Reviewed by Richard Tutin
Anyone who was interred in the Auschwitz prison camp during World War II was, more often than not, destined never to be released. Auschwitz has gone down in history as one of, if not the most, despicable places of death and torture created by human beings. It was a place where the greatest inhumane acts and violence were unleashed on frightened people whose dignity had already been systematically stripped away.
Yet, as Alina Peretti’s story clearly shows, some did manage to survive and were able to be released when the camp was liberated in the dying days of the war. Alina’s son Jacques has gone to great lengths to both uncover and tell his mother’s story of the days when her teenage years were interrupted by the war and how the twists and turns of those days forced her family, especially her mother Olga, to tread paths they never expected to be on.
Alina’s desire to tell her story needed, as she said, courage to put down the events that ultimately shaped her life and the way in which it affected those around such as her husband Peter and son Jacques. She never let Jacques call her “Mum” and often hid from him information about her family especially her parents and siblings.
Jacques’ talent as an investigative reporter comes to the fore throughout the book as he patiently pieces together his mother childhood, teenage years and especially her imprisonment in Auschwitz with her mother and her sister Juta who was sent to a different part of the camp and whose fate remains unknown.
The story they both record and offer us is one of tenacity and complexity. It gives us a glimpse into the way in which ordinary people in Poland were regarded by some in the German high command as, along with the Jewish population, virtually the scum of the earth that needed to be removed and virtually blotted out.
Reading Little Bird of Auschwitz reminded me of Leon Uris’s 1961 novel Mila 18 that described life in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto. Uris’s book took some time to read and digest as did Alina’s story of her life and formation as a person.
Until now Alina had kept much to herself. Perhaps it was too confronting or that she wished to spare many details from her family and the new life that she had forged after moving from Poland to Paris and ultimately London in the 1950s. This new life was that of an accomplished engineer and architect, speaker of six languages, tour guide and classical concert organiser who has a loving husband and son to support her.
The diagnosis of Alina’s dementia gave Jacques an urgency to both begin and complete the record of her story. As well, Covid-19 with its restrictions and uncertainties added difficulties to times when mother and son could piece things together while recognising that the onset of dementia could rob them of the opportunity of her story seeing the light of day.
Alina never saw the events of her life as a curse. The traumatic events in Auschwitz were to her a blessing that enabled her to live as she wanted to live. For her, it is natural to triumph over adversity. Jacques was glad that he pieced the jigsaw of her life together. It is an important part of the never-ending story of the triumph of good over pure evil.
After graduating from the London School of Economics, Jacques Peretti became an investigative journalist whose award-winning series include The Men Who Made Us Fat, The Super Rich & Us, and Trillion Pound Island.
Little Bird of Auschwitz
Alina & Jacques Peretti
Hodder and Stoughton