My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I know it sounds cliche, but I know of no other way to say it: the humanity of this book will haunt you. Isle Weber’s story, pieced together through records from Yad Vashem and her personal letters and poems, is one of the most moving Holocaust accounts you will ever read.
Ilse Weber was a brilliant, creative, artistic soul. She was a doting wife, a loving mother, and a loyal friend. She wrote beloved radio programs for children, as well as musicals and poetry. She was also a Jew. As such, her fate was sealed when Hitler tore through her homeland. She loved Germany and the German language, which was her native tongue. The book opens with her letters mostly to her friend, Lilian. As the years progress, Ilse’s letters are more and more emotional as she watches the world around her devolve into evil. She describes how former neighbors and friends ignore or even verbally attack her in public. She is confused by the political changes that seem to drive personality changes in almost everyone she knows.
Eventually, Ilse and her husband (Willi) make the heart-wrenching decision to send their oldest son, Hans, to live with friends in England. Hans arrives safely via Kindertransport and spends the rest of the war bouncing around England and Sweden. Meanwhile, Ilse and Willi bounce around Czechoslovakia and Poland with their younger son, Tomas. Ilse and Willi find it increasingly hard to find work and they both begin to suffer from various chronic illnesses. They find comfort in their community and Ilse’s poems. As the Jews are thrown together in the ghetto of Theresienstadt, Isle volunteers to work in the children’s hospital, playing her illegal guitar to cheer up the suffering children. Eventually, Ilse heroically refuses to abandon the children as they are rounded up for transportation. She was killed along with all the children, including her son Tomas, in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. Willi is taken to the camps too, but not before he is able to bury Ilse’s poems. He survived and was able to retrieve them after the war. Hans survived as well and helped publish this account of his mother’s last days.
At first I wasn’t sure I would be able to get into a book comprised of personal letters, especially as it is only from Ilse’s perspective. I’m also not usually a huge fan of poetry. I was blown away by everything in this book. The letters drew me in with their simple, honest, emotional accounts of Ilse’s daily life. She talks about being a mother, caring for her household, trying desperately to hold her family together as the world around her fell apart. This book read like Anne Frank meets Sophie’s Choice. It tore my heart out. I cannot fathom sending my child away. I cannot imagine what must have been going through her mind on that last trip with all those children. I cannot even begin to know what would have gone through her mind standing in that gas chamber, clutching her son, sensing that the end had come…
Any grammatical errors were original to Ilse, and honestly are few and far between (possibly attributed to her efforts to learn and write in new languages). This book was difficult to read on an emotional level, but incredibly moving.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is unique in a way similar to Anne Frank, but from the perspective of a courageous and loving mother and wife. I want the world to read this book and never, ever forget Ilse Weber, her family, and the other 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.
**Special note: If you ever have the opportunity to visit Israel, you must make the trip to Yad Vashem. It is breathtaking and unforgettable. It is absolutely worth your time. It forever changed my perspective on the Holocaust and the Jewish people.**