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2018 Reading Challenge

2018 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 25 books toward her goal of 175 books.
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Book Review: HENRY: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America by Katrina Shawver

A while ago, I introduced you to Katrina Shawver, an Arizona journalist who underwent an amazing journey into and through the life of a unique man who survived the upheaval and tragedy of the Holocaust. Today I’m pleased to bring you my review of the book she wrote about that journey. Enjoy!

Wow. People throw around words like “heroic” and “indomitable spirit” – and then you read a tale like Henry’s and learn what they really mean… This is an incredibly moving tale (to say the least), and equally interesting and moving is the origin story behind the tale. It started almost as a bit of a throwaway – a local journalist stumbles onto a tidbit about a local human interest story (a Holocaust survivor). But it turned into something that clearly deeply affected both of them – and their families – in ways that were heart-warming and charming in equal measure.

This is the story of a man’s survival. But it’s also the story of a world trying to find its way – told through not only Henry’s personal history but also through the history of Poland, Germany, World War II and the aftermath that each of them faced. The book alternates between personal memoir-like narratives and historical interludes that add a depth and context to the reminiscences. Henry’s voice is clear as a bell and rings just as true. The history is also well-presented and voiced. The back and forth is usually easy enough to distinguish; the two personalities (historian and subject) have very distinct voices. Occasionally, it took me an extra paragraph to figure out that Henry’s actual memory had stopped and the narration had picked back up. It might have helped if there had been more clear-cut indications when the narrator shifted – but that may also have been an issue with the ebook version I read. Regardless, the tale was well presented and articulated on both sides, and if Ms. Shawver’s portions of the book are slightly less interesting it is not through any fault of their own, but rather because Henry’s tale is so far beyond compelling and his memories so startling in both their starkness and their occasional burst of lightness and humor.

It never ceases to amaze me that people can find joy and laughter in even the darkest moments; Henry’s story embodies this in spades. It also never ceases to amaze me how much “history” leaves out. It truly is written by the victors – which often means details (large and small) that don’t comport with the victoriously desirable tale are ignored or overlooked (if not outright overwritten). I am no Holocaust or middle-European scholar, but I have read more than my share of books (fiction and non-fiction) on both topics. Yet there were so many tidbits that I gleaned from this book that I had never known before – despite my own Polish-German heritage and my readings in these areas. As such, I think that the book offers not only insight into one man’s personal journey, but also some long overdue portions of history – from the constant back-and-forth that has been Poland’s struggle for national independence to the realities of life inside the German-operated camps of WWII (who knew, for example, that prisoners were allowed mail and packages and paid company scrip?)…

This is, of course, often an immensely difficult read. Survival is, after all, a messy business – particularly at the hands of fanatics (of any stripe). Still, it IS a survival tale – and well-worth the effort as a result.

My review copy was provided by the author. This in no way colored my review.

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