Dr. Josef's Little Beauty

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Release Date: 
April 2, 2024
Seven Stories Press
Reviewed by: 

“a powerful and unforgettable view of life by survivors of World War II during their last years. . . . a gripping story . . .”

This beautiful story focuses on two sisters who survived the World War II years as prisoners in Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp, where a million Jews and countless others were exterminated. The time period of the story, however, is the early 1960s, when the protagonist sisters live in the same nursing facility in Poland.

Leokadia and Helena convinced everyone that they were twins at Auschwitz. However, Leokadia was almost a year older. Remarkably, their ruse of being twins saved their lives as the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele often performed medical experiments upon twins, as he did upon these sisters. It saved them from being sent immediately to the gas chambers and crematoria, as happened to most children at Auschwitz.

Helena is at the center of this story, age 12 when she and sister Leokadia were incarcerated at Auschwitz. As the story unfolds in the 1960s nursing home, neither sister seems inclined to describe their war years with residents of the nursing facility, although Helena periodically reveals pieces of information about her relationship with Mengele. She speaks proudly of how she looked him in the eye and how she was well-liked by him, who by the early 1960s was a fugitive from justice called, “the angel of death.” Helena remarks proudly that he allowed her to keep her very long hair, which was nearly unheard of according to strict rules that every prisoner have their head shaved and their arm or leg tattooed.

Author Rudska is careful not to spend too much time describing life in Auschwitz. This story is much more about the complex end-of-life relationships in a nursing home than it is about life in a Nazi death camp. Yet the two are symbiotic. Can one describe elderly individuals’ lives without including their moments of pure terror? While the sisters seem proud of their survival, is their fear not also present? Just under the surface? These facts are only occasionally revealed via flashbacks to help the reader comprehend how the sisters’ end years were transformed by their experiences in the infamous Nazi death camp.

It is never fully realized whether the sisters’ relationship with Mengele was so deep that it saved their lives. From the pieces of information that they share with fellow residents, it seems certain that the sisters felt some superiority over the other Auschwitz prisoners, perhaps by virtue of their protective relationship with Mengele.

Of course, most refugees from Nazi concentration and death camps possessed some degree of confabulation by the 1960s. Such memories change over time, leaving gaps and alterations in the fabric of their narrative. The reader must evaluate these comments and try to determine what was true, where, and when. Regardless, it is revealed how significantly their personalities changed because of their Holocaust experiences.

The story takes place during an oppressively hot summer in Europe. The nursing home residents are forced to find a way to survive the incessant, relentless heat. They share memories of youth with each other, although the stories they tell are not in any sense normal to us today, having taken place so long ago. Helena and Leokadia share many outlandish and aggravating stories with their fellow residents. The horrors of the camps and the torture committed by Mengele are never far from their minds.

Through the eyes and ears of these fascinating sisters, we comprehend life in a Polish nursing home, before the days of air conditioning and lively entertainment. No real effort was made by management to please the residents. Gradually, one by one, the evocative characters die in this haunting tale. While the sisters seem to survive them all, even they must face death when it ultimately arrives. The reader will find many captivating conversations among the poignant characters living in this misbegotten nursing home. It is a rather short novel, magnified by the powerful daily conversations of people nearing the end of their lives. The reading is easy and extremely well-crafted, as are the characters.

Zyta Rudzka is an impressive author who delivers powerful personality types and expresses them concisely through believable dialogue. This book is also extremely well translated. We enter the minds of elderly Poles who face one final captive environment, lonely and alone. She employs outstanding character development, not only through the central figures. She writes clearly, succinctly, and her ability to accurately describe people and places is outstanding.

The residents’ conversations reveal their fear of dying. It dominates the dialogue. The protagonists are viewed as flawed but memorable people who were trapped in an impossible situation. Unable to escape the oppressive heat of that summer, the residents appear once more as unfortunate prisoners, captive again, marring the quality of the end of their lives.

Despite the lack of quotation marks, this book is a powerful and unforgettable view of life by survivors of World War II during their last years. This is a gripping story that you will not want to miss.