Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Final Journey

The sliding-door of the railway truck closed with a deafening clang. (p. 1)

These are the opening words of The Final Journey by German author Gudrun Pausewang. This is a harrowing fictional account of the journey of a young Jewish girl from innocence to knowledge, from home to Auschwitz, from life to death. Except for brief interludes, the entire novel takes place inside this cattle car on a train bound for Auschwitz. The grim story is told from the perspective of eleven year old Alice who has been sheltered by her grandparents and, in the beginning, really has no understanding of the dire position of the Jews in Europe. On the train with only her grandfather, Alice interacts with all of the different people in the train car who initially only have the Jewish star in common. They come to share hunger, thirst, intimacies, and death. Gradually Alice begins to understand that she has been lied to by her grandparents and lashes out at her grandfather, who dies shortly thereafter. A child is born in the train car, almost certainly to die very soon. Still Alice is hopeful, even as she arrives at the gates of Auschwitz and is led to the "showers".

Alice tipped back her head. Soon, soon, water would pour down over her from the nozze up there. The water of life. It would wash her clean of the dirt and horror of the journey, would make her as clean as she had been before. She raised her arms and opened out her hands. (p. 154)

And the book ends. Was Alice hopeful up to the very end? As she entered the showers, she began her first menses - a sign of life. While Alice did not know the outcome, readers of course know that for millions of Jews, this shower was the absolute final journey. Did the author stop at this point to allow the reader to contemplate hope vs. acceptance, knowledge vs. denial? In any case, the ending broke my heart all over again.

Another interesting tidbit (from a novel full of instances which could serve as discussion points) is the following passage:

The train was still standing in the afternoon sun. "This is murder!" shouted a man's voice from the neighbourhing truck. Alice's eyes opened with shock. "And God lets it happen!" screamed a woman. "What have we done? Just lived our lives like everyone else!" "Those people outside see the trains passing and no one does anything about it," moaned the woman. "Saw nothing, heard nothing." (p. 48)

I have wondered about just this scenario over my years of reading Holocaust materials. How many people saw the events taking place, but for whatever reason felt incapable of action? I know there were many who agreed with Hitler's assessment of the Jews, but there were also people who opposed the treatment of fellow human beings. There are records showing that at times people would throw bread to the people in the cattle cars. But, sadly, there are also reports of people jeering at the Jews.

Gudrun Pausewang was born in 1928 in a village in what is now the Czech Republic. Her father was a diplomat and was killed on the Russian front in 1943. In 1948, Gudrun and her family fled from communism to West Germany where she trained as a teacher. She has written a number of other books, mostly dealing with social issues, with only a few translated to English. Fall Out (about a nuclear accident) and Traitor (Holocaust related) are two that have been well-reviewed.

TITLE: The Final Journey
AUTHOR: Gudrun Pausewang
TRANSLATOR: Patricia Crampton
COPYRIGHT: 1996, original in German 1992
PAGES: 154
TYPE: Holocaust fiction
RECOMMEND: I found this to be one of the most difficult books I have ever read - only because I knew that the end would not be good. I am not sure I had ever really considered how difficult the journey.


sandhya said...

I have been following your blog for some time now, and have added the books to my 'must read' list. Here's a post I did on another book. What age group would you slot it under?

Shaynie said...

WOW! I really want to read this one! Thanks so much fro reviewing it!

Shaynie said...

Hi, I was wondering something....the Holocaust is very important to me, and I think more people need to know about it. Your blog is so excellent in recommending all these awesome Holocaust books. I review a lot of Holocaust material, so I was wondering if you would be interested in doing an interview about this blog (Holocaust Resources) over at my blog (

If you don't want to that's fine. :) I was just wondering if you'd be interested. I would love to spread the word about your awesome blog.

Library Cat said...

Hi Shaynie,
I would be honored to talk with you about my interest in the Holocaust. It is very nice of you to ask. You can email me at dfluharty at uwf dot edu.

okbolover said...

hi from the Hop!! thanks for visiting my blog.

Wow! I'm glad I came to this site, I've read quite a bit of books relating to the Holocaust but did not realize how much there was.

I've read from Gudrun Pausewang before (Dark Hours) I think I'll look for this one.