It’s such a pleasure to be joining Bookouture‘s Books-on-tour today (sorry guys – I didn’t realise it had been so long!), and I’m delighted to be sharing my review of The Midwife of Auschwitz by Anna Stuart: published on 31st May, it’s now available via Amazon for kindle and in paperback, and also available as an audiobook via Audible in the UK and US (you can listen to a sample here). My thanks to Bookouture for inviting me to join the tour and for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley), and to Sarah Hardy for her ongoing support.
I’ll admit I did initially wobble a little about reading this one – although I always enjoy books with a WW2 setting, I’m not one of the world’s greatest fans of reading books set at Auschwitz. But then I remembered how much I always love Anna Stuart’s writing. Have you read her books before? In the years before she joined Bookouture, I remember how much I enjoyed the wonderful Bonnie and Stan (you’ll find my review here – and it was one of my Books of the Year in 2019: and she delighted me again with Four Minutes to Save a Life (review here – and another placing in my 2020 Books of the Year list!). You might also know her as medieval novelist Joanna Courtney – or maybe you came across her lockdown love story, Just the Two of Us, writing as Jo Wilde. But I’ve really enjoyed the direction her writing has taken since her move to Bookouture – first with the moving and compelling The Berlin Zookeeper (review here), then the totally engrossing The Secret Diary (you’ll find my review here), and then the excellent A Letter from Pearl Harbor (review here). So I really couldn’t say “no” to this one, could I?!
Auschwitz, 1943: As I held the tiny baby in my arms, my fingers traced the black tattoo etched across her little thigh. And I prayed that one day this set of numbers, identical to her mother’s, would have the power to reunite a family torn apart by war…
Inspired by an incredible true story, this poignant novel tells of one woman’s fight for love, life and hope during a time of unimaginable darkness.
Ana Kaminski is pushed through the iron gates of Auschwitz beside her frightened young friend Ester Pasternak. As they reach the front of the line, Ana steps forward and quietly declares herself a midwife – and Ester her assistant. Their arms are tattooed and they’re ordered to the maternity hut. Holding an innocent new-born baby, Ana knows the fate of so many are in her hands, and vows to do everything she can to save them.
When two guards in their chilling SS uniforms march in and snatch a blond-haired baby from its mother it’s almost too much for Ana to bear. Consoling the distraught woman, Ana realises amidst the terrible heartache there is a glimmer of hope. The guards are taking the healthiest babies and placing them with German families, so they will survive. And there are whispers the war is nearly over… Ana and Ester begin to secretly tattoo little ones with their mother’s numbers, praying one day they might be reunited.
Then, early one morning, Ana notices the small bump under Ester’s thin striped clothing…
An absolutely heartbreaking and page-turning WW2 novel of one woman’s bravery and determination to bring life and hope into a broken world. Fans of The Tattooist of Auschwitz,The Alice Network and The Nightingale will be gripped.
I’ve often felt that the holocaust and the atrocities of the Nazi regime might not be the most suitable subject for a work of fiction – and I’ve read a number of books that have only reinforced that thought. But the author, in her historical notes, stresses the huge responsibility she felt to ensure that the detail was as close to reality as possible and faithfully represented the suffering endured – and that’s one of the things that elevates this book above the many others. She takes her inspiration for her key character, Ana Kaminski, from the experience of a real person – Stanisława Leszczyńska, a Polish midwife who delivered over 3000 children while incarcerated at Auschwitz – and, with a combination of fictional additions and characters familiar from our awareness of the history, tells her story in a way that entirely captures the atrocities without trivialisation, and most certainly honours their experiences.
The book begins as a rather beautiful love story – as the spectre of war begins to loom, Ester is a young nurse, eating her lunch on the steps of St Stanislaus’ cathedral in Łódź, when she spots Filip, an equally shy young man, and they begin their courtship. They marry, but the invasion soon follows – along with the establishment of the Jewish ghetto, and the privation and cruelty that ensues. Ana isn’t Jewish – but her life is changed too, with a forced move from her home in the future ghetto and an increasing anger about the fate of her friends and neighbours that sees her and her family becoming involved with the resistance.
I have no intention of telling the whole story – the author does it so much better – but both Ana and Ester ultimately find themselves incarcerated at Auschwitz, enduring the most appalling conditions and everyday acts of cruelty while working together to care for the women and the children they give birth to. There was a lot in the detail that I hadn’t come across before – the author’s research was extensive (do read the historical notes at the book’s end as they’re almost as compelling as the book itself) and the way she uses it is simply stunning – including the extension of the Lebensborn programme (I hadn’t realised before that Jewish children were included…), the mix of ethnicities among the inmates, the more peripheral role played by Mengele.
But this book isn’t a detailed history of Auschwitz – it’s essentially a human story, the lives of the individuals subjected to the most appalling treatment, and their dogged determination to survive. The characterisation is wonderful – while Ana and Ester will have their place in your heart long before their imprisonment, there’s a multiplicity of other well-drawn individuals, every one of them involving you in their personal stories. The core story – the tattooing of the babies in the hope it will help them to be reunited with their mothers when the war is over – is emotional and compelling, and I did particularly like the fact that it wasn’t used to tie a neat bow at the story’s end (it really wouldn’t have worked – and kudos to the author for appreciating that).
I hardly need to mention that reading this book was an exceptionally emotional experience – the writing is wonderful, the way she captures the women’s experiences entirely real, and you feel you share their lives. It would be easy at times for some of their experiences to slip into sentimentality, but I think a reader knows when their emotions are being manipulated, and that’s something I never felt as the next of the many horrifying scenes moved me to tears. I just desperately wanted both women to thrive and survive against the most insurmountable odds, for that faint glimmer of hope to continue to shine – I read this book over three days (the experience was too intense to read in longer sittings), and every night struggled to get the story and the real people who inspired it out of my head. It really is a remarkable piece of work – and one the author should be justifiably proud of.
About the author
Anna Stuart lives in Derbyshire with her campervan-mad husband, two hungry teenagers and a slightly loopy dog. She was hooked on books from the moment she first opened one in her cot, so is thrilled to now have several of her own to her name. Having studied English literature at Cambridge University, she took an enjoyable temporary trip into the ‘real world’ as a factory planner, before returning to her first love and becoming an author. History has also always fascinated her. Living in an old house with a stone fireplace, she often wonders who sat around it before her and is intrigued by how actively the past is woven into the present, something she likes to explore in her novels.
Anna loves the way that writing lets her ‘try on’ so many different lives, but her favourite part of the job is undoubtedly hearing from readers. You can reach her on Facebook or Twitter, and she also has a website. Sign up to be the first to hear about her new releases here.