BORN SURVIVORS by Wendy Holden


Wendy Holden
May 5th, 2015
Harper Collins


The Nazis were responsible for the most incomprehensible crime of all time.  In novel-like fashion Wendy Holden in her powerful book, BORN SURVIVORS tells the story of three young mothers who exhibited strength, courage, defiance, and hope.  She chronicles many of the atrocities that these women had to endure, while trying to make sure they would give birth to the child in their womb.


The three mothers’, Priska, Rachel, and Anka, defied death to give their children life.  Torn from their families by the Nazis they were first sent to Auschwitz, then Fielberg, and ended up at Mauthausen. Although these women were strangers to one another they had something in common: all were a few months pregnant and needed to keep this a secret from their Nazi captors.  Dr. Josef Mengele treated them like cattle, opening their mouths and looking at their teeth.  To find out if they were pregnant he would squeeze their breasts to see if any milk leaked out.  Those discovered were either sent to their death or were used for genetic testing.


One of the surviving children, Hana Berger Moran, noted, “My mother said of Josef Mengele that he was just a man, but what an evil man.  I don’t think a four-legged animal would behave as cruelly as the Germans.  What we went through is a war on the Jews.  Even today, I can’t be on a train platform and view the cattle cars.  I get hysterical.  It must be visceral where my mom somehow transferred to me as a newborn or while in the womb what she was feeling.  I spent the first seventeen days of my life in a Concentration Camp.”

As with most books about the Holocaust it is difficult to read, the cruelty beyond comprehension.  Holden describes in detailed fashion the conditions these mothers had to endure in the Concentration Camps and in the brutal death train transfer. Holden felt any book about Holocaust victims must include the atrocities of the Nazis.  She commented, “As I write in the book, Mengele examined the women’s teeth like they were cattle.  He was unmistakably cruel. As far as we know these babies were the only ones that survived, because the other pregnant women were either directly killed or used for experiments.  In one instance a woman had slipped between his fingers and when she was discovered pregnant she was sent back.  He was so incensed that he waited for her baby to be born, and then had her tied to her bed, laying next to the baby so that she could watch it starve to death.  Each person in the Holocaust had their lives and dreams stolen by the Nazis.”

The reader is able to picture the events as if they were going through the atrocities with the women; yet, with it all the outcome is uplifting. Whether by luck, miracle, or a little of both these three women and their babies beat the odds.  They did not just survive but flourished after the liberation.  As Holden writes in the book, “these babies went on to have babies of their own and create a second and then a third generation, all of whom continue to live their lives in defiance of Hitler’s plan to erase them from history and from memory.”

The author noted, “The mothers were sent to a slave labor camp where they worked 12 hours/day, seven days/week, using heavy riveting machines and did not miscarry. In addition, luck played a role in that the pregnancies were not detected; they survived chronic malnutrition, and one of the worst winters ever in flimsy clothing.”

An interesting point made in the book is the “Gone With The Wind” thread.  Anka, before she was rounded up, was a moviegoer.  One of her favorites was this epic film. How Scarlett suffered resonated with her, as well as another mother, Rachel, who found solace in the quote, “I will never go hungry again.” Each woman used the philosophy of Scarlett, ‘I’ll think about it tomorrow.’  It helped them overcome the hell they were going through, trying not to think about what would happen to their babies and themselves.  It is also interesting how each woman, as with Scarlett, were strong willed, competitive, educated, intelligent, from a wealthy family, and not very religious.

Holden wants readers to “look around their lives and feel blessed that they are not living in great fear.  I want people to feel compassion for these women and for those who did not make it, and to remember the Holocaust.  Throughout the story there was cruelty but also hope provided by the small acts of kindness by strangers.”

BORN SURVIVORS is ultimately a book of hope because it shows how luck, courage, and perseverance can help someone achieve their goal of survival.  In this case it was the desire by the three mothers to keep themselves and their babies alive.  It also brilliantly contrasts the cruelness of humanity with the kindness.  There are many scenes where the readers will be overcome with grief regarding the Nazi crimes but there are also scenes in which townspeople and the American liberators provided emotional, medical, and material support.  This book is a must read for everyone from high school students to adults.

Elise Cooper