Reviews /

Signs of Survival

Authored by Renee Hartman with Joshua M. Greene
Published by Scholastic

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Signs of Survival tells the true story of Renee and Herta, two sisters who lived through the Holocaust. Joshua M. Greene captures the sisters’ words and memories, recounting the horrors of the time and educating the reader about the past.

This story pulls no punches in describing the harrowing events in Nazi Germany and the aftermath that ensues. Written from both sisters’ points of view, this memoir documents their lives from early childhood to growing up in America. As Jews living in Czechoslovakia in the 1940s, Renee and her family lived in fear of their lives. When the sound of Nazi soldiers’ boots was heard by Renee, it was her job to alert her parents and sister who were deaf – in her words, she was the ‘family’s ears’. Eventually their parents are taken to Auschwitz and the two sisters run away, only to be captured later and taken to another concentration camp known as Bergen-Belsen. The girls stick together throughout and the tales of their bravery in the face of adversity are both heartening and harrowing in equal measure. They search for their parents’ following liberation from the camp, only to experience yet more sorrow. However, as they travel from Sweden to America, the sisters begin to gain their own independence – although the bond of sisterhood remains strong.

We learn how they carry the enormity of what happened to them from both perspectives and how Renee and her husband eventually return to Bergen-Belsen to visit the memorial site where almost 50,000 murders had taken place. Despite her firsthand experience of these dark times, Renee shares that even now, she ‘can’t believe that it really happened’. When the two sisters take a trip back to Bratislava, the city which had been their childhood home, they finally gain some sense of peace.

This is a poignant memoir, transcribed from video interviews with Renee and Herta. The inclusion of photographs at the end humanises this story and firmly places their voice at the heart of this book. As Josua M. Greene states, ‘this book is an attempt to restore…the voices, identities, and memories that the Nazis sought to destroy’. Sisterhood, love, endurance, and voice all sit as powerful themes within this book and are explored with raw emotion, making it difficult to read at times. This had a powerful effect on me as the reader, made more intense as I learnt that the words included in the descriptions of their journey were spoken by the sisters themselves. This contributes to the somewhat stilted feel of the text as chapters start and end abruptly and the timeline jumps about. Re-reading the book after I became aware that the text is recorded almost verbatim, offered a different perspective and I found that the style of writing highlighted the first-hand experiences of Renee and Herta.

This is a book for the classroom, perhaps to be explored in upper Key Stage 2  and Key Stage 3 alongside the History curriculum. Whilst the events are retold with emotion, they are not overly graphic in description. However, this does not detract from the key messages contained within the pages or hides the atrocities that millions of Jews experienced. This is not a book to read and put back on the shelf, it needs to be discussed, explored, questioned and shared sensitively to ensure that survivors’ voices are heard.