I’m the kind of person who cries watching sad advertisements, so as a general rule I tend to steer clear of tear-jerking non-fiction. With that said, my Polish heritage has created a significant interest in the Holocaust and the genocide of World War II, and it was with great interest that I read 81 year-old Holocaust survivor Halina Wagowska’s autobiography, The Testimony. Told in a concentration camp that survivors will “have to testify and bear witness for the rest of their lives”, Halina has dedicated her time in Australia to helping the plight of others who are oppressed and marginalized. Her life is a true testament to the strength of the human spirit, and this book will move you in the very best ways that words on a page can.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Halina was about to start her fourth year of primary school. Her vivid recollections of her childhood paint a happy and loving picture; with caring and supportive parents and a privileged but not spoiled life. Her childhood was abruptly taken away from her, and the contrast of her life as told through the stories from before the war and whilst being held in concentration camps is heartbreaking. Survival tactics came easier to Halina, given her young age, and as her agility and senses became heightened, the brutality she experienced helped numb her emotions. As she states, “wisdom or experience was of little use as there was no precedent, only total unpredictability.” Upon reflection it appears a combination of these two factors, inexperience and weak emotional development, saved her life.
The atrocities of war Halina experienced are unfathomable – the mass execution of millions of people was beyond traumatizing to someone of such a young age. But from despair comes hope, and a winter miracle in the form of a Russian soldier saved Halina’s life. Her stories of re-entering a normal life are nearly as heartbreaking, as anti-Semitic undertones still existed in post-war society. She was on board the infamous voyage of the Derna to Australia and her assimilation into Australian society will make you laugh out loud.
The Testimony is an emotional journey of the rarest kind. It may make you laugh, it will most certainly make you cry, but at the end you are filled with a sense of warmth, of unwavering hope and inspiration, that we can endure, conquer and survive.