On an otherwise ordinary morning in 1943, Helene Hannemann is preparing her five children for the day when the German police arrive at her home. Helene’s worst fears come true when the police, under strict orders from the SS, demand that her children and husband, all of Romani heritage, be taken into custody. Though Helene is German and safe from the forces invading her home, she refuses to leave her family—sealing her fate in a way she never could have imagined.
After a terrifying trek across the continent, Helene and her family arrive at Auschwitz and are thrown into the chaos of the camp. Her husband, Johann, is separated from them, but Helene remains fiercely protective of her children and those around her. When the powers-that-be discover that Helene is not only a German but also a trained nurse, she is forced into service at the camp hospital, which is overseen by the notorious Dr. Mengele himself.
Helene is under no illusions in terms of Dr. Mengele’s intentions, but she agrees to cooperate when he asks her to organize a day care and school for the Romani children in the camp. Though physically and emotionally brutalized by the conditions at Auschwitz, Helene musters the strength to protect the children in her care at any cost. Through sheer force of will, Helene provides a haven for the children of Auschwitz—an act of kindness and selflessness so great that it illuminates the darkest night of human history.
Based on a true story, Mario Escobar’s Auschwitz Lullaby demonstrates the power of sacrifice and the strength of human dignity—even when all hope seems lost.
Praise for Auschwitz Lullaby:
"Auschwitz Lullaby grabbed my heart and drew me in. A great choice for readers of historical fiction."—Irma Joubert, author of The Girl from the Train
- An international bestseller
- Full-length World War II historical novel
- A finalist for 2019’s Empik Award for Literature
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs, research notes from the author, and a historical timeline
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
Read an Excerpt
May 1943 Berlin
It was still dark when I stumbled half-asleep out of bed. Though it was starting to get warm during the day, the mornings continued to be chilly enough to give me goose bumps. I slipped into my light satin robe and, without waking Johann, headed for the bathroom. Fortunately, our apartment still had hot water, and I could take a quick shower before going to wake the children. All of them but little Adalia had school that morning. I wiped the steam off the mirror with my hand and looked at myself for a few seconds, noting how the encroaching wrinkles seemed to make my blue eyes look smaller. I had bags under my eyes, but that was not surprising for a mother with five children under the age of twelve and who worked double shifts nursing to keep the family afloat. I toweled off my hair 'til it recovered its straw-blonde color, but I stopped to examine the gray streaks that were spreading upward from my temples. I got to work curling my hair, but that only lasted until I heard the twins, Emily and Ernest, calling me. I threw my clothes on and, still barefoot, hurried to the other bedroom.
They were sitting up in bed chatting quietly when I entered the room. Their two older brothers remained curled up, grasping at the last few seconds of sleep. Adalia still slept with us, as the kids' bed was too small for all five of them to squeeze in.
"Less noise, sweeties. The others are still sleeping. I have to get breakfast ready," I whispered. They beamed at me as if the simple sight of my face were enough to make their day.
I pulled their clothes off the chair and placed them on the bed. The twins were already six years old and did not need my help getting dressed. The more people there are in a family, the more streamlined the systems have to be to help everyone get the simple tasks done as quickly and easily as possible.
I went into our tiny kitchen and started heating things up. A few minutes later, the bitter scent of cheap coffee filled the room. That weak substitute of brown-tinted water was the only way to cover the tastelessness of our watered-down milk, though by now the older kids knew they were not drinking real milk. Every now and then with a bit of luck, we could get our hands on a few cans of powdered milk, but since the beginning of the year, rations had grown even scarcer as things got worse on the front.
The children came racing to the kitchen, elbowing their way through the narrow hallway. They knew the bit of bread with butter and sugar that they were offered every morning would not linger long on the table.
"Less noise, please, loves. Your father and Adalia are still in bed," I scolded as they took their seats. Despite their hunger, they did not tear into the bread until I had handed around the mugs and we had prayed a short prayer of thanks for our food.
Three seconds later the bread had disappeared and the children were downing their coffee before heading to the bathroom to brush their teeth. I took that moment to go to our room, get my shoes and coat, and put on my nurse's hat. I knew that Johann was awake, but he always played possum until he heard the front door close. He was ashamed that I was the family's breadwinner now, but everything had changed in Germany since the war began.
Johann was a violin virtuoso. He had played for years in the Berlin Philharmonic, but since 1936, the restrictions against everyone who did not fit into the Nazi Party's racial laws had grown much harsher. My husband was Romani, though most Germans used words like Gypsy or tzigane to describe people of his race. In April and May of 1940, practically his entire family had been deported to Poland. We had not heard anything from them in nearly three years. Fortunately, in the Nazis' eyes I was a purebred; because of that, they had not bothered us since then. Even so, every time someone knocked on our door or the phone rang at night, my heart jumped involuntarily.
When I got to the front door, the four older children were waiting with their coats buttoned, their school caps on, and their brown leather satchels at their feet. I looked them over, tied on their scarves, and dawdled at the part of the routine when I kissed their cheeks. Blaz, the oldest, sometimes pushed my effusive affection away, but Otis and the twins ate up those precious moments before we crossed the threshold to walk to school.
"Come on, I don't want you to be late. I've only got twenty minutes 'til my shift starts," I said, opening the door.
We had hardly made it onto the landing and flipped on the light when we heard the clop of boots noisily ascending the wooden stairs. A chill ran up my spine. I swallowed hard and tried to smile at the children, who had turned to look at me, sensing my unease. I gave a nonchalant wave of the hand to reassure them, and we started to go down. The children dared not leave my side. Typically I had to keep them from dashing headlong down the stairs, but the approaching footsteps quelled their energy. They crept along behind me, as if my lightweight green jacket might conceal and protect them.
By the time we got to the second-floor landing, the sound of the boots filled up the entire stairwell. Blaz leaned over the rail to get a look and one second later turned back to give me the look that only an older brother can give to communicate what he knows without upsetting the younger ones.
My heart starting racing then. I could not breathe, but I kept going down the stairs hoping that once again misfortune would simply pass me by. I did not want to believe that suffering had chosen me that time.
The policemen ran into us right in the middle of the second flight of stairs. The agents were young, dressed in dark-green uniforms with leather belts and gold buttons. They stopped directly in front of us. For a silent moment my children looked in awe at their pointed helmets with the golden eagle, but then they dropped their eyes to the level of their shiny boots. A sergeant stepped forward, panting a bit, looked us over, and then began to speak. His long Prussian-style mustache shook with his politely threatening words.
"Frau Hannemann, I'm afraid you'll need to return to your apartment with us."
I looked straight into his eyes before answering. The cold reply of his green pupils pierced me with fear, but I tried to remain calm and smile.
"Sergeant, I'm afraid I don't understand what's going on. I need to take my children to school and then get to work. Is anything the matter?"
"Frau Hannemann, I would prefer that we speak in your apartment," he answered, forcefully taking my arm.
His movement startled the children, though he had intended to be subtle. For years we had witnessed the violence and aggression of the Nazis, but this was the first time I felt actually threatened personally. I had hoped for so long they would simply fail to notice us. The best way to survive in the new Germany was to be invisible.
The door of some neighbors, the Wegeners, opened ever so slightly, and through the crack I glimpsed a pale, wrinkle-creased face. She gave me an anguished look, then opened the door all the way.
"Herr Polizei, my neighbor Frau Hannemann is a wonderful wife and mother. She and her family are the model of politeness and goodness. I hope no ill-intentioned person has defamed them," Frau Wegener said.
That act of bravery brought tears to my eyes. No one risked public exposure in front of the authorities in the middle of the war. I looked into my neighbor's cataract-clouded eyes and squeezed her shoulder gratefully.
"We are only following orders. We simply want to speak with your neighbor. Please, go inside and let us do our job in peace," the sergeant said, grabbing the doorknob and slamming the door shut.
The children jumped, and Emily began to cry. I seized the moment to pick her up and press her against my chest. The only words that managed to cut through the grief and solidify in my brain were, "I won't let anyone hurt you, children."
A few seconds later, we were standing in front of our apartment. I fished for the key in my purse stuffed with crackers, tissues, papers, and makeup, but one of the policemen pushed me aside and rapped hard on the door with his fist.
The sound echoed down the stairs. It was still quite early, and the city had not yet emerged from the silence of the night. People were just beginning their morning routines, trying to hide in a normalcy that had ceased to exist a long time ago.
We heard hurried steps, and then the door opened, casting light onto the landing. Johann's mess of dark, curly hair partly covered his eyes, giving him a distinctly disheveled appearance. He looked first at the police, then at us. Our eyes silently pleaded with him to somehow protect us, but all he could do was push the door open all the way and let us in.
"Johann Hanstein?" the sergeant asked.
"Yes, Herr Polizei," my husband answered with a trembling voice.
"By order of the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, all Sinti and Roma of the Reich must be interned in special camps," the sergeant recited. Surely he had repeated this speech dozens of times in recent days.
"But ...," my husband started. His big black eyes seemed to devour the eternal instant before the policeman made a sign and his colleagues surrounded my husband and held his arms.
I placed my hand on the sergeant's shoulder. "No, please. You'll terrify the children."
I could sense a slight heaviness in his gaze for a few seconds. Ideas never manage to completely suffocate feeling. A German woman who might be his sister or cousin was talking to him, not a dangerous criminal intent on deceiving him.
"Please allow my husband to get dressed. I'll take the children into another room," I pleaded with him softly, trying to alleviate the violent situation.
The sergeant waved his men away from Johann. But then he barked, "The children are also coming with us."
Those words were the knife that shredded my insides. I doubled over in the throes of nausea, shaking my head to clear what I had certainly misheard. Where did they want to take my family?
"The children are also Romani. The order includes them as well. Don't worry, you yourself can stay," the sergeant said, trying to explain the new situation to me. Surely my face finally registered the desperation that I had been feeling for many years now.
I tried to argue. "But their mother is German."
"That makes no difference. There's one child missing. My information says there are five children and one father." The sergeant's tone was serious.
I could not respond. Fear had paralyzed me. I tried to swallow back my tears. The children had their eyes glued on me the whole time.
"I'll get them ready in a moment. We'll all go with you. The youngest one is still in bed." I was surprised to hear my voice. The words seemed to come out of some other woman's lips.
"You will not come, Frau Hannemann, only those with tzigane blood, Gypsies," the sergeant said dryly.
"Herr Polizei, I will go where my family goes. Please let me pack our bags and get my youngest daughter dressed."
The policeman frowned but waved me out of the room with the children. We went to the main bedroom, and, climbing on a chair, I took down the two large cardboard suitcases we kept on top of the wardrobe. I put them on the bed and started putting clothes inside. The children surrounded me in silence. They did not cry, though their anxious faces could not conceal their concern.
"Where are we going, Mama?" asked Blaz, the oldest.
"They're taking us to something like a summer camp, like I showed you once when you were little. Do you remember?" I said, forcing a smile.
"We're going to camp?" Otis, the next oldest, asked. His voice had risen with confused excitement.
"Yes, sweetie. We'll spend some time there. Remember I told you a few years ago your cousins were taken away too? Maybe we'll even see them," I said, attempting an upbeat tone.
The twins really did get excited then, as if my words made them forget everything they had just seen.
"Can we bring the ball? And some skates and other toys?" Ernest asked. He was always ready to organize a plan for playing.
"We'll only take what we absolutely need. I'm sure there are plenty of things for children where we're going." I desperately wanted to believe it might be true.
I knew the Nazis had dragged Jews away from their homes, as well as political dissidents and traitors. We had heard rumors that the Reich's "enemies" were interned at concentration camps, but we posed no threat to the Nazis. Surely they would just require us to stay within the bounds of some sort of improvised camp until the war ended.
Adalia woke up then and got scared when she saw the mess on the bed. I picked her up. She was a skinny little three-year-old, with soft features and very pale skin. She was very different from her older siblings, who looked more like their father.
"It's okay, nothing's wrong, honey. We're going on a trip," I said, holding her tight against my chest.
I felt a heavy lump in my throat, and the flood of worry washed over me again. I thought that I should call my parents, that they should at least know where we were being taken, but I doubted the police would let me make a call.
After getting Adalia dressed, I finished with the suitcases and went to the kitchen. I packed a few tins, the little bit of milk we had left, some bread, the remaining scraps of cold cuts, and some crackers. I had no idea how long our journey would take, and I wanted to be prepared.
Back in our tiny living room, I realized my husband was still in his pajamas. I put the two heavy suitcases down and went back to the room to find him some clothes. I picked out his best suit, a brown tie, a hat, and a coat. While he changed under the steely watch of the police, I returned to our room and took off my nurse's uniform. The children were lined up against the door, not letting me out of their sight. I picked out a suit with a brown jacket and blue blouse and got dressed the best I could with the younger three all crowded around me. We went back to the living room, and I studied Johann for a moment. Dressed so elegantly, he looked like a Gypsy prince. He put his hat on when I entered the room, and the three policemen turned toward me.
"There's no need for you to come, Frau Hannemann," the sergeant insisted.
I looked straight into his eyes and asked, "Do you think a mother would leave her children in a situation like this?"
"You'd be shocked if I told you all I've seen in the past few years," he answered. "Very well, come with us to the station. We have to get them to the train before ten o'clock."
His comment made me think the trip would be longer than what I had first thought. My husband's family had been deported somewhere to the north, but I presumed they would be taking us to the Gypsy internment camp they had built near Berlin.
We went through the living room to the doorway. My husband went first with the suitcases, the two younger policemen on his heels. Then my two older sons, the twins clinging to my coat, and Adalia in my arms. When we stepped out the door onto the landing, I turned to look one last time at our home. I had woken up that morning with the unthinking confidence that we had a normal day ahead of us. Blaz had been a bit nervous about a test he had before recess; Otis had complained of a bad earache, a sure sign he was about to get sick; the twins were healthy as horses but had still grumbled about having to get up so early for school; Adalia was a little angel who always behaved well and tried her best to keep up with her siblings in their games. There had been no sign, no omen that all of this normalcy would amount to nothing a short time later.
The stairwell was not well lit, but a faint glow of early morning sun reached us from the entryway below. For a second I had the stabbing pain of leaving my home, but no, that was not quite right; my home was my five children and Johann. I closed our apartment door and began to descend the stairs, humming the lullaby my children always requested when they were upset or had trouble sleeping. The unspoken words flooded the hollow of the stairwell and calmed the children's hearts as we headed into the unknown.
Guten Abend, gute Nacht, mit Rosen bedacht,
Excerpted from "Auschwitz Lullaby"
Copyright © 2018 Mario Escobar.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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