Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Book Review: Three Sisters

By Jami Denison

When author Heather Morris was on tour for her book The Tattooist of Auschwitz, she received a life-changing email. The true story of the Holocaust survivor who had inked prisoners’ arms at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Ludwig “Lale” Sokolov), The Tattooist of Auschwitz prompted a survivor’s adult child to reach out to Morris. His mother and her sisters had been at the camps with Sokolov; miraculously, all three survived and went on to emigrate to Israel. Fascinated by their story, Morris put aside her work-in-progress to learn everything she could about the women. Three Sisters is the result.   

After the death of their father Menachem in 1929 Slovakia, sisters Cibi, Magda, and Livi Meller vow to always stay together. But in war-torn Europe, that promise may be too hard to keep. In 1942, while Magda is in the hospital recuperating from a fever, 19-year-old Cibi and 15-year-old Livi are sent to Auschwitz. It isn’t until 1944 that the sisters are reunited; they live at the camp together for another year. The book spans 1929, when their father first elicited the sisters’ promise, to 1954. It’s an enormous undertaking.

How did Cibi and Livi survive years at a notorious death camp? How did Magda hide from Nazis for two years in a country where her neighbors were eager to turn her in? In her blurb on the back of the book, Morris reveals that all the sisters survived, so the tension is in the “how,” not “if.” In her interviews with the sisters, Morris has gleaned detailed recollections that allowed her to turn their memories into a jolting narrative, complete with the names of actual guards and “kapos” who worked at the camp, and prisoners they befriended. (The fates of these people are revealed in the author’s note at the end of the book.) The novel recounts the sisters’ work assignments—such as literally building the Birkenau camp block by block—illnesses, interactions with guards and kapos, and brushes with death. In the end, taking their fate into their own hands guaranteed the sisters’ survival, through a combination of luck, goodwill from surprising sources, resourcefulness, and a belief in strength and hope.  

Morris had a herculean task in turning the sisters’ incredible and very important story into a novel—interviewing all of them, researching real people and places, talking to their children and grandchildren. So it seems almost pedantic to evaluate the book on its literary merits. But stylistically, I did have some issues. The book is written in present tense, in simplistic language and syntax. Its reading level is about the fourth-grade level, which most adults will find tedious. With sections divided by years rather than perspective, each sister’s point-of-view is explored in most chapters, sometimes on the same page, resulting in the “head-hopping” problem. I wished for a more sophisticated telling, but other readers might find its simplicity a comfort from the horrors of the story. 

It’s a miracle that these sisters survived, and a miracle that Morris was able to meet them and tell their tale to the world. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust; between 250,000 and 300,000 Jews survived the concentration camps and death marches. As the lyrics of Hamilton ask: "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"/"And when you're gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?" The Meller sisters were lucky enough—yes, lucky—to survive and have their story told. So many others lived and died anonymously, even though their lives meant enough that they could have been memorialized. And today, there are men and women and children in Afghanistan and Haiti and so many other countries who will live and die without being remembered. As we read of Cibi and her sisters, we need to keep in mind all the stories that will not be told, and that the people behind them are just as real as those whose names we know. 

Thanks to St. Martin's for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Heather Morris:

Enjoyed this post? Never miss out on future posts by following us.

No comments: