expe­ri­ence of see­ing a per­son of col­or for the first time, and the star­tling dis­cov­ery of carts and wag­ons piled high with fruits and veg­eta­bles … a shock­ing con­trast with the scarci­ty we had known in Europe.” She vivid­ly remem­bers think­ing, enter­ing this new world, that Not only did we have to get used to war, which was unbear­able — but now we had to get used to peace, which was unbelievable.”

Par­tic­u­lar­ly note­wor­thy is the episode that con­cludes her mem­oir. Now retired from their respec­tive careers and their chil­dren grown into young adults, Renee con­vinces Her­ta to return with her to Bratisla­va. At the end of their vis­it, she signs to her deaf younger sis­ter, The Nazis sent us to Bergen-Belsen before we could have a real child­hood. All we knew was war and suf­fer­ing. I want­ed us to come back here so that we could say good­bye and have some peace at last.”

In the 1970s, Renee and Her­ta video­taped their remem­brances for the For­tunoff Video Archive for Holo­caust Tes­ti­monies at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty. The For­tunoff Archive is the old­est such ini­tia­tive in the world and hous­es more than 15,000 hours of tes­ti­mo­ny. Signs of Sur­vival is based pri­mar­i­ly on words tak­en direct­ly from the tran­scripts of their video­taped memories.

Joshua M. Greene pro­duces books and films about the Holo­caust. His doc­u­men­taries have been broad­cast in twen­ty coun­tries and his books trans­lat­ed into eight lan­guages. He has taught Holo­caust his­to­ry for Ford­ham and Hof­s­tra Uni­ver­si­ties. He is also the coau­thor of My Sur­vival: A Girl on Schindler’s List by Rena Find­er. He lives in Old West­bury, New York.