Holocaust: it is our duty to never forget

Review: Vivien Horler

I am Ella – A remarkable story of survival, from Auschwitz to Africa, by Joanne Jowell (Kwela Books)

After the unimaginable horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, losing her family, then incarceration in Majdanek, Auschwitz and eventually Bergen-Belsen, Ella Blumenthal married, came to South Africa and became a wife, mother and businesswoman.

For 40-something years she didn’t speak of her war-time experiences. Her South African husband made it clear he did not want to know, and somewhere in this searing book she says she doubts if he ever knew the names of her six dead siblings.

Then, after his death, she began speaking in public, tentatively at first, dredging up the past. Sometimes, she says, when recounting her experiences, she can hardly believe it all happened to her.

In an interview with author Joanne Jowell – the book is based on scores of hours of conversation with Jowell – Ella says: “You know, after talking to you for the last few days, I come to think of it now myself – is it me who went through it? I can’t believe it … yet I became normal and I wanted to carry on like all the people around me. I wanted to have a family, I wanted to get married and have children.”

And she did.

After the war she went to what was then known as Palestine, where she had an uncle and a niece. There she met a South African, Isaac Blumenthal, in 1948. His family was originally from Eastern Europe, but long before the war his older brothers had left for Johannesburg where they ran a retail business, and a young Isaac joined them.

Thirteen days after they met, Ella and Isaac were married, and two days after the wedding Isaac flew back to Johannesburg.

Ella followed him a fortnight later. Her English was poor, he spoke no Polish, but they managed with her little English and Yiddish. Isaac worked for his brothers while Ella focused on learning English.

His family wasn’t impressed at his marrying a concentration camp survivor – in fact they advised against it. “Nowadays we survivors are quite sought after. Back then I wouldn’t say we were scum but we were poor, and certainly not sought after; we were struggling to become normal people.”

In her wedding pictures Ella has a plaster over her Auschwitz tattoo; later in Johannesburg she had it surgically removed by the pioneering plastic surgeon Jack Penn, who refused to accept payment.

She says she could not have lived in Johannesburg with it – people didn’t understand. “Even our own Jewish people didn’t understand what a tragedy it was… it was only much, much later people came to understand…”

A year after her marriage Ella gave birth to her first son, Norman. She says: “He was a beautiful child. And it was a miracle that I should survive to bring a child into the world: a new soul. I had looked in the face of death so often yet now I was looking in the face of my own newborn baby, safe from harm. It was a miracle.”

She and Isaac went on to have two more sons and a daughter.

Many years later, in her 90s, she celebrated a milestone birthday with her family. Twenty-three immediate members of her family had died in the Holocaust; only she and her niece Roma survived. Now, sitting at the table and looking at the beloved faces of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, it struck her: there were 23 people around the table. “I realised then that HaShem (God) had given them back to me.”

There is so much more to say about this remarkable book. Jowell clearly won Ella’s confidence and trust – it helped enormously that both were observant Jews who spoke Yiddish. Jowell is a character in the narrative, often interrupting or making points of her own.

There is the description of Ella’s childhood in Warsaw, surrounded by a loving family of parents and six older siblings. Then came the Warsaw Ghetto, people beginning to disappear, being shot, being snatched. Then the efficient cruelty of the camps.

After the war there was Ella’s trip home back to Warsaw to discover if anyone other than she and Roma had survived, but she found nothing and no one. They were stateless refugees, without papers and without money.

But in contrast to the the war years, people were kind and helped them. Then came the joyous news that Roma’s father had survived – he had left for Palestine before the war – and Roma and later Ella were able to join him.

There is the remarkable story of Ella’s names – she had three, one of them thanks to the fact the only way for her uncle to get her to Palestine was for him to claim she was actually one of his dead daughters.

She believes many Jews died in the Holocaust for two reasons: families tried to stay together and ended up suffering the same fate.

And then there was wealth. She says: “Our family was well-to-do and we could have bought a bus and packed the whole family and travelled south to Romania while it was still free. But we never even thought of it because we had all our wealth around us. And this is what killed us. We were so attached to it, where could we take it?”

But what kept Ella going were faith and hope – something the Nazis could never take away.

Ella began speaking about her experiences after Isaac died because she wanted people to know what had happened, and to whom.

In this she is strongly supported by Jowell. She says in her author’s note that the task of bearing witness falls to us all; “it is the moral obligation set upon humanity by inhumanity”.

Our duty, she says, is never to forget.

  • I am Ella was one of Exclusive Books’s top book picks for June.



One thought on “Holocaust: it is our duty to never forget

  1. David Bristow

    With a whole tribe of Jewish relatives I grew up with this stuff, and at a very young age was “forced” to watch a B&W documentary of the liberation of the camps. Scarred for life, cannot do it anymore.


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