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Monday, June 16, 2008

I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

Posted by Irish in Review7 Comments

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Year: 1999
ISBN: 0689823959
Format: Paperback
Pages: 224
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
I first heard about this book through one of the many wonderful folks over at librarything. Since I’m trying to cut back on buying books I put it on my bookmooch wishlist and waited. It eventually came up on a time that I was on the site and I managed to snag it. I then began to read it the day that it arrived….ignoring my current read just to spend time with Elli. From the opening chapter I was captivated. I grew up learning about the horrors of the Holocaust. It has always been a part of my past. Like many others I’ve read the various histories in school but it isn’t until you read a first hand account, like that of Livia Bitton-Jackson’s, that the true horror of what happened during the war begins to come to light. Bitton-Jackson is part of a living history. A history that gets further and further away with each passing year. Those who survived the horrors of the camps are now starting to die and take their stories with them. So its important that their stories are written down so that they live on in order to teach future generations. Bitton-Jackson said it best at the start of her memoir when she wrote about why she put her story down on paper when she wrote:

My hope is that learning about past evils will help us to avoid them in the future. My hope is that learning what horrors can result from prejudice and intolerance, we can cultivate a commitment to fight prejudice and intolerance. It is for this reason that I write my recollections of the horror. Only one who has been there can truly tell the tale. And I was there.

For you, the third generation, the Holocaust has slipped into the realm of history, or legend. Or, into the realm of sensational subjects on the silver screen. Reading my personal account I believe you will feel – you will know – that the Holocaust was neither legend nor Hollywood fiction but a lesson for the future. A lesson to hel[p future generations prevent the causes of the twentith-century catastrophe from being transmitted into the twenty-first. My stories are of gas chambers, shootings, electrified fences, torture, scorching sun, mental abuse, and constant threat of death. But they are also stories of faith, hope, triumph, and love. They are stories of perserverance, loyalty, courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and of never giving up. My story is my message: Never give up.

There is much to be horrified about when reading this story….just as with reading any other survivors tale. Bitton-Jackson’s memoir is made all the more poignant because she was only 14 years old when she and her family was shipped off to Auschwitz. A place where prisoners where greeted at the gate with a sign that read “WORK SETS YOU FREE” and the German soldiers who were stationed there encouraged that belief…..at least for those first few moments after arrival.

I recently had the good fortune to travel to Poland to see some family. While there I took the 1 hour bus ride from Krakow down to Auschwitz. I walked under that sign. I heard the gravel crunch under my feet and saw the endless rows of buildings surrounded by barbed wire. As I read Bitton-Jackson’s descriptions I was transported back to those avenues and I think that it made me feel this particular memoir more than any other account that I’ve read previously. If you ever get a chance to go to Auschwitz (or any of the other surviving concentration camps) then go. Its a truly horrific, yet worthwhile experience. There are no words to say what I felt when I was there, when I saw the crematoria, the barracks, and belongings of the victims that the Nazi’s left behind when the camp was liberated. There is such raw emotion that still lingers in that place….and yet it was one of the quietest places that I’ve even been to outside of church.

Another reason this book and my visit to Auschwitz had such a huge impact on me is the fact that right before this trip I learned that a member of my Polish family spent two years there as a political prisoner. This is not a relative that I’ve ever met but just knowing that a part of my family was there….no matter how distant the relation….it has an effect. Especially when you read an account such as Bitton-Jackson’s. Again its that first hand experience that just takes you right to the heart of it all.

I Have Lived a Thousand Years is filled with many horrible acts but one that jumped out at me was something that I think many people may have overlooked as being momentous. As I mentioned it is only an hour by bus from Krakow to the town of Oświęcim (the Polish name of the town that the German’s called Auschwitz). There is a scene where Bitton-Jackson talks about how she and her mother where put on a train in Krakow and brought back down to Auschwitz…..a journey which took them 4 days. Now to those not familiar with that area of Poland that might not have seemed like such a significant journey. It was the 40’s…it was wartime…the two places could have been on opposite sides of the country. But when you know that the distance between the two points is only an hour…when I’ve traveled that same road…it just has such a huge impact on just how horribly the Jews (and other political prisoners) were treated.

As with A Diary of Anne Frank I think that I Have Lived a Thousand Years should be taught in all schools. Anne Frank’s story is a powerful one, but its only a small part of what the Jewish people when through during the war. Bitton-Jackson’s story tells another part of the story. Her’s picks up where Frank’s leaves off. Bitton-Jackson’s story of life in the camp is Anne Frank’s. It is only through some random twist of fate that the endings of their respective stories are different. If you haven’t read this book yet, then its one that I recommend. Just as I recommend that you all make the journey to see Auschwitz while it still stands (Poland only maintains it, they do not restore so it exits only as long as mother nature allows). It is only when you walk those gravel roads and breath in that air and see the buildings. Only then can you begin…to fully understand it all….and further appreciate those who somehow managed to survive. When it would have been so much easier to just give in.

In closing I’ll post a few of the pictures that I took while at Auschwitz. I did not take pictures of any of the interiors of the buildings. The guides asked us not to as a respect to those that lived and died there. When walking inside the buildings and learning first hand what happened there it wasn’t hard to respect that simple request.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” which means Work Brings Freedom

This could have been where Bitton-Jackson “lived” while kept at Auschwitz. This is one of the few unaltered barracks. Many have been converted into exhibits that highlight what happened there. A few have the original metal doors. The sides of this building has windows but they were mostly bricked over. Blocking the light from the prisoners rooms.

Bitton-Jackson writes “We keep marching. On and on. Past rows of barracks, long flat buildings on both sides of the pebble-strewn road lined with barbed wire. It is a road without an end.”

Barbed wire that surrounds Auschwitz

The tracks inside Birkenau, where Bitton-Jackson waited with her family and was “sorted” by Dr Mengele.

Then if the main camp of Auschwitz isn’t big enough. Isn’t horrible enough to see. Just a few short miles down the road is Auschwitz II (aka Birkenau). All those chimneys in the background where once buildings like those in the foreground. Each building held hundreds of bunks crammed together…bunks with three tiers…each tier holding at least 6 people. Countless millions of people forced to live in buildings where the chimney’s were just for show. They did not work but even if they did there was no wood to use. It should also be noted that this building design was originally meant as horse stables….a fact that’s highlighted by the tether rings that are attached to the walls.

The fence around Birkenau. Only a single layer of barbed wire, unlike the dual fence at Auschwitz. And yet crueler and more barbaric looking.

7 Responses to “I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson”

  1. Elizabeth

    This is my first week participating in the Sunday Salon. Thank you for such an in-depth, emotional review. I have been considering reading I Have Lived a Thousand Days, but with such a huge pile before me and other things as well, I was putting it off as another Holocaust memoir. I agree that we need to keep the knowledge of this disturbing era alive with our children. In the 8th grade where I teach they read Anne Frank and Night, and there are 2 local survivors who visit each year. It’s a powerful program.

  2. BooksPlease

    I’m not familiar with I Have Lived a Thousand Days but it sounds like a book I should read. Thanks for your review and the photos.

  3. traveler one

    What a powerful combination of an important book and your personal journey. The photos combined with your review make a strong case for reading the book.

    Thanks for welcoming me to the Sunday Salon. It’s very appreciated!

  4. Amanda

    Thank you for such a great review! I loved your photos and personal insight of visiting the camp. What an amazing experience.

  5. Marie

    Wow. It’s really hard to evaluate these books because the subject matter is so difficult. I’m reading Imre Kertesz’s fictional account of Auschwitz and Birkenau, “Fatelessness,” also very gripping. I’d also recommend Cora Schwartz’s “Gypsy Tears”, a novel about Holocaust survivors- less about what went on in the camps and more about how the victims fared afterwards. Thanks for letting me know this was up.

  6. Charley and Jackie

    Isn’t this author and book wonderful1? I recommend her sequels. I am currently reading them. Just finished My Bridges of Hope and am now reading Hello, America by Mrs. Bitton-Jackson. She’s one amazing woman! Thanks for the pictures on your blog. Brings it home. My prayers are for those who are persecuted in this current day. Blessings to you and happy reading!

  7. clanmama

    This was a n enjoyable review. I read the book before finding your post, you know how it is after reading a great book you feel you want to know more, and find the author. Anyway, I wanted to ask if you had ever read about Lucille Eichengreen. I had years ago, and it was probably the most disturbing and sad account of ww2 that I have ever read. The Boy In Striped Pajamas was also heart wrenching. Sigh, what cruelties humans are capable of. It scares me to death.
    Take care.