As time passes The Holocaust of World War II moves further into the pages of history. The tragedies and atrocities are at risk of becoming facts, figures and statistics on a page taught to disinterested students who would rather be at the beach than in a stuffy classroom.
Eighty-one-year-old human rights activist Halina Wagowska counters this with her autobiography, The Testimony.
At ten years of age Halina lives the blissful innocence of a happy childhood with loving parents, she reflects on how those early years develop the resilience that will get her through the next five years enduring unimaginable horrors.
The Testimony is structured into snapshots where Halina deflects attention from herself by devoting each chapter to individuals who crossed her path. Stasia, the Gentile nanny so devoted she joins the family in the ghetto. Frieda, the intelligent scholar who urges survival will mean testifying to what they experienced for the rest of their lives. Sasha, the Russian soldier, who rescues the nearly-dead Halina and nurses her back to health providing her with the first kindness she had experienced for a long time.
There is a sense Halina has kept some of the horror she experienced to herself, although what she shares will cling to your thoughts for days afterwards. The image of a child responsible for carting bodies from the gas chambers to furnaces then lugging the buckets of ash and bone to the nearby swamp is haunting.
However, her youth also provides her with adaptability, a quickly growing sense of rat-cunning, and an ability to focus on the immediate. When the adults around her become overwhelmed by the big picture view of the situation Halina struggles to keep them alive.
Halina continues her story after the war ends and poignantly documents how peace did not necessarily bring joy. Alone and uneducated the teenager must create a new life for herself.
Arriving as an immigrant in Australia she works as a cleaner, studies and ultimately enjoys a career in pathology. The experiences of her formative years, and the influences of those she loved and lost, shape her commitment to human rights, working tirelessly for Aboriginal education, homeless students and bioethics.
The Testimony provides us with a valuable of record of the long-term impact of the Holocaust and a moving personal retrospective paying tribute to those who aren’t here to tell their stories.
Review originally written for the Hardie Grant Book Club.