Discussing the war is an ongoing issue for Holocaust survivor Halina Wagowska. Not just because of her own emotional discomfort, but for other reasons as well. The horror she is sharing with others, the fact that a lack of shared experiences makes comprehension almost impossible, and the fact that she struggles with the sympathy and attention accompanying the telling of her story.
This is perhaps the reason for the minimalist, laconic tone that Wagowska uses when describing her horrific experiences in a concentration camp, and then later an extermination camp. She reiterates again and again that as she was a child at the time she was not a fully developed person, and before and after comparisons are fruitless.
Instead, she looks at how others are shaped by those same experiences: Frieda the academic, whose tendency to see the bigger picture means that she is less able to cope with her day-to-day suffering, and whose idealism later leads her to suicide; the Gentile Stasia, her tutor and nanny, who refuses to be separated from Halina even when Halina’s family is put into the ghetto; Sid Spindler, a young boy who lived his life on the other side of the fence, his protective mother keeping him utterly unaware of the horrors taking place within.
The bulk of the book, however, is not about Halina’s time in the concentration camps, although the subsequent material is certainly coloured by it. Halina speaks of the difficulties of emerging from the camps into a “normal” world and attempting to make sense of things such as routine, of money, of freedom. She also speaks at length of the continued fight for equality she finds herself having to undertake first in socialist Poland, and then later in Australia–over time, it becomes not just her own quality that she fights for, but that of others.
There’s a sense of interconnectedness than runs through the book as well: people reuniting after years apart; individuals who lived very different lives only miles apart. I can’t help but feel that Halina is suggesting that it is not just her story that she is telling, but one that is part of a wider cultural narrative of which we are all a part.
The Testimony is not an easy read, but nor is it one that is gruelling and horrific or without hope. Halina notes early on that a sense of black humour is required to survive the camps, and it’s this sense of humour that underpins the book and its component chapters. It’s an accessible, moving memoir made all the more touching for the many extraordinary individuals whose lives we are able to glimpse during the journey.
Review by Stephanie Campisi. Read more of Stephanie’s reviews at readinasinglesitting.com