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Lovers in Auschwitz by Keren Blankfeld

In Lovers in Auschwitz, journalist Keren Blankfeld resurrects an all-but-forgotten love affair that improbably bloomed amid the death camps of WWII Poland. A smoothly rendered blend of memoir and speculative historical fiction, Blankfeld’s debut traces the intersecting lives of Zippi Spitzer and David Wisnia, two Polish Jews whose tenuous bond behind barbed wire came to hauntingly symbolise the resilience of human connection. Yet for all its considerable narrative verve, some structural issues diminish an undeniably compelling chronicle.

When they first met in 1944 inside the grim killing factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Spitzer and Wisnia inhabited worlds apart within mundane roles that nevertheless granted them thin streams of privilege. Wisnia utilised his singing talents to obtain relatively protected work detail in the “Canada” sorting warehouses, cataloguing confiscated belongings of the condemned. Spitzer, meanwhile, leveraged her prewar graphic design experience to paint uniforms, eventually becoming assistant to the women's camp commandant and utilising the influence to shield prisoners.

During sporadic warehouse encounters, where among piles of personal effects still redolent of their owners’ extinguished lives, Spitzer and Wisnia managed furtive intimacy. More than mere physical release, their rendezvous fostered a genuine emotional tether providing fleeting yet desperately needed respite from the traumas both endured and witnessed daily. Cementing the bond, before liberation they pledged to reunite in their native Warsaw.

While Blankfeld clearly finds the wartime affair’s symbolic resonance compelling, Lovers in Auschwitz proves structurally imbalanced, hampered by limited primary sources. Blankfeld interviewed Wisnia extensively prior to his 2016 death yet never accessed Spitzer’s direct testimony — Spitzer declined connecting when approached in 1949 and passed before Blankfeld embarked on the project. The absence of Spitzer’s voice reverberates hollowly throughout, despite the inclusion of recovered diaries and administrative documents offering glimpses into her Auschwitz experience.

Ostensibly an evenly shared dual character study, Lovers in Auschwitz elevates Wisnia’s reminiscent account over Spitzer’s more definitively documented yet emotionally vague journey. Attempts at reconstructing Spitzer’s rich inner world resort to thinly imagined projection, with passages musing her romantic yearnings reading almost as presumptuous fan fiction. Blankfeld too eagerly supplements conjecture where hard facts evaporate.

Nonetheless, the journalist successfully centralises the tragic irony underlying this thwarted love story: neither lover ultimately honoured their shared oath once freed into destroyed postwar lives overflowing with displacement and grief.

Blankfeld deserves admiration for unearthing this layered story obscured by the sheer enormity of suffering endured daily during these horrific times. Her subject matter all but demands elevated treatment, however — the absence of Spitzer’s voice renders the work’s emotional core as fundamentally violated as the piles of effects among which the lovers briefly escaped their reality.

Ultimately Lovers in Auschwitz bears witness to the enduring force of human connection yet stumbles upholding the dignity of those involved. Perhaps some stories remain too harrowing even for careful historical inquiry to ever fully redeem their damaged truths.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

WH Allen


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