Life & Culture

A love affair in the shadows of the gas chambers

This book reads like a thriller, and if that encourages people to pick it up, good: 79 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, living memories are fading


In another love story, the hurdle facing the couple in this excellent new book might have been the language and culture barrier: he a traditional Jew from Warsaw; she a secular graphic designer from Bratislava.

But, of course, the title gives it away; this was an affair conducted in the shadow of the gas chambers. And yet somehow, against all odds, Zippi Spitzer and David Wisnia did indeed fall in love and grab on to each other’s humanity in one of history’s bleakest settings.

Lovers in Auschwitz reads like a thriller, and to some degree it is one. The story unfolds at breakneck speed — with chapters flitting between his and her early experiences before charting their Holocaust ordeals — and quickly draws the reader into their lives.

Developed after her New York Times feature on the couple went viral, journalist Karen Blankfeld’s book is mesmerising, even to a reader who has read their fair share of books on this topic.

It is elevated by the quality of her incisive writing, which sticks to the facts and avoids the grating tendency of similar books to imagine conversations between real people.

And the facts astonish, because these were no ordinary inmates; both held roles within the machinery of Auschwitz, which gave them the ability to stay alive (mind-boggingly, Spitzer was there for almost three years). More than other books about Auschwitz I’ve read, it drives home the fact that the camp was not simply a killing field but an entire ecosystem – a frightening, brutal new world created by the Nazis so they could destroy it and those within its fences at their whim.

Spitzer, in particular, was a force of nature. Cool-headed and strategic, she quickly grasped the rules of life in the camp and made it her business not only to survive, but to arrange matters so others could too.

To what extent she used her connections to keep Wisnia alive is the question that haunted him throughout his life.

After the war, it wasn’t simply a happily ever after for the lovers, albeit both lived extraordinary lives, including straight after the war and in the decades beyond.

The love story largely hinges on their reunion decades later, but the romance element is the least interesting part of the tale. Beyond the logistics of their liaisons, we don’t necessarily gain much insight into how they were able to experience great passion given their bleak surroundings. In truth, the book would have been just as strong had it only been about Spitzer, an unassuming heroine whose remarkable skills came to the fore in the unlikeliest of settings.

But it’s a quibble. If the romance element encourages people to read this, good: 79 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, with living memories fading and denial or revisionism increasingly common, books like this matter, shedding light as they do on the individuals who saw evil close up and survived to tell the tale. 

Lovers in Auschwitz:
A True Story

By Keren Blankfeld

WH Allen, £22

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