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Book Review: The Testimony by Halina Wagowska

Testimony wagowska 192x300 Book Review: The Testimony by Halina Wagowska

When Halina Wagowska was a child, she once asked why she had no siblings. Her father responded that it wasnt wise to bring children into a world of gathering clouds. This puzzled Halina: for her the sky was an endless dazzling blue.

Between then and now Halina, now in her eighties, has been many things, among them a Holocaust Survivor, an orphan, a student, a doctor and a philanthropist. She has been a strong opponent of persecution and has contributed to many research and archival projects, but it took the exhortations of two hugely important people in her life for her to create a testimony that would stand as part of the public record.

If we survive we will have to bear witness and testimony for the rest of her lives, she was told by a broken sociologist while in the extermination camp Stutthof. She was reminded years later of this by a senator friend, and finally committed to putting her experiences to paper.

The Testimony'is a series of short workssome short stories, some vignettesdetailing various points of Halinas life. Although in truth, theyre less about self-examination than they are about reflecting on, and perhaps remembering, those who loomed large during the many turning points of her experience. The tone is simple, colloquial, and theres a sense that a good deal goes unsaid.

Wagowska notes that discussing the war is an ongoing issue for her, not just because of her own emotional discomfort, but for other reasons. The horror she is sharing with others, the fact that a lack of shared experiences makes comprehension almost impossible, and the fact that she struggles with the sympathy and attention accompanying the telling of her story. I dont know how other survivors deal with that, she says.

This is perhaps the reason for the minimalist, laconic tone that Wagowska uses when describing her horrific experiences in a concentration camp, and then later an extermination camp. She reiterates again and again that as she was a child at the time she was not a fully developed person, and before and after comparisons are fruitless.

Instead, she looks at how others are shaped by those same experiences: Frieda the academic, whose tendency to see the bigger picture means that she is less able to cope with her day-to-day suffering, and whose idealism later leads her to suicide; the Gentile Stasia, her tutor and nanny, who refuses to be separated from Halina even when Halinas family is put into the ghetto; Sid Spindler, a young boy who lived his life on the other side of the fence, his protective mother keeping him utterly unaware of the horrors taking place within.

The bulk of the book, however, is not about Halinas time in the concentration camps, although the subsequent material is certainly coloured by it. Halina speaks of the difficulties of emerging from the camps into a normal world and attempting to make sense of things such as routine, of money, of freedom. She also speaks at length of the continued fight for equality she finds herself having to undertake first in socialist Poland, and then later in Australiaover time, it becomes not just her own quality that she fights for, but that of others. Theres a sense of interconnectedness than runs through the book as well: people reuniting after years apart; individuals who lived very different lives only miles apart. I cant help but feel that Halina is suggesting that it is not just her'story that she is telling, but one that is part of a wider cultural narrative of which we are all a part.

There are constant examples of moral ambivalence that make for very emotional reading. Having become a medical practitioner after returning to her studies, Halina finds herself bonding with her colleagues over the ephemerality of human life; later she reflects on the Hippocratic oath in light of the newly available information about medical testing during the war. There are times when she refers to the brutalisation she has undergone in order to survive; this is contrasted with the unerringly idealistic ideologies of those who do not. There is one deeply moving scene in which she recounts her part in reclaiming the swamp area of the extermination camp using the ashes of the dead, and how this, at the time, was emotionally easier for her than filling the ovensbut that having heard others stories about this same thing, these memories now surface in her nightmares.

The Testimony'is not an easy read, but nor is it one that is gruelling and horrific or without hope. Halina notes early on that a sense of black humour is required to survive the camps, and its this sense of humour that underpins the book and its component chapters. Its an accessible, moving memoir made all the more touching for the many extraordinary individuals whose lives we are able to glimpse during the journey.

This book was read as part of the Hardie Grant Book Club

With thanks to Hardie Grant Australia for the review copy

Support Read in a Single Sitting by purchasing The Testimony'from

Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA | Booktopia


  1. This looks so good! I definitely want to read it.

  2. Stephanie /

    Thanks for visiting, Kelly. Its an amazing read. Very matter-of-fact and moving.

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