The Last Checkmate by Gabriella Saab

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The Last Checkmate is an inspirational book. On the surface it is a standard anti-Nazi work in which the heroine leads the way in defeating evil. However, Gabriella Saab has written undercurrents in this book of greater moment than a simple tale of opposing evil. Maria Florkowska, the lead character, and lesser lights Father Kolbe, Irena, Hania, Mateusz and many other inmates of Auschwitz, face extreme pressure from their enemies, but do not fold.  At a deeper level than this, the book seems to whisper:

When all around is out of control, practise self-mastery. When all around are frightened in the extreme, displays outward calm. In a context of mankind drunk with overweening pride, answer with humility. When uncouth and despicable behaviour overwhelm, there is still inner beauty. Where hatred and confusion bend men’s minds, strengthen faith in innocence and justice. In a world that has lost its sense of balance, rely on hope that goodness will prevail.

Like Anne Frank’s Diary, The Last Checkmate, set in the most notorious and hated Nazi concentration camp in 1944, reaches out across the decades to still inspire and comfort. Passion is a major part of Maria Florkowska’s make-up. She never denies her love of family and her faith as a Jew. She is passionate about freedom from the conqueror. A member of the Polish Resistance, she is captured by the Gestapo and sentenced to Auschwitz. While her family is executed, Maria is spared. Her ability to play chess makes her a focus of sadistic camp deputy Karl Fritzsch, whose ambition is to defeat her at chess, the consequence of which is execution. Passion drives Maria’s chess-playing, her love for her people, her demands for justice, and her hatred of the murderer Fritzsch.

Maria directs her ‘staying alive’ strategy to discrediting Fritzsch before the eyes of the camp commandant. A prisoner under constant scrutiny she negotiates with the prison guards for medicines and other benefits for her fellow prisoners. She endures severe whippings that flay most of the skin from her body, and comforts other prisoners who suffer Nazi cruelty. Her moral steadiness is revealed in her wondering why the guards want sexual favours from the prisoners as, all starved to skeleton stature, the women now sport breasts so flat to the chest as to be soft no longer. While enmeshed in a horrible existence, Maria and others yet carry out Resistance business, night after night.

Through her efforts and those of another prisoner, Fritzsch is revealed to the Commandant as an unnecessary burden and sent to the Front. As the war closes and she is successful in leaving the camp alive, Maria challenges her enemy to a final chess game, one where determination to extract vengeance for her dead family abuts Fritzsch’s hatred of a girl who, for four years, has thwarted his desire to have her killed.

In this engrossing tale, the story develops over multiple timelines, while continually building the roundedness of Maria as a character and, to a lesser extent, Fritzsch. 1941 presents a fourteen-year-old girl, safe and stable in the love of her family. In this same period, Maria is active in the Resistance movement. In April 1945 come the escape and the famous chess game. The years between change with great frequency. This switching timeline technique is used to remind the reader about the atrocities inmates of Auschwitz suffered. It is effective in terms of keeping the story moving, and to maintain attention on the chess match to come.

Of course, characters other than Maria and Fritzsch contribute mightily. The underlying theme of human compassion and basic kindness finds its best expression in the person of the saintly Father Kolbe, whose advice to, and support of, Maria are instrumental in holding her strong. His death from starvation occurs in the context of blessings for his friends and a refusal to recognise his enemies. The enigmatic Hania kept me guessing where her loyalties lay, and irrepressible Mateusz who, when he undresses Maria’s tortured body, sees the woman not the scars.

Saab’s undercurrents guide the prisoners of Auschwitz but are not consistently powerful to protect completely against unmitigated bastardy. Maria is a changed woman. She asserts, “Four years I dedicated to justice, expecting it to assuage me. I had left Warsaw a broken girl; now I returned a broken young woman. Broken things, even if reconstructed, remain cracked, imperfect, never fully whole” (364).

While Gabriella Saab takes a few liberties with minor aspects of history, the book is too good to bother with minutiae now. I advise readers to buy the book and absorb the plethora of lessons Saab supplies. It is a wonderful book.

The Last Checkmate

(2021)

By Gabriella Saab

HarperCollins

ISBN: 978-0-06-321423-1

$29.99; 408 pp

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