Signs of Sur­vival: A Mem­oir of the Holocaust

Renee Hart­man with Joshua M. Greene

  • Review
By – November 8, 2021

When the Nazis began to deport the Jews of Bratisla­va, Slo­va­kia in 1943, young Renee Hart­man (her lat­er mar­ried name) was forced into an unusu­al posi­tion. Not only did her par­ents, her younger sis­ter, Her­ta, and she con­front immi­nent dan­ger, but Renee was the sole per­son in her fam­i­ly who was not deaf. Through­out the war, she took on the ter­ri­ble respon­si­bil­i­ty of com­mu­ni­cat­ing cru­cial infor­ma­tion to every­one in her home using sign lan­guage. After being sep­a­rat­ed from her par­ents, who did not sur­vive, Renee tried to pro­tect both her­self and Her­ta, even through­out their impris­on­ment in the Bergen-Belsen con­cen­tra­tion camp. In Signs of Sur­vival, each sis­ter remem­bers her own expe­ri­ence of this ordeal and each reflects on the life­long process of attempt­ing to grasp the incom­pre­hen­si­ble in the con­text of each indi­vid­ual vic­tim and survivor.

The book is an edit­ed tran­script of video tes­ti­mo­ny from the For­tunoff Video Archive at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, and its tone is con­ver­sa­tion­al and under­stat­ed. At the same time that Renee and Her­ta relate their mem­o­ries of trau­ma, they offer brief obser­va­tions on the ulti­mate mean­ing of human suf­fer­ing as well as indif­fer­ence. While read­ers may have pre­vi­ous­ly encoun­tered the way that Nazi assaults on Jews rep­re­sent­ed the per­verse oppo­site of Jew­ish val­ues, it will have spe­cial impact for them to learn this truth through Renee’s words: What made it worse was that the Nazis abused the very peo­ple to whom the Jew­ish reli­gion says you should show the great­est kind­ness, name­ly, the old, the sick, and the young.” Herta’s qui­et tone in report­ing the last time she ever saw her father is heart­break­ing because it cap­tures the unaf­fect­ed nature of a child: I have always regret­ted that I was sleepy and didn’t hug him back.” Although Renee had tak­en on a parental role toward her sis­ter, at one point this dynam­ic was reversed. After falling ill with typhoid, which was endem­ic in the camp, Renee lost the will to live, while Her­ta repeat­ed­ly implored her to be strong.”

After the sis­ters were freed from Bergen-Belsen by the British mil­i­tary, they were sent to a cen­ter for refugees in Swe­den. Her­ta, whose dis­abil­i­ty had lim­it­ed her access to an edu­ca­tion, was able to enroll in a school for the deaf in Stock­holm. Although this oppor­tu­ni­ty sep­a­rat­ed her from her sis­ter, Her­ta was thrilled” to be able to be in a sup­port­ive envi­ron­ment with oth­er deaf chil­dren. Lat­er, after Renee and Her­ta join their Amer­i­can rel­a­tives in New York City, she con­tin­ues her edu­ca­tion at the Lex­ing­ton School for the Deaf. Few books about the Holo­caust focus specif­i­cal­ly on Jews with dis­abil­i­ties who were far less like­ly to sur­vive since they were almost always tar­get­ed for imme­di­ate mur­der. Herta’s unusu­al sta­tus makes it even more poignant when she is forced to end her stud­ies in order to find a job. Her sto­ic atti­tude may mask deep dis­ap­point­ment: So, unfor­tu­nate­ly, I obtained only a few years of edu­ca­tion as a young per­son, but some­how I man­aged well.” After being mar­ried and wid­owed, she raised three chil­dren, all of them deaf.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes an Epi­logue,” by Joshua M. Greene in which he argues that fac­tu­al accounts of the Holo­caust are incom­plete with­out the direct tes­ti­mo­ny of sur­vivors, such as those archived at Yale. This book cer­tain­ly sup­ports that asser­tion. Yet it would also be help­ful, when shar­ing it with chil­dren, to pro­vide sup­port­ing back­ground mate­ri­als. While many books which focus on oral his­to­ries inte­grate these per­son­al sto­ries into a broad­er frame­work, Signs of Sur­vival, as Greene points out, is an edit­ed tran­script of inter­views. There are some errors, such as Renee’s intro­duc­to­ry com­ments about her back­ground in which she states that Bratisla­va, where her fam­i­ly lived, was the cap­i­tal of Czecho­slo­va­kia. (It became the cap­i­tal of the Slo­vak pup­pet state under Nazi rule.) When she alludes to med­ical exper­i­ments on pris­on­ers in Bergen-Belsen, it would be impor­tant to pro­vide doc­u­men­ta­tion about the numer­ous camps where such atroc­i­ties took place: Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchen­wald, and oth­ers. There may well have been cas­es in oth­er camps such as Bergen-Belsen but stu­dents will ben­e­fit from access to a more com­plete pic­ture. Final­ly, it is unclear why this mov­ing and essen­tial account of two coura­geous women’s lives is cred­it­ed only to Renee Hart­man and Joshua M. Greene, when a sig­nif­i­cant part of the text is com­posed of Her­ta Rothen­berg Myers’s contributions.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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