Truth is so often stranger than fiction. People’s stories amaze me. I love to read biographies. I love to know about people. What shaped them? What made them who they are? Where did they come from and what’s the part we don’t know?
The full title of this book is Surviving Hitler: The Unlikely True Story of an SS Soldier and a Jewish Woman. When I first heard the title, I knew this book was going on my reading list. It really is an unlikely story and yes, it is true.
It is the story of Gustav Palm and his wife Agnes Erdos Palm, told in their own words by their oldest son, O. Hakan Palm. From the dust jacket:
Gustav Palm kept his secret for more than forty years. He’d been a young man when Hitler invaded his native Norway. After being forced to guard a Nazi prison camp, however, Gustav took his only option for escape: he volunteered for the Waffen-SS to fight at the front.
Agnes Erdos grew up in privilege and prosperity as a child in Hungary. She and her parents were practicing Roman Catholic, but hey they were ethnic Jews, and after the Nazis invaded her country, Agnes and her parents were sent to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Each tells their story by turn and it is a fascinating account of ordinary lives turned completely upside down by World War II. I was continually awed by the things Agnes did to survive first from Auschwitz and then from a series of prison and work camps. Her resourcefulness and her determination to survive really were amazing—I don’t like using so many superlatives, but this story just is what it is.
And Gustav’s story is really no less compelling. Naiveté and circumstance led to his having to guard the prison camp—and the only way out seemed to be an even worse fate. But he persisted and made the best of his horrible situation—and then carried the shame and guilt hidden deep inside for decades afterward.
I think one of the things I liked best about this book is the perspective. When we read stories of World War II, it is so easy for us to think of those who were on the “other” side as evil villains. Gustav wasn’t a villain. He was an ordinary young man, probably very much like the American and British young men he fought against in the war. This book helps to humanize both the soldiers and the persecuted and does so in a way that doesn’t paint them as either evil or as helpless victims.
A book well worth reading for any student of history—and one I would definitely recommend for older middle schoolers, teens and college students.
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